Mind & Body

New Research Says Debating Politics Online May Not Be a Total Waste

When it comes to discussing politics, things seem worse now than ever. Yet, amid the mess of political discourse, a new study from Northeastern University suggests that there may actually be some good coming from this online bickering.

Why Bother Arguing?

Researchers Sarah Shugars and Nicholas Beauchamp conducted the study in the hopes of understanding some of the patterns of how people communicate online, particularly via Twitter. Most previous research on the social media platform has been at the single-post level, like determining how to get the most engagement from a tweet. But Shugars and Beauchamp wanted to zoom out to the conversation level to determine what made people participate in and return to ongoing Twitter discussions. To do this, they collected 7,053 Twitter conversations that took place in October 2017, totaling 63,671 tweets. All of those conversations had one thing in common: They included the keyword "Trump." That's right: The researchers wanted to untangle the chaos of political debates.

In their analysis, they found a few things that should be obvious to any Twitter user — but a few that might be surprising. As you might expect, the people most active on Twitter tend to be the ones who participate in the most conversations. Most conversations happen rapidly, with nearly half of replies being posted within 5 minutes and almost all within the same day. Additionally, the longer a conversation is, the less likely it is to continue. Those involved in the conversation are more likely to stop responding, and new people are less likely to get involved.

What they found out about the tone of the tweets was even more compelling. It turns out that positive tweets are less likely to get a reply than negative tweets, but, when they do get a reply, they generally receive a positive response, including more likes. That suggests that positive political statements most often get replies from people with similar political viewpoints who just want to show their affirmation. Negative tweets, on the other hand, were the most likely to receive a reply. While this may point primarily to people bickering back and forth about politics and engaging in sort of a mutual trolling, the researchers feel that there is some hope in these conversations.

Three Reasons for Debate

From what the researchers could discern, there are three major reasons why people engage in political conversations online. One is to troll and provoke each other. Another is for political affirmation among people of similar viewpoints. But the third reason should give you hope: to engage productively with people who hold opposing views.

We spoke to co-author Sarah Shugars, who explained, "There are many empirical studies showing that people can have productive conversations across differing ideologies and they can reason together about political issues."

Because these other studies illustrate that people are able to have productive conversations in person, and because so much political conversation is happening online, it's more than reasonable to assume that productive conversation is occurring online as well. "It would be surprising if there was absolutely no productive political conversation going on," Shugars says.

While much of this conversation is vulgar, vile, and probably "falls far below the ideals of democratic deliberation," as the paper states, there is promise to be found in those political Twitter battles. After all, the complaint often made about cable news is that people watch whichever channel affirms their own political bias. They're "preaching to the choir," and their viewers are rarely introduced to ideas that may challenge what they already believe.

Online, however, it turns out that people are engaging in lively discussion with people of opposing viewpoints, and the researchers argue that this is one point in favor of platforms showing users new and different content rather than just the content they've engaged with before. In an age where political polarization is at an all-time high, online conversations are alive and well. And most surprising of all, people may even be learning something from them.

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Learn more about the history of today's political institutions in "The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution" by Francis Fukuyama. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker June 12, 2019

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