Julia Jakob, Timo Dobbrick, Rainer Freudenthaler, Patrik Haffner, Hartmut Wessler
The End of Constructive Engagement Online? Toxic Outrage in User-Generated Debates Across Political Systems and Online Discussion Arenas

71th Annual International Communication Association Conference Preconference: Comparative Perspectives on Negativity, Incivility, and Toxic Talk, (virtual conference), May 27th, 2021

This study is the first to simultaneously investigate country-level and platform-related context factors of toxic outrage, i.e. destructive incivility, in online discussions. It compares user comments on the public role of religion and secularism from 2015/16 in four democracies (Australia, United States, Germany, Switzerland) and four discussion arenas on three platforms. A novel automated content analysis (N = 1,236,551) combines LIWC dictionaries with machine learning. The level of toxic outrage is higher in majoritarian (USA, AUS) than in consensus-oriented political systems and higher in arenas that afford plural, issue-driven rather than like-minded, preference-driven debates. Yet, toxic outrage is lower in forums that tend to separate public and private conversations than in those that collapse varying contexts. This suggests that user-generated discussions flourish in environments that incentivize actors to strive for compromise, put relevant issues center stage, and make room for public debate at a relative distance from purely social conversation.