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When Do Online Discussions Become Heated?

Online discussions get emotional when writers use confident language.

Key points

  • Cues in language can predict whether an online discussion will become heated and emotional.
  • In a recent study, we examined the relationship between writers’ confidence in online comments and the presence of emotions in replies.
  • Replies to confident comments were more emotional and angrier than replies to doubtful comments.
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Online discussions can quickly turn hostile
Source: 'bert-6926305/Pexels'

People use social media to actively engage with the news by sharing content and participating in online discussions. But online discussions can quickly become heated, and lead to harassment, cyberbullying, and other forms of toxic behavior. Are there cues that can predict when discussions will become heated and uncivil? Choice of topic is likely to have large effects, and comments about contentious political issues are probably more likely to provoke hostile behavior. Author characteristics also play a role, as women are (unfortunately) more likely than men to experience online harassment.

Aside from these factors, the way that authors communicate (the types of words that they use) also plays a role in whether online discussions become uncivil.

Confident Comments and Angry Replies

Using data from New York Times user comments, we conducted a study looking at the relationship between language in initial user comments and the use of emotional language in future replies (Evans et al., 2021).

We focused on the use of confident (vs. doubtful) language in initial comments. Prior research suggests that we judge others differently (and more harshly) when they are confident about their decisions and opinions. For example, someone who finds a cash-filled wallet and confidently decides to keep the money (instead of returning the money to the owner) is seen as worse than someone who is doubtful about the same decision (Critcher et al., 2012). Similarly, leaders who quickly decide to exclude others are seen as less trustworthy than leaders who slowly make the same decision. Based on these findings, we expected that writers who expressed their opinions confidently would provoke stronger emotional reactions than writers who were doubtful about their opinions.

We found that when commenters used more confident language (words like “always” and “definitely”) the replies were more likely to be emotional. Replies to confident comments were also much more likely to use words related to anger (words like “hate” and “rage”). On the other hand, when commenters used words related to doubt (words like “maybe” and “possibly”), replies were generally less emotional and less angry. In online discussions, people were more emotional (and angry) when responding to confident writers, and less emotional when responding to doubtful writers.

Recommending Comments

We also investigated whether users on the site were more likely to recommend comments with confident (vs. doubtful) language. User recommendations (or likes / upvotes) are important on discussion forums and social media platforms because they influence which posts will be displayed to future users. Content algorithms are often designed to present users with posts that they are likely to enjoy or engage with, and so they are more likely to prioritize posts that have already received positive recommendations from other users. This often leads to situations where a small percentage of popular comments receives a very large amount of attention (and most comments are ignored).

We found that comments with confident language received more user recommendations, and comments with doubtful language received fewer recommendations. Although confident comments are more likely to provoke angry responses, they are also more likely to be spread to other users through recommendations.

When writing an online comment, should you use confident language? It depends on what your goals are. Confident comments are more likely to be recommended and spread to wider audiences. But confidence also provokes emotional (and angry) responses.

If your goal is to encourage civil discussions and polite behavior, then you might consider the possibility of perhaps using doubtful language.

References

Critcher, C. R., Inbar, Y., & Pizarro, D. A. (2013). How quick decisions illuminate moral character. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 308-315.

Evans, A. M., Stavrova, O., Rosenbusch, H., & Brandt, M. J. (2021). Expressions of Doubt in Online News Discussions. Social Science Computer Review, 08944393211034163.

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