Twitter Toxicity Rising Among Politicians, Study Finds


It’s not your imagination. According to a new study, political discourse on Twitter has really gotten worse in recent years.

the to research, published Thursday in the journal Social psychology and personality sciencesfound that the level of incivility in members of Congress’ tweets increased by 23% between 2009 and 2019 – a change the study’s authors attribute in part to the way the “like” and ” Retweet” from Twitter reinforce the spread of toxic content.

Its findings are “the first strong evidence that incivility is increasing among American politicians on Twitter,” wrote the study’s authors, who are from several American and Canadian universities.

Researchers looked at 1.3 million tweets from official congressional accounts between 2009 and 2019. To quantify levels of incivility, they used artificial intelligence to analyze posts and assign a toxicity score from 0 to 100 , reflecting the likelihood that someone would view the text as rude or disrespectful.

The analysis classified a 2009 tweet from the then senator. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) with a high incivility score of 45.1 for accusing a rival of “absenting himself” from his congressional position. And a 2019 tweet from Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) — which said another politician “endorses infanticide and does it proudly!” – scored at 47.6.

To some extent, the increasingly antagonistic tone is due to more civilian members of Congress being replaced by less civilian members, the study found. But the results attribute more of the change to the members themselves changing over time and posting more provocative tweets.

The rise in incivility has been most pronounced among liberal Democrats, particularly in the first half of President Trump’s term.

“They were much more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump — both his behaviors and his tweets,” said Robb Willer, co-author and director of Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab.

The study analyzed tweets during President Obama’s two terms and the first two years of Trump’s presidency. (The sample did not include posts from the controversial 2020 election or President Biden’s early term.)

The analysis also assessed tweets from Obama and Trump. Obama’s posts had an average incivility score of 13.4 which remained fairly stable over his two terms. In Trump’s freshman year, his score was 18.8 and it jumped to 23.0 in 2019.

The study did not make a moral judgment on Twitter’s incivility, Willer said. People who send harshly worded tweets “could have all sorts of explanations that could be morally based and valid for why they engaged in the speech they made.”

Whatever the motivation, the most toxic tweets stand out on Twitter’s crowded online platform. Congress’s average tweets weren’t particularly incivil, with relatively low scores. But tweets with higher toxicity scores tended to get a lot more attention, via retweets and likes, which increases audience exposure to those messages and makes incivility more important than it actually is. actually is., according to the study.

The results of the study indicate that “people who run these accounts learn from these metrics that they can see and do more of everything that gets likes and retweets,” Willer said.

But, as Twitter’s common disclaimer goes, retweets and likes don’t equal approval. People can retweet a post to draw attention to content they don’t like, for example. Willer said their research indicated that users generally dislike toxic tweets, despite appearances to the contrary.

“There’s a possibility here that the Twitter platform, with its pretty sparse metrics, is misleading people that certain tweets are more popular with people…than they actually are,” Willer said. .

Just as Congressional Twitter feeds have become more toxic, tweets from the general population have become more toxic, the authors said, based on a rough sample of civilian messages.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), one of the California congressional delegation’s most prolific tweeters, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that incivility had increased on the platform. shape – which he blamed in part on anonymous users and bots. His own feed contains plenty of pointed messages to Republicans, often delivered with dry humor, as well as standard fare showcasing his work in Congress.

After 13 years on the platform, Lieu said it’s still hard to predict what will take off in the Twittersphere.

“Sometimes I write what I think is an amazing tweet about a very important political point and only get a few ‘likes’ or retweets,” he said. But an evening observation that scotch and peanut butter making a tasty combination will result in an “astronomical” engagement.

A constant factor for a viral tweet: Trump.

“What I’ve found is that over the past five years, when the former president said something stupid or said something wrong, and I responded to that, it would get more engagement. high,” Lieu said. “If the former president is going to say 27 wrong things a week, I will try to highlight the 27 wrong things he said.”

While Twitter hasn’t been seen as a hub of civility in some time, some on the platform this week expressed concerns that the tone could worsen now that Tesla CEO Elon Musk is about to take the reins. Musk says Twitter’s current content moderation system restricts speech. He said he wanted fewer restrictions on what can and cannot be displayed, though he didn’t give many details; users warned that relaxing the rules could lead to increased harassment, abuse or pornographic images.

Republicans, meanwhile, celebrated Musk’s takeover, anticipating that he will lift the moderation they see as silencing their views. Among other issues, they oppose the blocking or suspension of Trump and other prominent right-wing politicians from the site. And Twitter’s fact-checking of false claims of voter fraud and COVID-19 misinformation has had a disproportionate effect on the right accounts.

“The most uncivil aspect of Twitter is the transparent censorship of free speech and the silence of conservatives,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall). “Furthermore, the platform will not achieve its potential or best serve its users until it demonstrates a commitment to fundamental fairness. I am optimistic that this may soon happen.


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