If you’ve been on social media at all in the last decade, you may have noticed it becoming an increasingly toxic environment. Antisocial language is on the rise — but not only among the general public. An analysis of hundreds of thousands of tweets from US Members of Congress has found that the language in their posts has become more and more rude and disrespectful since 2009. And this seems to be because uncivil tweets are rewarded with more retweets and likes, a finding that highlights the perverse incentives driving the way we communicate with each other on social media.
The researchers, led by Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg, collected all the tweets made by Members of Congress between 2009 and 2019. To measure how civil the tweets were, they used Perspective API, a tool that scores language on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how likely it is that someone would find it rude or disrespectful. The researchers also analysed the tweets from the two presidents in office over this period — Barack Obama and Donald Trump — as well as from one million random Twitter users who were not politicians.
The researchers found that the average incivility score of the politicians’ tweets rose by 23% across the period, from 11.8 in 2009 to 14.5 in 2019. Incivility in the general public’s tweets rose as well, from a score of 21.1 in 2009 to 27 in 2019 — but the increase in uncivil language among politicians was independent of this more general increase.
The rise in incivility was greater for more partisan Members of Congress compared to more moderate ones; it was particularly prominent among liberal Democrats, apparently due to these politicians responding to uncivil tweets by Donald Trump in a similar tone. But these factors couldn’t fully explain the overall rise in incivility. Similarly, the increase in disrespectful language couldn’t be explained by changes in the make-up of Congress over the decade.
Instead, the team found that politicians were essentially being rewarded for sending rude tweets. Extremely uncivil tweets — those that scored 100 on the scale — received on average ten times as many retweets and eight times as many likes as extremely civil ones. And this response to extremely uncivil tweets became greater over the decade: in 2009 they only received about twice as many retweets as civil ones, but by 2019 they were getting 15 times as many retweets.
Further analysis showed that after getting lots of retweets or likes for an uncivil tweet, politicians’ subsequent tweets were more likely to be uncivil. Overall, then, it seemed that politicians were getting positive reinforcement from sending out uncivil tweets, making them more likely to use uncivil language in the future. And the extent of this positive feedback increased as the decade went on.
The team also found that the rise in incivility was unique to social media: members of Congress didn’t show a similar increase in uncivil language on the floor of the House. The researchers argue that the novel way in which Twitter provides social feedback is to blame. Retweets and likes aren’t necessarily a sign of approval: people may retweet rude tweets because they find them entertaining, for instance, not because they actually like the content. But politicians (and the rest of us!) may see these shares as positive feedback to be pursued.
These findings are consistent with other work illustrating how antisocial language is reinforced on social media platforms. Another US study found that politicians receive more social media shares when they use negative language, and in particular when they are hostile towards their opponents. Similar mechanisms shape online discourse among the general public too: for example, research has shown that “liking” outraged posts encourages people to express outrage again in the future.
The one optimistic note is that although incivility did increase over time, by 2019 the politicians’ tweets were still not that uncivil overall, scoring only 14.5 on a 100-point scale. Even Trump’s tweets were more civil, on average, than those of the general population. However, that modest increase is overshadowed by the fact that the most uncivil tweets are the ones that are most likely to get shared and seen widely.
And unless something is done about social media’s perverse incentives, it’s likely that the problem will continue to get worse, the researchers write. “In light of the established deleterious effects that political incivility has on tolerance for alternative viewpoints and public trust in the political process … this rise is likely to have negative effects on American democracy and governance,” they conclude.