Politicians’ incivility on Twitter increasing, study finds


The Twitter application is seen on a digital device, Monday, April 25, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

(NewsNation) — Twitter, like many social media sites, is seen by some as a toxic place — especially when it comes to politics. One study suggests this perception is accurate: new research has revealed a 23% increase in online incivility among members of Congress from 2009-2019.

Led by Dr. Jeremy Frimer of the University of Winnipeg, the study is the first systematic investigation of the rise of incivility on Twitter over time, a news release noted.

Authors of the report studied 1.3 million tweets from the Twitter feeds of U.S. Congress members from the last decade.

“We focus on social media and Twitter in particular as it is among the primary modes by which U.S. politicians communicate with one another and the public,” the study’s authors said.

Analyses of the data collected shows the rise in incivility was partly driven by the greater level of engagement uncivil tweets received, gaining more likes and retweets than less hostile posts. However, researchers pointed out that this engagement isn’t necessarily a sign of approval of these incendiary tweets.

“It’s likely that uncivil tweets gain large numbers of likes because they are retweeted so much and thus reach many more people,” explains co-author Robb Willer of Stanford University. “Our research suggests that the average person’s view of uncivil tweets is very different — likely much more negative — than what might be gleaned from the ‘likes’ count.”

To measure how ‘uncivil’ each tweet was, researchers used four text analysis tools. The primary one used was PerspectiveAPI, which scores texts for toxicity on a continuous scale of 0 to 100, based on how rude or disrespectful an observer would find it. For example, a tweet by Rep.Keith Broun, (R-Georgia) calling a bill backed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi a “dead, rotten stinking fish” got a score of 46.

Extremely uncivil tweets received 10 times as many retweets and eight times as many ‘‘likes’’ as extremely civil tweets, researchers found.

A May 2019 tweet by Rep. Dusty Johnson, (R-South Dakota) celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment being passed received 23 retweets and 184 likes. In comparison, a tweet sent just a few days later from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) calling the House GOP “intellectually and morally bankrupt” garnered 2,200 likes and 5,000 retweets.

Politicial incivility increased over time on Twitter, study authors said, both in the presidency and among memebrs of Congress. The biggest rise came from liberal Democrats, which researchers said were mostly reactions to former President Donald Trump.

Tracking 8,18 tweets from former President Barack Obama, and 9,503 tweets from Trump while they were in office, the study showed Obama’s incivility levels on Twitter did not change. They averaged a score of 13.4 on the 0-100 scale.

Trump’s incivility ratings in tweets, however, went up from an average score of 18.8 in 2017 to 23 in 2019. Tweets the author studied were restricted to when each president was in office, and authors only studied those sent before Nov. 21, 2019.

On average, tweets studied by the researchers were not particularly uncivil, authors noted, as they mainly scored in the 10-25 range. Even Trump’s Twitter feed produced scores that averaged around 20. But the population may have had greater exposure to “relatively rare” uncivil tweets, making them seem more common, researchers said.

The study’s authors emphasized that they were not making a moral judgment on uncivil tweets.

Prior research, authors of the study said, has shown that even though uncivil language can cause harm, it can also help politicians draw attention to issues and spur supporters to action.

“Our research cannot establish whether this trend is good or bad. People must make their own
judgments about that,” Willer said in a statement.

This research comes off the heels of a busy news cycle for Twitter. Its board recently agreed to a takeover offer from Tesla CEO Elon Musk of $54.20 for each outstanding share.

“For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally,” Musk tweeted a few days after the deal was made.

Accusations of bias and censorship on the platform are partly what prompted the billionaire to make an offer on the platform in the first place. Some have reacted with excitement to Musk’s potential ownership of Twitter. Others have raised concerns about his ability to moderate content and misinformation, particularly those more likely to be targeted for harassment on Twitter: women, racial minorities and other marginalized groups.

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