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Political Incivility Online

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Bryan T. Gervais, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, discusses political incivility online in the latest ISPP JSC themed blog.

The Internet is a double-edged sword for political discourse. Blogs and social media sites allow citizens to connect and communicate with each other with ease, sharing thoughts and ideas in a nearly unhindered manner. At the same time, the communication that takes place in online forums likely falls short of deliberation—and perhaps makes people less deliberative—due in part to the lack of constraints. This includes social constraints. Anonymity, or the false sense of such, leaves people free to behave in ways they would not in face-to-face interactions, a phenomenon referred to as the online disinhibition effect. In short, opportunities for online political deliberation may be derailed by political incivility. Here, I briefly overview what political incivility looks like in the online world and what impact it has on political discourse and behavior.

What is Political Incivility?

Political incivility is not equivalent to rudeness. While political incivility is a type of incivility, what we might call rude behavior like not saying thank you to someone who holds a door for you does not necessarily qualify as political incivility. For this to be the case, the reason for the rude behavior has to be motivated by politics or political views. That is, it has to occur in some political context.

Creating a definition of incivility that is relevant across culture and time may not be possible. Yet describing what political incivility looks like in the context of 21st Century American politics is a far easier task and has been done so in a number of recent studies. I have streamlined conceptions of political incivility relevant to digital communication into four categories (more complete reviews can be found in Gervais 2014a and Gervais 2015; among the works I have adapted specific phrasing from are Brooks and Geer, (2007), Mutz and Reeves, (2005), and Sobieraj and Berry, (2011; 2013)).

The first category is Invectives and Ridicule, and is perhaps the most common type of political incivility found in reality and in the scholarly literature. This category includes general verbal abuse, often done through the inclusion of superfluous adverbs and adjectives which add no new information, but are purposefully insulting, belittling, and condescending. Specific behaviors include ad hominem attacks, character assassinations/mudslinging, mockery, and name-calling.

The second incivility type is Hyperbole and Distortion. Internet discourse is replete with examples of people using extremizing, inflammatory words or phrases to misrepresent someone's views or behavior as (more) radical, immoral, or corrupt. A third category is Histrionics and Obscenity. Online communication is mostly text-based (with exceptions, e.g., YouTube), but it is not wanting of emotional exchanges. Emotionality is conveyed through visual elements, including the purposeful use of upper-case letters and multiple exclamation points--which can be considered the digital equivalent of shouting. Moreover, vulgarity and comments which suggest that a target should be feared or is responsible for sadness also add a negative emotional dimension to online discourse.

A final type of political incivility is Conspiracy Theories when they involve accusations of very sinister background, motives, or actions. Unlike distortions or misrepresentative exaggeration, conspiracy theories are not based on any obvious real attribute or behavior. Note that "real" is the key word—certainly, proponents of conspiracy theories do not doubt their veracity, and thus this is perhaps the most subjective of uncivil categories. Because proponents believe the claims to be accurate, they also are not intentionally distorting the views or behavior of a target. Yet an objective observer would be hard-pressed to discount claims (such as those made by so-called "9/11 truthers" or "birthers") that link targets to nefarious conduct, seemingly without evidence. My general advice is to reserve this category for the most egregious examples of unsubstantiated claims.

What Impact Does Political Incivility Have?

My research focuses on the impact of exposure to the types of political incivility outlined above. In one study (Gervais 2014a), leveraging panel data from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, I find that exposure to like-minded uncivil political media led people to use incivility in their own political comments. That, is exposure to incivility begets more incivility. But why? Perhaps there is an emotional component to the reaction. Previous research on uncivil media discourse has found that it can induce negative emotions—usually directed at the "other side" (Mutz and Reeves 2005; Mutz 2007). My research expands on these findings, connecting political incivility to a specific emotion: anger.

The connection between incivility and anger is important, as it suggests that uncivil online discourse may have serious implications for democracy. As research in affective intelligence theory reveals, when people feel angry, they are less deliberative and more partisan (MacKuen et al. 2010). In a pair of experiments, I find that anger is not only tied to incivility use, but also with dissatisfaction with online discourse (Gervais 2015) and a reduced willingness to compromise (Gervais 2014b). I am currently conducting additional experiments that explore the connection between incivility, anger, and anti-deliberative attitudes more in depth, as well as the different reactions produced by exposure to incivility attacking one's in-group versus incivility attacking an out-group. If the previous findings hold up, then the prospects for digital public forum are limited—at least while incivility is so ubiquitous online.

I should clarify here that I do not make any normative arguments about incivility. Political incivility should not be qualified as either good or bad. It impacts political engagement and discourse, sometimes producing results that could be considered positive: it can mobilize citizens to action and draw the attention of those who would be otherwise apathetic. What is concerning about incivility today is not its presence in American politics per se, but how pervasive it is in our political discourse. Uncivil commentary is all too common in news media, between political elites, and among the mass public—all of which, with the advent of interactive communication tools, are linked together as they have never been before.

Online deliberation likely does not require discourse devoid of incivility, but less. Notably, scholars have turned their attention to methods for encouraging civil online discourse. The Engaging News Project, for example, directed by Talia Stroud, has been exploring methods for reducing incivility in online comment sections. Initiatives like this provide optimism that deliberation may one day be a more prevalent feature of online political communication.

 

Works Cited:

Berry, J. M., & Sobieraj, S. (2013). The Outrage Industry Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. Oxford Univ Pr.

Brooks, D. J., & Geer, J. G. (2007). Beyond Negativity: The Effects of Incivility on the Electorate. American Journal of Political Science, 51(1), 1–16.

Gervais, B. T. (2014). Following the News? Reception of Uncivil Partisan Media and the Use of Incivility in Political Expression. Political Communication, 31(4), 564–583. doi:10.1080/10584609.2013.852640

Gervais, B. T. (2014b). Affective and Behavioral Reactions to Elite-based Political Incivility (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 2453106). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2453106

Gervais, B. T. (2015). Incivility Online: Affective and Behavioral Reactions to Uncivil Political Posts in a Web-based Experiment. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, forthcoming. doi:10.1080/19331681.2014.997416

MacKuen, M., Wolak, J., Keele, L., & Marcus, G. E. (2010). Civic Engagements: Resolute Partisanship or Reflective Deliberation. American Journal of Political Science, 54(2), 440–458. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00440.x

Mutz, D. (2007). Effects of "In-Your-Face" Television Discourse on Perceptions of a Legitimate Opposition. APSR, 101, 621–635.

Mutz, D. C., & Reeves, B. (2005). The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust. The American Political Science Review, 99(1), 1–15.

Sobieraj, S., & Berry, J. (2011). From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, TalkRadio, and Cable News. Political Communication, 28(1), 19–41. doi:10.1080/10584609.2010.542360

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