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Misperceptions of Political Incivility Online

Peter Oshinki|December 18, 2020
Civil political discourse, a fundamental practice of democratic society, is increasingly perceived as threatened by the American polarized political environment. Recent surveys of Americans’ perceptions of civility in discourse suggest a shift in the tenor of dialogue — over 70 percent of Americans said the level of civility in American politics has declined, 75 percent agreed that there is a “crisis” of civility, and more than half were not interested in following politics due to impoliteness.

Beyond lacking civility, Americans increasingly see their political opponents as threats. In a survey More in Common fielded prior to the 2020 election, Americans expressed significant concerns about election-related violence: Republicans and Democrats alike thought that about half of supporters of the opposing party would resort to violence, when in reality the true number of those willing to resort to such extreme measures across either party was in the low single digits.

The context for this perceived decline in civility is increasingly online: more than six in ten Americans get at least some of their news from social media, and one in three Americans interact with social media ten or more times per day. Digital spaces are arguably de facto forums of democratic deliberation akin to the taverns, churches and cafés of American revolutionaries and civil rights leaders. This post assesses these perceptions of levels of incivility online as well as how certain information conduits may encourage distortions of Americans’ true views on topics such as the use of violence.

Social Media Does Not Reflect the Views of Most Americans

Social media often cultivates misperceptions of the true distribution of different political, moral, ideological, and general worldviews due to these platforms’ lack of broader demographic representativeness. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, Twitter users are younger, more highly educated, and wealthier than most U.S. adults. Furthermore, highly active, content-generating users on social media do not reflect the broader population of social media users: a small minority (10 percent) of highly active Twitter users generate 80 percent of the total Tweets on the platform, whereas the rest of the Twitter user base (90 percent) creates only 20 percent of total Tweets on the platform.

Social media content also does not reflect most Americans’ preferences in content—highly active Twitter users are much more likely to post about politics, yet the majority of Americans are increasingly worn out by political posts on social media. Relatedly, part of the reason that incivility seems prevalent in social media is that instances of incivility occur more frequently when deliberating sensitive topics such as political issues. Simply recognizing that social media users’ opinions and content do not reflect to the views of most Americans can help curb misperceptions caused by misunderstanding the platforms as representative.

Much of Online Deliberation is Civil

A common observation maintained by various news outlets is that incivility runs rampant across social media. However, perceptions of incivility may be driven by the cognitive phenomenon of negativity bias in which negative content has greater resonance than more dispassionate or positive content. Research on social media incivility found that incivility was present in about one in five social media comments. However, “deliberative attributes” — defined as respectful conversation geared towards shared understanding — were present in more than a fourth of social media posts.1 Though some scholars, pundits, and journalists may interpret a fifth of uncivil social media comments as unacceptable, the share of deliberative and respectful comments outweighed uncivil ones.

Moreover, the lion’s share of social media posts were neither civil nor uncivil — they simple were ordinary exchanges of personal information, news, humor, memes and more.2 Beyond simply reframing incivility as less frequent than civil interactions, netizens should understand that there is merit in setting a respectful tone in an online interaction. Social media researchers found in 2017 that civil interactions can initiate more productive downstream communication3 — in essence, inspiring more civility in subsequent interactions on a post. Though this may appear obvious, it speaks to the importance of initiating and elevating deliberative speech, as it generates a positive feedback loop of civil interactions.

How Media and Social Media Might Drive Gaps in Political Perceptions

In research More in Common conducted in July and August 2020, we found that 7 in 10 Americans expressed concern over the risks of election-related violence. In order to better understand the situation, we fielded a survey to Americans asking them about actions — ranging from peaceful demonstrations to physical altercation — that they would personally justify in a scenario where their party’s candidate was claiming the election was stolen. We then also asked them what percentage of the “other side” they thought would condone those same actions if their candidate were to claim the election was stolen. Our findings indicated that Americans overwhelmingly reject physical violence — 97 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats rejected the idea that physically attacking their political opponents would be justified.

However, Americans significantly overestimated the proportion of their political opponents who would justify election-related violence. Republicans believed that 52 percent of Democrats would justify physical attacks against Donald Trump supporters in a scenario where Joe Biden claimed the election was stolen, while in reality only 4 percent of Democrats said they would condone such violence. Similarly, Democrats believed that 49 percent of Republicans would justify physical attacks against Joe Biden supporters in a scenario where Donald Trump claimed the election was stolen, while in fact only 3 percent of Republicans said they would condone such violence. This is not to say Americans should ignore the threat of election related violence. We must take these threats seriously — 3 percent or 4 percent of people justifying such violence is still unacceptably high. At the same time, we can be confident the overwhelming majority of Americans are committed to peaceful action.

Graphs from More in Common’s Democracy for President: Election Violence Perception Gap Report, pp. 4-5.

Democrats and Republicans were each asked:

  • “Imagine that [your party’s candidate] appears to win the presidential election, but [the other party’s candidate] claims the election was ‘stolen.’ Under those circumstances, which of the following actions would be justified?”
  • “What percentage of [the opposite party] do you think would condone the following actions [in this scenario]?”

Perceptions of incivility in America remain high, yet there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Social media, while an increasingly commonplace for news and political exchanges, does not reflect the views of the American population at-large. Instead, a small subset of highly active netizens generate a disproportionate amount of hot-button political material that instigates incivility. An understanding of the distortions of social media, as well as how most social media interactions are in fact mostly civil and polite, can reduce needless hostilities between those with differing views. Finally, observed instances of perception gaps in election-related violence speak to the severity of partisan misunderstanding that media and social media may encourage. Moving forward, future research might probe best strategies to curb incivility by further humanizing online interactions, as well as identify the underlying causes and general process in which partisan misperceptions are instilled.

(Non-linked) Works Cited

  1. Chen, G. 2017. Nasty Talk: Online Incivility and Public Debate. Palgrave Macmillan.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

Paul Oshinski is a PhD Candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin and Research Fellow at More in Common. For additional details on More in Common’s recent findings on perceptions of civility online, see the full “Democracy for President” Research Report.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash


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