ON a Facebook group for newspaper journalists who generally share anecdotes from the olden days, a hot coal lands in dry grass when someone shares the following:
“There is news from the USA that is just too ironic and fun not to comment on. Namely, Donald Trump paid $3 million to have the votes recounted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest district. And what happened? Joe Biden's majority increased by 132 votes. How's that for pouring money down the drain?"
This post received 132 likes and 470 comments.
Most people took pleasure in Trump's predicament, but not all: “He won without a doubt. Whether it can still be overturned by the courts in time is the question."
“Won? How? Is 300 suddenly less than 200?”
The Trump supporter receives unexpected support: “When the liberal whoring media is excused, Trump won clearly and with the largest majority ever."
A day later, everyone is still angry.
A member of the liberal whoring media (presumably) has meanwhile suggested that some of the commentators do not belong in the group, and is now getting pummeled.
“Are you the owner of the fb page? Who do you think you are, to decide who can be where on which fb groups? Has anyone ever told you that you are arrogant? If not, I am doing it!"
“I may be arrogant, but you clearly lack a few brain cells."
Back and forth, the members tell each other that they don't really know what's going on.
David was absent yesterday. He only reads the original post now, and loses his shit on the spot: “The day that you have more money than he does, you tell him he's wasting money. Until then you shuuuurup!”
You tell him.
Someone posts a short satire that fans the flames of the vehement reactions of Trump supporters in the group all over again. Alta sees the smoke and moves closer.
This joker is “deep in the left-wing dark swamp with the communist, socialist swamp creatures", she explains and gets four likes.
Alta shares a series of conspiracy theories about the election that she has learned thanks to years of in-depth research.
For one user, this is the last straw: “You're talking undiluted shit. Good God.”
Is it contagious?
It is as a result of such conversations on Facebook that a group of American researchers wanted to determine how the self-appointed commentators on social media influence the tone and content of the political discourse. Concern about the increasing partisanship in American politics served as an incentive. The images that fans of the respective parties had of each other were becoming more and more hostile and distorted, and the research team wanted to determine how social media contributes to this.
They wanted to answer three questions in particular: Who are the people who comment regularly? Are they ruder than the average population? And is online rudeness contagious?
For this purpose, they collected the content of more than 11,000 posts and more than 6-million comments that appeared on Facebook over 10 days in October 2018. You have to take off your hat to such dedication, because just one morning dedicated to comments on Huisgenoot's Facebook page, the conversations on the above Facebook group, and the comment section of Netwerk24 was quite a disillusionment for this liberal media whore.
The researchers then asked a control group of 2,200 people who do not comment regularly on Facebook, but who are representative of the American population, to respond to posts — without being exposed to the vicious comments.
They also investigated whether vicious comments get more likes on Facebook because the platform's algorithms give greater exposure to content with higher user engagement.
Here are the frontrunners
From three information and opinion surveys, the researchers came to the conclusion that the smallish group of Facebook users who appoint themselves as commentators on political issues have many characteristics in common.
First, according to their own estimation, they are more interested in politics than the people who don't join the conversation so loudly. They also consider themselves better informed about politics than other people, and strongly identify with the politics of one or another party.
They also have an unusually strong need to judge — a psychological phenomenon associated with strong opinions and a tendency to engage in arguments.
People in this group hold more polarised views on issues ranging from political ideology to hot topics such as abortion and the death penalty. They tend to be more hostile towards groups that disagree with them, and do not shy away from expressing this hostility — according to the sharply partisan media channels they often subscribe to.
People whose opinions are over-represented in online spaces therefore hold more polarised attitudes and beliefs on a wide range of political issues, and easily become aggressive and spiteful when asserting or defending these positions.
But do they make the rest of humanity ruder?
Is venom popular?
People naturally tend to pay more attention to negative events. Therefore, the researchers suspect that online rudeness triggers more user engagement on social media platforms. This is important because platform algorithms broadcast popular content more widely.
It is no mere coincidence that specific comments appear at the bottom of Facebook posts when you scroll down the page. The algorithm dictates that the most popular comments are highlighted, because Facebook doesn't want (in its own words) to rub your nose in “low-quality comments".
Here, “low quality" does not refer to the content, but to the extent to which other users interact with the comments.
If rude comments are indeed more popular and therefore more visible, it can make the political conversation between supporters of different parties appear more antagonistic than is actually the case.
The result is mildly comforting if you still have hope for humanity. Content in the “rather inflammatory" category is definitely more popular, but the popularity decreases slightly as the swearing increases. There appear to be limits to how much swearing people are willing to put up with, even on Facebook.
Nevertheless, the popularity of rude comments means online venom enjoys greater exposure thanks to the Facebook algorithm.
Is rudeness contagious?
Do rude comments prompt other people to make rude and even worse comments?
Before they could answer this question, the researchers wanted to know if more people comment when the most popular and therefore most visible comments are rude. Then they examined the relationship between the most popular comments and the level of venom in the rest of the conversation.
The findings are disheartening. The data confirms that more people join the conversation when malicious comments are highlighted by the algorithm, and that subsequent comments are also more malicious.
It's like when a family dispute gets out of hand around the dinner table, or children badmouth each other on the playground. Things get uglier and louder, and more people join the fray.
In the control group — the group that doesn't usually spit fire on social media — researchers found no clear evidence that vicious comments prompt them to comment. But even if they don't necessarily participate more, their comments are definitely more venomous. When people in this group who are exposed to vicious comments do start talking, they let rip.
Trolls speak louder than words
The researchers believe online comments are an important form of political behaviour. They allow people to learn about the views and beliefs of others, and to experience the full spectrum of online communication, from reasonable discourse to partisan wars.
But people who rely primarily on social media for political content are exposed to an angry world.
The commentators who contribute the most are not representative of the general public. They are more sharply divided along party lines, more attached to their own views and eager to fight. Their vitriolic comments provoke hostile reactions, either against themselves or against their targets.
People pick up on the rude tone of previous commentators, and the spewing of fire gets an algorithmic boost that spreads it even further. In this way, rudeness increasingly becomes a feature of a highly visible form of political participation, which drives people and groups further apart and creates the image of a hostile, divided, spiteful society.
Yapping in the Facebook group
A day after the fight, there is deep reflection on the Facebook group of journalists. The founder writes: “It is especially the personal attacks and the references to whorenalists that always prove to me that the author is in a corner and has no basis for his soulless argument."
From now on, defamation and insults will be rewarded with a red card.
He gets 157 likes and 76 comments. The mood is accommodating and philosophical:
“Unbelievable that Afrikaners can no longer argue and debate a subject sensibly. If you disagree, the cursing and condemnation is fast and has no limits…!!"
“It's amazing to read people's stupid reasoning.”
“Scary how some of our people's dialogue arises from the long drop.”
“These dogs' high-pitched yapping makes one itchy-fingered.”
The reference to dogs stirs up the wind and yesterday's embers glow once again.
“Could you perhaps tell us in more detail who the dogs are that you are referring to or what you mean by that?" one member wants to know. Another insists on being kicked out of the group. No thanks, he won't remove himself:
“You libtard idiots have threatened to do it, so do it.”
“Leave him,” says another. “Every circus needs a few clowns.”
♦ VWB ♦
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