It is often observed that the current political climate has descended into a mudslinging match. Rather than reasoned debate and logical arguments, much of the internet has simply become a place to throw out insults and berate the other side. Well, unfortunately, this seems to be genuinely what has happened over the past decade.
A new study has found that from 2007 to 2017, political discourse has become noticeably less sophisticated and more offensive. By trawling through over 3.5 billion comments made by 25.3 million users on Reddit, researchers found that discussions about politics were 35 percent more likely to use insults than those on other topics, and that the debates have dropped from being on the level of a 12-year-old to that of a 6-year-old, on average.
This period covers both of Obama’s terms, and the first 100 days of Trump’s. Rather unsurprisingly perhaps, the researchers noted that there was a “Trump effect”. While they cannot show causation, they found that political discussion was most offensive between May 2016 and May 2017, and suggest that if politicians are saying terrible things, it gives carte blanche for members of the public to follow suit.
There are a couple of reasons that might lie behind this shift in political discourse and the lowering of its overall standard. One is that people usually confined to fringe groups for holding what many would consider to be extremist views have suddenly felt emboldened. Ideas and opinions that would once have been shunned and pushed back into the shadows are now out in the open.
Then there is the rise of automated bots. The authors are pretty sure that the use of bots, which masquerade as legitimate users and post comments automatically, has grown dramatically in recent times, and continues to do so. There is ballooning evidence that bots were used predominantly on Twitter and Facebook to steer and influence the conversation on Brexit and the most recent US presidential election. The researchers are now looking at the impact these bots may be having on Reddit to see if they are indeed lowering the quality of debate.
While the emergence of fringe groups into wider society is more difficult to tackle, the use of bots should be a bit more straightforward. As the authors note, we do a pretty good job at filtering out spam emails, so they are now trying to develop new algorithms to spot bots. They suggest that rather than waiting for other users to flag bots up, algorithms should be used to ban them immediately.
When it comes to the offensive language and dehumanization of the other side, another recent study found a much simpler way to diffuse arguments: meet people face-to-face.
[H/T: New Scientist]