The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Actually, Facebook isn’t making people angrier. Some people are just jerks.

People share disinformation to hurt the other side, this research shows.

(Martin Meissner/AP)

The Wall Street Journal’s reports on Facebook’s leaked internal documents — and other recent media investigations and public testimony — have reignited public debate on how social media companies shape political arguments. The “Facebook Files” reveal that a major overhaul of Facebook’s recommendation algorithm in 2018 made the social media platform an “angrier place” by prioritizing controversial content.

These revelations have helped persuade many people that social media companies — and, more broadly, the Internet — turn otherwise peaceful people into trolls. On Monday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called for “bold legislative steps” to protect consumers from online hatred. Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) recently justified their social media bill by claiming that “social networks are designed to make the bad stuff spread.”

Most people — even at Facebook — think that the big problem with social media is that it makes people angrier than they might otherwise be, and more likely to believe false things. But our research suggests that online hostility isn’t a product of social media and algorithms. People who are angry when they talk about politics online are angry in offline political discussions, too. And when they share misinformation, it’s generally not because they are making a sincere mistake. It’s because they want to stick it to the people they hate, whether or not the actual complaint is true.

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If you’re a jerk online, you’re probably one offline

The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files show that Facebook researchers and outside commentators share the same worry. They fear that Facebook’s efforts to increase meaningful social interactions lead to the disproportionate promotion of “misinformation, toxicity, and violent content” in Facebook’s news feed. For example, there seems to be anecdotal evidence that some publishers and political parties could not help but dial up the controversy to make their stories go viral, despite their “worry about the long-term effects on democracy.” In an interview, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen noted, “It is easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions.”

Ordinary people think the same thing. In a recent article, we show that most people in the United States and Denmark agree that online discussions are much more hostile than offline discussions. The results of our study, however, suggest that it’s not the Internet that transforms otherwise nice people into angry trolls. People who are jerks online are jerks offline, too. We do find that the kind of people who are obsessed with politics are often frustrated, angry and offensive. But they tend to rant about politics in offline interactions as well.

Who are these people? We find that the biggest factor associated with political hostility — online and offline — is status-seeking. Some people crave higher social status and try to intimidate others into recognizing them. Aggressive status-seeking is rooted in offline frustrations, which have been increasing since the 1980s, boosted in part by the 2008 global financial crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic.

People share disinformation to hurt the other side

In another publication, we demonstrate that American Twitter users do not share online misinformation because they’re ignorant. People who share more stories from untrustworthy sources are as reflective as others, and they know more about politics and digital technology. Instead their defining characteristic is a passionate hatred for members of the other political party.

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That’s why they are also more likely to share news from trustworthy but ideologically biased sources. Contrary to the common narrative that people mistakenly share misinformation because they are somehow fooled by an online environment, our research suggests people likely do so to further their political interests. Highly polarized citizens are willing to share a dubious story, so long as it is politically useful.

The Internet turns private thoughts into a public problem

This analysis provides a different understanding of why so many people find the Internet to be a politically ugly place. Frustrated people are also hostile in offline discussions, but these discussions occur in private. The Internet’s reach allows us to share our thoughts with every one of our friends — along with a far wider range of strangers — with a single click, turning casual private discussions into public disputes.

The big difference between online and offline discussions is that we witness a lot more acts of hostility online, not so much against ourselves or our friends, but against strangers (see figure).

People witness far more hostility toward strangers online than offline

In other words, the Internet doesn’t stir up hostility. Instead it creates and facilitates what we call “connectivity” among groups with shared politics, and between trolls and their victims. It allows individuals who are predisposed to be hostile to accomplish their goals more effectively. As Facebook executives concluded among themselves, the more that controversial content is visible in the news feed, the less people enjoy it.

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If policymakers or platform companies want to resolve this problem, they could make it harder for groups of angry anti-democratic people, for example, to connect with others. But this might raise free speech issues. Better access to social media users’ data might help the public understand the problem — but the patchy results of the much-heralded Social Science One partnership between Harvard and Facebook (which received heavy criticism both from funders and academics) show how reluctant Facebook has been to provide detailed data in a timely way.

Ultimately, the most fundamental problem isn’t the medium or outlet through which people express their frustrations. It’s the frustrations themselves and where they come from. For politicians, then, an exclusive focus on social media may make it easier for them to duck their responsibility for the local and global challenges that are making people angrier in the first place.

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Michael Bang Petersen (@M_B_Petersen) is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. He is the principal investigator of the Research on Online Political Hostility (ROPH) project.

Alexander Bor (@boralexander1) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University and a member of the ROPH project.

Full Disclosure: The authors received a research award from Facebook’s Foundational Integrity Research in 2020. None of the money was used to fund the research presented here.