The Right and rising incidence of incivility on social media

The simplest and easiest way to understand online incivility would be to refer to the use of abrasive phraseology and abusive language, which forefront any discussion that tips over into incivility.

Published: 14th November 2022 10:40 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2022 11:38 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center documented the rising incidence of incivility in SNS (social networking service) interactions.

The study revealed that 73 per cent of adults had witnessed someone being harassed with 40 per cent personally experiencing it. 

The research showed that 49 per cent had witnessed other users behaving cruelly while 60 per cent witnessed someone being called offensive names. It said that 27 per cent of internet users had been called offensive names and 53 per cent had noticed attempts to deliberately embarrass someone.

According to the study, 92 per cent of Internet users said that the social-media permits rudeness and aggression.

Curiously, this survey precedes the inflammatory years of Trumpism in the US and the saffronization of India. In the eight years in the interim, the water under the bridge has turned alarmingly choppy and is threatening to capsize the teeming dinghies of rules-based, cordial Aristotelian discussion and debate.

Is it necessary for an understanding of the dynamics of social-media incivility to route it through, for example, “a large longitudinal Twitter dataset and crowd-sourced machine learning algorithms” (Spyros Kosmidis and Yannis Theocharis) or “mean field approach [to] define an evolutionary game framework” (Angelo Antoci and Fabio Sabatini) or “longitudinal data [and] combination of supervised machine learning models and traditional statistical inference (Quisi Sun, Magdalena Wojcieszak, and Sam Davidson?"

Is it imperative to roll out jargonised study after study of the micro-foundations of SNS incivility to explain, as Kosmidis and Theocharis put it, “how varying levels of hostility influence information processing, trust and polarization in politics?"

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Or are the dynamics of online incivility, so often encountered and indulged in or fended off, too quotidian to not be taken as a given? Do unending studies on the issue by universities and think tanks help bring it closer home or render it remote through the ostensible objectivity of scholasticism?

Each of us is an ambulatory repository of inarguable anecdotal evidence that incivility – that is, disrespectful, hyperaggressive behaviour, relentless harassment, hate speech, and erythrogenic gas lighting– is now part and parcel of social media discourse. Nonetheless, academics still disagree about what exactly constitutes social-media incivility (leave alone unanimous about how to tackle it).

In Civility vs. Incivility in Online Social Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach, Antoci and Sabatini defined“ online incivility as a manner of offensive interaction that can range from aggressive commenting in threads, incensed discussion and rude critiques, to outrageous claims, hate speech and harassment."

In their paper on televised incivility, DC Mutzand B Reeves define it as “the violation of well-established face-to-face social norms for the polite expression of opposing views”.

These are two definitions among many. The simplest and easiest way to understand online incivility would be to refer to the use of abrasive phraseology and abusive language, which forefront any discussion that tips over into incivility.

But, of course, online incivility is not a homogeneous phenomenon. Its degree, reach, and frequency differs not only from country to country but also from platform to platform and subject to subject. Sun, Wojcieszak, and Davidson “found that the fluctuations of incivility correspond to offline events and platform-specific policies", and that “political groups tend to be more uncivil, and discussions in mixed groups that are not overtly political but nevertheless discuss politics are less uncivil than in political groups."

In short, politics and the behaviours of politicians in social media are triggers for incivility. And political-line discourtesies bleed into – and take over – topics and themes that are often only distantly related: politics into virology, into gender issues, into literature, into spacefaring, into history, into mythology, into sports, into fashion. The list of issues that those invested in politics lay intellectual or proprietorial claims to is endless. 

According to Kosmidis and Theocharis, contrary to general opinion, while “research has provided extensive (if inconclusive) insights about the attitudinal and behavioural consequences of incivility”, it also “shows that incivility can sometimes mobilize citizens and increase their interest in politics."

Anger and fear can have anti-democratic effects while degrading whatever hope and enthusiasm might crop up in the interstices of intense exchanges. Abusiveness is often conflated with democratic expression, while, in reality, being profoundly undemocratic in that obloquy builds a discursive roadblock. In a fundamental sense, then, the “increase in the interest in politics” is at the cost of democratic politics.

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In fact, matters have come to such a pass that social-media addicts of diatribe are often no longer interested in maintaining political or ideological coherence. Nor are they there for the constructive purposes of democratic dissent. They are there to indulge in flaming and provocation in ipsis, and little else. It is as if these platforms exist not for multidirectional communication but for self-obsessed catharsis.

And anonymity provides flamers the perfect cover. Social media also permits multiple identities – one, perhaps, for conventional politesse, another for self-exorcising incendiarism. Indeed, Pew found that 63 per cent of people found that online environments allowed them more anonymity than offline.

A strange correlation can be found between social-media ugliness and climate change: both are global, both are juggernauts, both threaten socio-political and socio-economic stability, both have very limited windows for the reintroduction of humaneness as a common currency, and the effects of both are likely irreversible. It is also perplexing – or maybe not, and there exists an unseen connection –that both have broken upon the world at the same time, with an equal ferocity, and an equal will to bring the world as we know it to its knees forever.

There is, however, absolutely no causal connection between the two – except in the minds of climate-change deniers, warriors of changelessness, and anthropocentric triumphalists, nearly all of whom happen to be located on the Right. They are also, not surprisingly, at the vanguard of SNS coarseness and humankind’s behavioural stampede to the cliff.

(Kajal Basu is a veteran journalist. Can be reached @

India Matters


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