Incivility and Online Discourse
Both positive and negative messages are common in political discourse. Increasingly, political discourse has gone beyond just positive and negative information to exchanges that are “excessively harsh”. This crossing of the proverbial line takes political discourse beyond “negativity” to what can be termed as “incivility” (Brooks and Geer, 2007). Incivility can be defined as attacks that go beyond facts and differences to “name-calling, contempt, and derision of the opposition” (Brooks and Geer, 2007, p. 1).
Concern about the tone of discussion on the Internet has existed before the Internet even seemed to have potential as a mass communication medium (Talmadge, 1987). “Flaming” and other kinds of uncivil interaction may now be considered part and parcel of online discourse, but research into the effects of incivility encompasses mediated communication both online and off.
Modern western society has a very strong norm favoring politeness, and that norm isn’t put on hold when people communicate through the media (Brown & Levinson, 1987). The increasing presence of uncivil disputes in media – often broadcast live campaign stops, TV studios and the halls of Congress – has created a news landscape in which one’s perception of political discourse may be dramatically worsening (Uslaner, 1993), even if the actual civility of political actors hasn’t declined (Altschuler & Blumin, 2001). Kingwell (1995) explains this norm as representing a show of mutual respect between conflicting parties, and thus breaking the politeness norm leads to the generation of negative affect. When encountering uncivil behavior in everyday life, people tend to respond with anger upon receiving uncivil communication, and indifference when observing it as a third party (Phillips & Smith, 2004).
Uncivil online discussion and flaming, in particular, are associated with negative affective responses in Internet users, including heavy and long-term users (King, 2001), though flaming itself may be an adaptive act meant to facilitate argumentation within the constraints of Internet fora (Weger & Aakhus, 2003). Flaming in a public setting may actually increase the tendency towards deliberation within a discussion group by providing the opportunity for discussion norms to be reasserted.
Indeed, Papacharissi (2004) notes that what might be called “uncivil” in some traditional venues can actually have a liberating and pro-democratic effect online (Lyotard, 1984). Subsequent research has found that, although it colors perceptions about discussants who use it, exposure to incivility does not affect individuals’ intentions to participate (Ng & Detenber, 2005). Exposure to uncivil online discussion may at times lead to withdrawal from the group, but may also lead to shows of solidarity (Lee, 2005), and may also impact both subsequent opinion formation and opinion expression (Price, Nir, & Cappella, 2006). Because of this, we should expect one’s judgments about a blogger’s comments – an internal component of the deliberative process – to be colored by the emotional reaction one has to that blogger’s tone.
Placing this perception of disrespect in the context of televised political commentary, an experimental study showed that uncivil exchanges among politicians in televised debate significantly decrease viewers’ trust in politicians, Congress, and system of government (Mutz & Reeves, 2005). However, an experimental study of Brooks and Geer (2007) suggests that uncivil attack in political ads may not have detrimental effects on citizens’ mind even have some beneficial effects. In their study, Brooks and Geer (2007) found that uncivil political ads did not have significant effects on political trust, while they had some positive effects on political engagement, although uncivil political ads are seen as less informative and less fair.
Such mixed findings might be partially due to differences in settings of the two studies. For example, the study of Brooks and Geer (2007) eliminate partisan cues in order to examine pure effects of incivility. However, lack of partisan cues can minimize incivility effects because target of uncivil attack is not clear to receivers. In fact, previous research on the effect of uncivil expression in interpersonal relationship setting has consistently shown that verbal attack targeting on the self produces consistent and strong negative reactions (see, Kinney & Segrin, 1998). For example, at work setting, Cox (1987, 1991a, 1991b) found that nurses exposed to verbally abusive doctors and supervisors reported feeling angry and powerless and dissatisfied with their jobs. In the context of close relationship, such as spouses and family members, verbal aggression is linked to depression and aggressiveness (Segrin & Fitzpatrick, 1992; Kashani et al., 1988; Vissing et al., 1999). Experimental studies also provide empirical evidences that verbal aggression produces a rage of negative reactions. For example, when research participants were insulted by a confederate, they reported strong feeling of angry and showed aggressive reactions (Gambaro & Rabin, 1969; Gentry, 1970, 1972; Hokanson, 1961; Rule & Hevitt, 1971).
In sum, research on effects of verbal attack in interpersonal communication setting suggest that potential effects of uncivil attack on negative reactions are largely dependent upon who is the target of attack. Specifically, uncivil attacks can produce vivid detrimental effects when the attacks target on the self.