The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When it comes to politics, people are angry online as never before

If it feels as if everyone you know on Facebook is angry about politics these days, you’re not alone.

A new Pew Research Center study of how members of Congress — and their constituents — are using the social network in the Trump era finds that people are smashing the “angry” button in reaction to congressional Facebook posts way more than they did in 2016. The angry option has skyrocketed in popularity and now surpasses all other emotional reactions to congressional posts.

By contrast, the most popular emotion in 2016 was “love.”

Pew finds that the shift is driven, at least in part, by what lawmakers are choosing to post to the social network. Among Democratic lawmakers, for instance, posts expressing opposition to President Trump, Republicans or conservatives skyrocketed after the 2016 election. The Pew study found that “30% of the average Democrat’s posts in 2017 contained some form of opposition toward Trump, Republicans or both."

And, as it turns out, oppositional statements turn out to be big attention-grabbers on Facebook. “On average, posts opposing Trump received 53% more likes, posts opposing Obama received 54% more and posts opposing Clinton received 93% more likes” relative to posts not expressing opposition, according to the study. Oppositional posts from members of both parties also received a lot more comments than posts that didn’t express opposition.

Followers of congressional Facebook accounts responded to the negativity in kind. Angry reactions to Democratic lawmakers' posts rose from 1 percent of all reactions before the election to 5 percent of all reactions afterward. Republicans saw a similar jump, from 2 percent before the election to 6 percent afterward.

Anger continued to rise throughout 2017, “comprising 9% of all reactions to the average Democrat’s posts in December 2017, and 13% of the average Republican’s,” the study found.

There’s a bit of ambiguity surrounding the emotional reaction buttons on Facebook: If a lawmaker criticizes an opponent and somebody hits the angry button in response, are they angry at the lawmaker’s opponent or angry at the lawmaker’s criticism of that opponent? So these results can’t always tell us what’s really driving the angry clicks.

However, they provide strong evidence that online partisan animosity has increased considerably since the 2016 election. Oppositional posts from members of Congress generated more reactions, comments and shares than posts that didn’t take sides. And in an illustration of how people take cues from their elected officials, when lawmakers expressed opposition to perceived opponents, users responded with anger of their own.