The end of constructive engagement online? Toxic outrage in user-generated debates across political systems and online discussion arenas

Jakob, Julia ; Dobbrick, Timo ; Freudenthaler, Rainer ; Haffner, Patrik ; Wessler, Hartmut

Document Type: Conference presentation
Year of publication: 2021
Conference title: ICA 2021 - 71th Annual International Communication Association Conference, Preconference: Comparative Perspectives on Negativity, Incivility, and Toxic Talk
Location of the conference venue: Online
Date of the conference: 27.05.2021
Publication language: English
Institution: School of Humanities > Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft (Wessler 2007-)
Subject: 070 News media, journalism, publishing
Abstract: This study is the first to simultaneously investigate country-level and platform-related context factors of toxic outrage, i.e. destructive incivility, in online discussions. It compares user comments on the public role of religion and secularism from 2015/16 in four democracies (Australia, United States, Germany, Switzerland) and four discussion arenas on three platforms. A novel automated content analysis (N = 1,236,551) combines LIWC dictionaries with machine learning. The level of toxic outrage is higher in majoritarian (USA, AUS) than in consensus-oriented political systems and higher in arenas that afford plural, issue-driven rather than like-minded, preference-driven debates. Yet, toxic outrage is lower in forums that tend to separate public and private conversations than in those that collapse varying contexts. This suggests that user-generated discussions flourish in environments that incentivize actors to strive for compromise, put relevant issues center stage, and make room for public debate at a relative distance from purely social conversation.

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