Does the Internet Make Us Hostile?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Aleena Khan, covers the new article by Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen, Aarhus University, “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis”.

The Internet and social media have revolutionized the way people communicate and connect with others, opening up a whole new world beyond individuals’ usual social circles.  With the internet’s possibility for free and open communication, along with the anonymity it offers, political science scholars had hoped the public would engage in civil discussions about politics and other important matters. What resulted couldn’t have been any farther from it – in fact, online discussions about politics are often hostile and nasty. Scholars Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen explore why online political discussions often seem to be more hostile than offline discussions. In their new American Political Science Review article, they test the mismatch hypothesis, claiming that the way in which human psychology and the features of online environments interact can lead people to change their behavior, can bias their perceptions, and attract those who are already hostile. Contrary to this hypothesis, they find across eight studies that people drawn to politics are actually equally hostile online and offline. The internet’s audience is also wider, making it seem that online discussions are more hostile – even when the evidence says that they aren’t necessarily so.

Bor and Petersen carry out a comprehensive investigation of why people seem to experience more political hostility online compared to offline discussions, which they call the “hostility gap.” Generally, features of social media platforms allow for a personalized blend of political and non-political content, anonymity, fewer clear social cues, and rapid communication, which, they argue, can induce psychological changes that make users less empathetic and more aggressive than usual. On the other hand, face-to-face interactions allow for more empathy and perspective-taking because people are physically present and cues like facial expression and eye contact can shape decisions people make in social settings. Therefore, their mismatch hypothesis suggests that, because it is more difficult to regulate hostile emotions in online settings compared to offline settings, discussing contentious topics like politics can lead to the hostility gap.

To test their theory, Bor and Petersen use eight studies, leveraging six cross-national online surveys across the United States and Denmark and two online behavioral experiments in the United States. In studies 1-4, they use online surveys to test (1) whether the hostility gap exists, (2) whether people commit more hostility online than offline, (3) whether hostile people are more drawn to political discussions online than offline, and (4) whether people think online discussions have a higher emotional toll. In study 5 they use a vignette experiment, a type of experiment where participants read a short story, to test whether hostile messages are considered more offensive in online settings in comparison to offline ones. “Overall, their results suggest that the internet does not turn nice people into trolls – they deliberately engage in hostile political discussions both online and offline.” Participants were shown a short story, where the same political comments were randomly chosen to have occurred online or offline, and then participants rated how offensive, common, and appropriate the discussion was. In studies 6 and 7, they again use vignette experiments to test (1) whether hostile participants are also the ones who write more hostile messages and respond harshly to hostile messages and (2) whether participants are able to understand the tone of political discussions. Finally, in study 8, they test whether online interactions are simply more visible than offline interactions, thus creating a hostility gap. Participants in this study were asked how often they witness attacks against themselves, friends, and strangers both online and offline.

Bor and Petersen’s results revealed that contrary to the mismatch hypothesis, people are not more hostile online than offline. Rather, hostile individuals are drawn to online political discussions, but also to offline political discussions. On the other hand, (in two of three samples) non-hostile individuals tend to avoid hostile, as well as non-hostile, online political discussions. Furthermore, features of online political discussions do not seem to lead people to exaggerate hostility viewed online, despite the lack of social cues that are normally available in face-to-face settings. Overall, their results suggest that the internet does not turn nice people into trolls – they deliberately engage in hostile political discussions both online and offline. While they leave it up to future researchers to explore how to reduce hostility online, they highlight the importance of emphasizing social norms and the role of third-party “referees” in enforcing these norms in political discussion networks.

  • Aleena Khan is a PhD student in American Politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include political identity, political behavior, political communication, and political psychology. Aleena’s research involves investigating Americans’ perceptions of anti-Americanism and the consequences of those perceptions for Americans’ policy preferences toward outgroups, particularly Muslims. Outside of her studies, Aleena works to promote a positive department culture and support her fellow graduate students as part of her departments’ graduate student association and she is also involved in her local community, Urbana-Champaign, where she currently serves as a youth mentor.
  • BOR, ALEXANDER, and MICHAEL BANG PETERSEN. 2021. “The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–18.
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