Study highlights how incivility can backfire in online political discussions

Well-reasoned arguments can get disregarded if their proponents are perceived as disrespectful and uncivil, according to new research that examined perceptions of online political discussions. The findings appear in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“Conflict between political groups is interesting to me because it presents an intergroup situation where individuals often assert their views with a great deal of certainty and a great deal of enmity, yet discussions and contact between people with different political perspectives and identities is important to democratic society,” said study author Jason Popan, an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“Discussions involving different political viewpoints is the method by which compromise and potential progress can come about. When we throw incivility into the equation, much of the potential for progress through the exchange of ideas may be lessened.”

“Unfortunately, incivility is prevalent in online political discussion settings, so the potential of the internet for improving democratic deliberation is limited by its seemingly ubiquitous presence in many online political discussion contexts that involve disagreement.”

The researchers found that incivility had a large impact on the perceptions of online political discussions. Participants who viewed proponents of political arguments as uncivil, unpleasant, and uncooperative tended to also view their line of reasoning as less logically sound, even when strong arguments were presented.

Proponents viewed as more civil, on the other hand, tended to be viewed as more rational.

The findings were based on three separate experiments with 356 participants in total. The participants read and evaluated fabricated political discussions on an online forum, which varied in tone and the strength of their arguments. Conservatives evaluated liberal arguments, while liberals evaluated conservative arguments.

“If you want to persuade others that disagree with you by the content of the argument you are making, it is generally best to avoid belittling their views. Name calling and mockery will cause your arguments to appear to be less rational, even in circumstances where you are making good points,” Popan told PsyPost.

“The paper addresses the role of incivility in the perception of outgroups, but it does not look closely at how one might perceive uncivil behaviors carried out by ingroup members. The role of incivility in garnering ingroup support or harnessing the collective emotions of an ingroup is an important avenue for future research.”

It is also possible that incivility can make arguments more persuasive in certain contexts.

“Incivility in U.S politics has been a growing concern, but the latest (2016) presidential demonstrated that incivility, name calling, and mockery can be a central part of a winning political campaign,” Popan explained.

“How such behaviors impact the potential for political deliberation between opposition political groups to lead to progress through compromise remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that compromise and progress can coexist with behavior consistent with a wrestling entertainment match.”

The study, “Testing the effects of incivility during internet political discussion on perceptions of rational argument and evaluations of a political outgroup“, was authored by Jason R. Popan, Lauren Coursey, Jesse Acosta, and Jared Kenworthy.