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Mean-spirited blog comments tick off conservatives

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

bad behavior blogBut liberals shrug them off. At least that’s the preliminary finding in a study recently presented at the annual American Political Science Association meeting. Elizabeth Suhay set out to investigate incivility in online blog comments. She wasn’t expecting differences in how liberals and conservatives react to incivility…but that’s what she found.

While incivility is a societal issue, it seems to be more intense on the web. [Our theory has been that this tendency would be mitigated a good deal if you had to pass a breathalyzer test before you could log in, but that’s another conversation.] Higher incidence of internet incivility has been thought likely due to anonymity and lack of face-to-face contact, both of which result in disrespectful (aka ‘uncivil’) things being said to one another. When the blog theme is a political one, the comments are often even more heated and uncivil.

Suhay collected data from 1,082 people registered with Amazon Mechanical Turk during March of 2013. Each participant read blog commentary related to the federal sequester (“i.e., the automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal spending that occurred on March 1, 2013 when Congress and the President failed to reach a deficit-reduction deal”). She drew blog content from actual blogs: Townhall (a conservative blog) and the DailyKos (a liberal blog). Participants read a variety of content depending on which condition Suhay assigned:

The control group read a neutral news piece on the sequester and two politically neutral reader comments.

In one study, participants read “additional comments from a liberal/Democratic perspective which were either argumentative, uncivil, or a combination of the two”. In the second study, the setup was the same, except here “participants read additional comments from a conservative/Republican perspective”.

Her results are somewhat surprising.

Uncivil comments polarized research participants along partisan/ideological lines and incivility was a stronger polarizer than was civility.

However, while Suhay expected polarization on the left and on the right (with liberal/Democrats moving further to the left when reading uncivil partisan comments and conservative/Republicans moving further to the right when reading uncivil partisan comments), this did not happen. Instead, she only saw polarization among those on the right. That is, conservative/Republican research participants dug in in reaction to the uncivil partisan comments from liberals, but liberal/Democrats did not do so in response to uncivil partisan comments from conservatives.

In other words, liberal insults to conservatives ticked the conservatives off but the reverse (e.g., conservative insults to liberals ticking off liberals) did not seem to hold true.

In fact, for conservative’s, reading comments that were mean-spirited (and directed at liberals) from their fellow conservatives got them fired up as well, and they became even more entrenched in their conservative views.

As she writes about the results of her research, Suhay cites a 2009 study saying that 20% of visitors to blogs leave comments. The 2009 study was done prior to the social media revolution which has greatly reduced comments in online blogs in favor of tweets and ‘likes’. The percentage of visitors leaving comments is much lower than 20% now as compared to the pre-social media era. Suhay’s work has been covered in online blogsliberal ones, anyway, to the delight of the (liberal) commenters. Our guess is that Suhay’s work taps something beyond the liberal/conservative dimension. This is only one study, but who knows? She will be doing additional research and we look forward to her promise of a more refined analysis of this data.

Henry Farrell, at the Washington Post, summarizes Suhay’s findings this way: “It’s also important to be clear that many things could drive this asymmetry, if it turns out to be a real one (doubtless both conservatives and liberals can come up with flattering reasons to explain it, regardless of more scientific explanations; and doubtless both will).”

Suhay, E. (2013). The Polarizing Effect of Incivility in the Political Blog Commentsphere. SSRN Electronic Journal.


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