The psychology behind bad online arguments

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Participation Monday, March 23, 2020 View Count = 607

The psychology behind bad online arguments

Social media may be the most influential public space in our society. It’s where citizens speak directly to leaders and to each other. In a country as huge as Canada, social media facilitates direct conversations that otherwise would not be possible.

In theory, that is an amazing thing for our democracy. But in practice, something has gone wrong. We behave differently on social media. Political conversations on social media are often angrier and less civil than what we witness offline. Harassment and extremism thrive on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. Last year, the prime minister described it as “the wild west.”

Why do we act differently on social media? Why are our arguments so heated?

We're not built for political arguments

Decades of research finds that even in the best of circumstances, we’re bad at disagreeing about politics. We’re hardwired this way.

There are at least four human obstacles to good political conversations.

1.       Identity

We treat political ideas and allegiances as who we are, rather than what we think.

Groups are essential to our identity. If a group we’re part of is based around ideas, like a political party (in theory) is, then information that challenges those ideas is a threat to our group, and therefore to us.

2.       Confirmation bias

We only like information that matches or supports what we already believe, and we find reasons to reject information that doesn’t. In fact, experiments have found that people will actually give up the chance to earn money in order to avoid reading political arguments they disagree with.

3.       Solution aversion

We reject information if we don’t like its implications. We refuse to even acknowledge a problem exists if we think that acknowledging it will lead us to a political solution we won’t like, in what is called “solution aversion.”

4.       Anxiety and fear

Just the mention of a divisive topic makes us feel threatened. Brain imaging suggests that the parts of our brain associated with our identities and perceptions of threat start firing when we’re confronted with arguments that go against our political beliefs.

Want to counter these obstacles? Try getting into the weeds (and move from your gut to your brain).

Get into the weeds 

Social media puts us on our worst behaviour


For all the psychological reasons outlined above, it’s hard to disagree civilly and constructively in person. Social media makes it that much harder.

There are at least five social media obstacles to good political conversations.

1.       Emotional amplification

Platforms amplify and spread strong emotions like awe, anger, and anxiety because strong emotions draw attention, which is a scarce resource that platforms need to get advertising revenues.

2.       Anonymity

Hiding who we are can make us more likely to act in ways we wouldn’t if we felt personally accountable.

There is evidence that anonymous comment boards produce more incivility than comment boards that do not permit anonymity. Believing yourself to be anonymous has also been associated with more cyberbullying.

3.       Absent cues

By communicating through a screen, we lack the physical or verbal cues that help ground so many of our interactions, and we don’t have to face the human responses of the people we’re talking to (which is why it’s appealing to deliver bad news over email).

4.       Haste

Our exchanges are brief and our messages are poorly thought out. One study found that tweets directed at politicians became slightly more civil after Twitter increased the word limit on tweets. Also, people are “meaner on mobile”— we’re more uncivil when we use social media on our phones rather than at a computer.

5.       Online disinhibition

We treat our online and offline selves as different people. And even when we make our identities public, we aren’t accountable to the people we talk with on social media, who we might never meet in person. The result is that we say things on the Internet that we would never say in person.

Want to overcome these obstacles? Try practicing slow politics (and think before you click).

Practice slow politics

Illustrations by Joren Cull


For more insights and tips on how to have healthier and more constructive discussions, check out The Samara Centre’s Field Guide to Online Political Conversations, brought to life in colourfully illustrated infographics as well as an in-depth research report

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