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 used by approximately nine out of 10 online Canadians and may be the most influential public space in our society. It’s a place where politicians come to speak to citizens, from the furious early morning dispatches of an American president, to the more mundane photo ops of Canadian politicians. It’s where citizens speak directly to their leaders, in a free, direct, and unmediated way. Critically, it’s also where we as citizens talk to each other about the major issues we face. In a country as geographically vast as Canada, social media facilitates direct personal exchanges that otherwise would not be possible.

Theoretically, that is an amazing thing for our democracy. While we’re told to keep religion and politics away from the dinner table, the reality is that political conversations are democracy’s lifeblood. But in practice, something has gone wrong. We behave differently on social media. Political conversations on social media are often angrier than what we witness offline. Harassment and extremism thrive on social media. Earlier this year, the prime minister described it as “the wild west.”

There’s been a lot of talk about what governments and social media platforms should do. But with a national election here, we at the Samara Centre turned our attention to citizens themselves. This report brings together insights from the study of difficult conversations and the study of social media to examine what’s going wrong, why it matters, what government action we should expect, and how citizens can change the nature of online political conversations.

Seven Techniques for Better Online Political Conversations

Drawing from research on social psychology and social media behaviour, this report outlines seven techniques for better online political conversations:

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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