Those who study social media for trends in political discourse need to look further than sites dedicated to politics, as many meaningful—and sometimes less contentious—conversations are going on in everyday online communities, according to new research from the University of Michigan School of Information.
Nearly 50% of political discussions on Reddit take place in subreddit communities whose main topic is not politics. And it is not a few very large nonpolitical communities holding discussions but a “long tail of small communities” that each hold some political content, the researchers say. While the toxicity levels increase when discussing politics in nonpolitical subreddits, the level is much lower than in political subreddits.
“Political talk in nonpolitical spaces is less toxic for both co-partisan and cross-partisan conversations. The latter has been a particular point of concern—cross-partisan animosity is a significant challenge in political communication in the U.S. (both online and offline),” said lead author Ashwin Rajadesingan, doctoral student at the U-M School of Information. “Our study suggests that there are things we can learn from these nonpolitical spaces to improve this discourse.”
Rajadesingan uses as an example a discussion on r/malefashionadvice, a community on men’s fashion. Members on this subreddit don’t normally talk politics every day, he said, but a thread on Bernie’s mittens evolved into discussion about differences in capitalist and socialist systems.
“I always knew that there was some political talk in many of the relatively nonpolitical communities. I frequent a few sports communities on Reddit and I’d typically see some discussions about the Black Lives Matter protests or voter disenfranchisement, but I was very surprised about the sheer cumulative volume of these discussions in such spaces,” Rajadesingan said. “In any one nonpolitical community, there might only be a few such political conversations, but it turns out, over tens of thousands of such communities, these occasional conversations add up to a lot of discussion.”
Using PushShift—a social media dataset of subreddits that has collected, analyzed and archived for researchers to use since 2015—the team analyzed 2.8 billion comments in nearly 31,000 subreddits from 2016 to 2019.
To estimate the prevalence of political discussion in these comments, they built a simple classifier that identifies whether a comment is likely to be political, based on how similar it is to comments found in known political subreddits. However, since not all comments in political subreddits are political, they calibrated the classifier using human judgments to accurately estimate the true prevalence of political comments in each subreddit.
Altogether they estimate that about 13% of all comments on Reddit are political. Nearly half of these political comments are estimated to be posted in subreddits that are not explicitly political.
Using a tool called the Perspective toxicity classifier, the researchers determined when a post was a “rude, disrespectful, unreasonable comment that is likely to make people leave a discussion,” one definition of toxicity used in the research community. The team found that cross-partisan replies were significantly less toxic in nonpolitical subreddits than in political communities (more than 24% vs. 30%).
“One plausible explanation is that people have established that they have a shared nonpolitical interest, which tempers political disagreements. Another possibility is just that the norm of being a little nicer gets established in the nonpolitical conversations and just carries over,” said co-author Paul Resnick, the Michael D. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Information.
The researchers note that while lower in the nonpolitical communities, the level of toxicity is still higher compared to nonpolitical talk in nonpolitical communities.
“So, talking about politics in nonpolitical spaces comes at a cost and one should not take our results as ‘simply move political talk to nonpolitical spaces,’” said Ceren Budak, assistant professor of information. “That could have negative consequences for the overall health of those nonpolitical communities.”
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