Field Guide to Online Political Conversations

September 18, 2019
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Field Guide to Online Political Conversations
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Social media is one of our most important public spaces, a place where Canadians come to talk politics. It offers the potential to have bigger, freer, more open conversations. With its ability to allow people to engage and connect, to express ideas and inform each other, social media can be a powerful tool to improve our democracy. But something has gone wrong.

  • Canadians say political conversations online are angrier (48%) and less civil (50%) than offline political discussion
  • Nearly half (47%) of Canadian social media users say they stay out of political discussions out of fear of being criticized 
  • More Canadian social media users say they do not feel safe sharing political views online (41%) than do (31%) 

We need space to disagree with passion. But online incivility has negative consequences for our democracy. It causes people to disengage. It hurts equity in politics. It exacerbates polarization. It makes us more vulnerable to malicious actors trying to sow division and confusion

Canadians can help make these online conversations more constructive and more civil. Drawing from research on social psychology and social media behaviour, this report outlines seven techniques for better political conversations online:

1. Lead by example: Being civil can cause others in a conversation to follow your lead.

2. Police your own side: Calling out incivility is most effective when you're addressing someone on the same political team.

3. Practice slow politics: Small changes in the way you use technology can reduce the likelihood of using social media on the go, cutting down on thoughtless and aggressive exchanges.

4. Get into the weeds: Inviting people to provide detailed explanations of what political choices they support, and doing so yourself, can reduce polarization.

5. Reframe your language: Thinking about the moral foundations of an argument, and reflecting those foundations in your own language, can reduce the psychological distance between you and the person you're having a discussion with.

6. Remind us what we share: Priming someone to consider the identities that unite us (like civic identity) rather than the identities that divide us (like party affiliations) can reduce polarization.

7. Spot a bot: Recognize fake accounts, and don't give them what they want—attention.

How to change the way we discuss politics online


For many Canadians, social media has become a popular space to talk about politics. By allowing users to freely express their opinions and exchange ideas, social media can be a powerful tool to strengthen our democracy. But with Canadians encountering more anger and incivility online than in person, something has gone wrong.

There’s been a lot of talk about what governments and social media platforms should do to improve our digital discourse—and their action is needed. But we at the Samara Centre for Democracy think that online civility can begin with citizens learning how to disagree better.

We've created a series of infographics, illustrated by Joren Cull, with tips on how to change the way we discuss politics online.

How to Overcome Big Emotions

We look at why conversations are so different on social media, and how to move from your gut to your brain.

How to Spot a Bot

We examine the rising cyber threat to elections, and how to watch for fake accounts that spread disinformation.

How to Argue with Civility

We explain why civility matters, and how to debate the issues with mutual respect.

Are you an elected representative?

We share advice for political leaders who want to make political discourse more productive and civil, both online and in person.

The Report

Want to dive deeper into our online political conversations research and recommendations? Check out the complete Field Guide report below.

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