Skip to main content

Departmental Colloquium: The psychology of online political hostility

Alexander Bor (CEU Democracy Institute)
Wednesday, September 20, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

The psychology of online political hostility

ABSTRACT: Why are people so rude and aggressive when they talk about politics on social media? According to the dominant narrative the internet tends to turn people into jerks; the core features of online discussion platforms (e.g. anonymous interactions, evil algorithms, endless distractions) hopelessly undermine people's capacity for civic conversation. In this talk, I challenge this narrative and propose a different explanation: online hostility is not a bug, but a feature. It is a strategy pursued by people who are willing to take large risks to gain social status. Drawing on original survey data from 30 countries (N = 15K), I show that status-seekers are equally predisposed to toxic behavior online and in face-to-face discussions in all countries studied. To demonstrate the surprisingly strong grip of predispositions on online hostility, I also rely on behavioral data from Danish public registries linked to online behavior on Twitter (N = 4K). These data demonstrate that more aggressive people (those with more criminal convictions, and with harsher childhood environments) are more hostile online. These findings call into question the effectiveness of simple, design-focused interventions in curbing online hostility, and may help explain the pervasiveness of online hostility around the world.