A recent study delving into Reddit’s online discourse reveals a striking correlation between users’ engagement in partisan subreddits and the overall toxicity in their comments, even in non-political discussions. This research provides insight into the nature of online incivility, suggesting that certain individuals display consistently toxic behavior across various discussion contexts.
The findings, based on an analysis of hundreds of millions of comments from over 6.3 million Reddit users, have been published in the journal PNAS Nexus.
For years, social media platforms have been battlegrounds for heated political debates, often marked by incivility and hostility. Previous research has pointed to the role of ideological differences and social identity in fueling online toxicity. These studies, however, primarily focused on political contexts, leaving a gap in understanding how these behaviors translate into non-political discussions. The researchers of this study were motivated to explore whether the toxicity observed in political discourse is a broader behavioral pattern.
“Social media are a major host of political discussions, but unfortunately these discussions are highly uncivil. To democratize online political discourse, we must first understand the roots of this incivility,” said study author Michalis Mamakos, a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University.
The study used data from Reddit, a popular online forum where millions engage in a wide array of discussions. The researchers utilized the Pushshift Reddit dataset, which includes detailed information about Reddit comments, such as the author, date, subreddit, and content. To ensure accuracy, comments from bots and moderators were excluded.
The researchers categorized Reddit’s subforums, known as subreddits, into partisan and nonpartisan based on their content and user base. The partisanship of each subreddit was measured using a z-score, a statistical method that indicates how far a value is from the average. Subreddits with extreme left or right-wing leanings were identified as “partisan,” while those close to the neutral average were labeled “nonpartisan.”
A massive sample of over 260 million comments from more than 9,000 subreddits spanning from 2011 to 2022 was analyzed. The researchers focused on the commenting behavior of users who registered on Reddit between 2011 and 2021, examining their posts within a year of their registration.
Users were classified as “engaged” if they had at least five comments in partisan subreddits and “nonengaged” if they did not. The engaged were further divided into two subgroups: unilaterally engaged (commenting in either left-wing or right-wing subreddits) and bilaterally engaged (participating in both).
To assess the civility/toxicity of comments, the researchers employed Google’s PerspectiveAPI classifier, a tool designed to evaluate the likelihood of a comment being rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable.
The researchers found a quadratic relationship between the level of partisan segregation in a subreddit and the toxicity of the comments within it. This means that in subreddits with high partisan segregation, comments were more likely to be toxic. This pattern was consistent across both left-wing and right-wing subreddits, indicating that the increase in uncivil behavior is not confined to one end of the political spectrum.
Individuals who posted toxic comments in partisan subreddits also tended to be toxic in nonpartisan ones. Engaged users, particularly those active in both left-wing and right-wing subreddits, displayed higher levels of toxicity in nonpartisan discussions compared to nonengaged users. This finding suggests that some users are inherently uncivil, irrespective of the discussion topic.
“People who are toxic in their political discussions are also toxic when their discussions have nothing to do with politics,” Mamakos told PsyPost. “These people dominate political discourse online, and drive those who are averse to hostility to opt out of these discussions. Consequently, the highly toxic individuals are overrepresented, leading the public to conclude that the state of our politics is far more toxic than it really is.”
The study found that the bilaterally engaged were more toxic than the unilaterally engaged, which runs counter to the idea that echo chambers are the primary cause of toxicity. Instead, it suggests that individuals who engage in discourse across the political spectrum can be more prone to toxic behavior.
“One of the dominant explanations for why American political discourse is so toxic is that Americans are siloed within echo chambers — they only hear from people on one side of the political divide,” Mamakos said. “In contrast, we found that users who had engagement with both left-wing and right-wing subreddits were more toxic than users with engagement only with left-wing or right- wing subreddits. This finding implies that the overexposure to like-minded viewpoints might not be what drives polarization.”
While the study offers profound insights, it’s essential to recognize its limitations. Firstly, the research was conducted exclusively on Reddit, which, although diverse, represents only a fraction of the global online community. The behaviors observed on this platform may not perfectly mirror those on other social media sites.
Looking ahead, future research could expand this study to other platforms, like Twitter or Facebook, to see if similar patterns of behavior exist. It would also be beneficial to investigate the reasons behind individuals’ engagement in toxic discourse and explore strategies to cultivate more civil interactions online.
“To successfully transition to digital democracy, we must all bear the responsibility of disengaging from divisive content, and instead approach differing viewpoints with empathy,” Mamakos said.
The study, “The social media discourse of engaged partisans is toxic even when politics are irrelevant“, was authored by Michalis Mamakos and Eli J Finkel.