Online incivility hinders socio-political discussions

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A Facebook user reacts angrily to a post. Online discussions have become more heated in recent years, according to some experts. (Saul Marquez)

Incivility can be found on social media, blogs and news sites, but it’s often at its worst when it comes to politics.

BYU political science student Kwaku El is the vice president of BYU College Democrats. While he says most people are courteous in the club’s online discussions, he’s seen some individuals question a person’s standing in the LDS Church when it comes to their political affiliation.

“The church says that people of any political affiliation can be members,” El said. “But then you have people who say, ‘If you disagree with me, you can’t be in my church.’”

El said BYU College Democrats uses social media to politically inform students and start discussions on important topics and issues. He believes some of the comments they receive hinder healthy conversations. Among the worst are those that personally attack others.

“Some comments you have to delete,” El said. “Sometimes they’re just vulgar. You can’t let that stuff stay there.”

As many as one in five comments were found to be uncivil in a study done by The University of Utah and The University of Arizona. (Saul Marquez)

A 2014 study published by researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Arizona found one in five responses in the comments section of an online newspaper displayed incivility of some kind. News articles that referenced specific politicians resulted in one uncivil comment for every three comments shared.

Dickinson College social psychology professor Peter Leavitt believes most researchers of political dialogue agree that incivility is increasing.

“The political climate and some of its unique characteristics are probably contributing to that,” Leavitt said.

Tracey Todd is the social media director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, an organization based at the University of Arizona that promotes healthy political communication between the public, lawmakers and the media. He believes economic uncertainty may play a role in uncivil dialogue, as well.

“People are more concerned about their futures and seeing less action at the government level,” Todd said. “It leads to a breakdown in communication when people are feeling that their voices are not being heard.”

Leavitt said it’s easier to forget common courtesy when communicating through a screen.

“Research suggests it might be easier to dehumanize people in online spaces than when having discussions in person,” he said. “The more human we think somebody is the less likely we’re going to treat them poorly.”

Provo resident Lisa Smith has headed a popular political Facebook group for LDS Church members for about a year. She’s seen some of the hostility that can accompany online debates firsthand. Smith said anonymity plays a role in online incivility and that even when a Facebook account is linked to the face and profile of a real person, people are still prone to hostility.

“They don’t know one another in person,” Smith said. “They don’t have to see any impact of anything they say online.”

The majority of members in Smith’s Facebook group are conservative — she even runs a separate Facebook group for conservative members of the Church. But Smith has seen disagreements and arguments arise even among those with similar religious and political ideologies.


A map displays how Utah’s counties voted during the 2016 Presidential Election. Red represents Donald Trump, the blue represents Hillary Clinton. Disagreements can arrive even among groups who share the same political ideologies. (Saul Marquez)

“While we all share the same kind of lens on the gospel for the most part, some people have a very different take on things, different priorities,” she said. “The two-party system that operates primarily in the United States tends to be a little bit more divisive. They see their party as the only correct party for whatever reason.”

Leavitt suggested hostility among social groups may be explained by a psychological phenomenon called the false-consensus effect, where people may overestimate the degree to which other people hold the views they have.

“They notice that they have this one thing in common and then overestimate the likelihood that they have these other things in common,” Leavitt said. “It feels good to believe that other people agree with us, and it feels bad when we discover that people don’t agree with us. With tight-knit communities, that expectation may be even higher, especially when it comes to moral and political issues.”

Dealing with hostile comments has become part of Smith’s duty as a Facebook group administrator. Tensions were highest during the 2016 election, but she said issues still arise from time to time.

“I’ll get private messages that somebody is in tears,” she said. “I kind of have to soothe a few feelings and then try and help people learn to understand that what they say has an impact on other people.”

Despite the setbacks that come with online conversations, El believes the internet is a vital tool when it comes to political awareness. Posting on social media is important to the mission of BYU College Democrats.

“(The internet is) making everyone more aware of what’s really going on in the political sphere,” El said. “We can’t not have discussions online.”

Smith said the internet allows citizens to participate in discussions they might not otherwise have a chance to explore.

“You can have a conversation over a period of time,” she said. “People have such busy lives. Getting people talking and understanding other viewpoints in a civil way is better than nothing at all, even if it’s online.”

Even with the occasional issues that arise, Smith said she enjoys seeing people interact in a way that will help them understand other people better. She believes seeking out other perspectives and viewpoints can enrich lives.

“Every now and then there’s a conversation that ends up helping bridge the gap, and those are the moments that are the most valuable,” she said. “I love to see that kind of thing where people bridge that gap and understand that they’re really not as different as they might think.“

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