To see how heated online conversations can be, all you have to do is scroll through the comments on an article about immigration or face masks, or post online about pipelines or the movement for Black Lives.
Many people agree that political conversations on social media are ruder, angrier, and less civil online than in person. Twice as many Canadians agree (41%) than disagree (20%) that online political conversations make them feel “angry and discouraged.”
As these stats show, by failing to engender safe, honest, and open exchanges, online political discourse is not living up to its democratic potential. While complaints about incivility can be used to censor or drown out critical voices, it is also true that disrespect, rudeness, harassment, and abuse online have real costs for our democracy.
Online incivility chases some people out of the digital public square, and potentially out of political participation altogether. By making people mad, incivility itself can encourage engagement because the fired-up people keep posting and amplifying, but people with lower tolerance for rudeness and anger simply log off. And because of what they see on social media, some people don’t only log off, but become less likely to discuss politics offline too.
Those who are already underrepresented in politics often experience worse incivility, even rising to the level of harassment and abuse. For example, high-profile female politicians attract more incivility—and death threats—than high-profile male politicians, as Catherine McKenna, Michelle Rempel, and other female politicians can attest.
No wonder fewer women (24%) than men (36%) feel safe sharing their political views online.
When people cluster on opposite ends of the spectrum or develop increasingly more negative attitudes toward people supporting other parties or viewpoints, it erodes the basis for collective decision-making. While it’s essential to explore and represent political differences, polarization can be a major force in the breakdown of democracy.
Polarization comes from many places, including the behaviour of politicians and media figures, but there’s evidence that we can become more polarized simply by being exposed to uncivil political comments on social media. This erodes trust—in each other, our leaders, our institutions, and the media. It makes us less likely to believe in the value of public debate and deliberation.
Online incivility is exacerbated by the growing problem of foreign interference by authoritarian states. They employ bot armies to manufacture anger and hatred, and take advantage of polarization to generate more outrage and further poison political discourse. For example, foreign actors have used thousands of troll accounts to try to inflame already emotional social media debates around pipelines and immigration policies in Canada.
Passion is important in politics. So is anger. But in order to make substantive and constructive democratic conversations possible for all Canadians, we need to argue about politics with courtesy and respect.
Here are just a few ways, backed by research:
Illustrations by Joren Cull
For more insights and tips on how to have healthier and more constructive discussions, check out The Samara Centre’s Field Guide to Online Political Conversations, brought to life in colourfully illustrated infographics as well as an in-depth research report.