Does Social Media Encourage Uncivil Debate?

What is uncivil debate? Civility can be described as “behaviours which enhance democratic conversation.” By contrast, uncivil communication can be characterized as ridicule, attacks on character or competence, name-calling, and disrespect. Uncivil discourse is language characterized as containing direct insults, willful misattribution of motive without due reason, and open contempt. Research conducted by scholars has suggested that online discussion tends to be more hostile and offensive than a face-to-face discussion.

Numerous factors lead to the encouragement of uncivil debate through social media forums. Misinformation is a common issue that discourages civil debate. Misinformation can be defined as false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive. Meaningful debate can deteriorate by the spread of misinformation as a result of personal and emotional broadcasting by individuals. Extremist views can lead to the polarization of consumers that consequently results in uncivil debate.

Social media as a platform allows individuals to be “keyboard warriors.” A “keyboard warrior” can be defined as “a person who makes abusive or aggressive posts on the internet, typically one who conceals their true identity.” People feel considerably more comfortable sharing “unconventional” or disagreeable opinions when hiding behind a screen. This is because they are hidden behind a protective shield. Research conducted by scholars has found that online discussion tends to be more hostile and offensive than a face-to-face discussion. This is due to the lack of social cues and the potential for it to be anonymous. The ability to conceal their identity promotes the likelihood of negativity, knowing that due to being anonymous there will not be any consequences.

Filter bubbles can cause cognitive biases and shortcuts to manifest, amplifying their negative impact on our ability to think logically and critically. Researchers have questioned whether the type of discourse fostered by computer discussions is as beneficial as face-to-face discussions. Users who participate in online political discussions often only do so with groups that agree with their views and these forums then reinforce pre-existing views through these confirmation biases. Further, communication through computers can cause the removal of individuality and result in group-based stereotyping.

Social Media Encourages Uncivil Debate through fostering an “us vs them” mentality. Further to the last point regarding filter bubbles, social media also encourages uncivil political debate among Internet users in which uncivil attacks are likely to target the opposing side of the political spectrum. Due to the strong emotions created, particularly negative emotions, perceptual biases can be exaggerated creating an “us versus them” mentality. This polarization of views results in a heightening of in-group favouritism and out-group hostility. In conclusion, social media encourages uncivil debate, leaving no room for civil debate. This is done so through misinformation, concealment of identity, the creation of filter bubbles, and an “us vs them” mentality.

Mia Heaphy