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To Tweet or Not to Tweet: The Influence of Negative Rhetoric

SPA Researchers Examine Incivility in Congressional Tweets.

Although many are quick to criticize the lack of civility in modern American politics, new research asks whether and how members of Congress successfully leverage negative political rhetoric, specifically tweets, to engage the public.

SPA Assistant Professor Andrew Ballard coauthored an article on the topic, “Incivility in Congressional Tweets” with Spencer Dorsey (Duke University) and three SPA doctoral students, Ryan DeTamble, Michael Heseltine, and Marcus Johnson, that recently appeared in American Politics Research.

Of nearly 5 million tweets from members of Congress from 2009-2020, about 3% were determined to be uncivil. Using these tweets, the researchers analyzed trends in how lawmakers in both parties, over time, crafted messages on the social media platform.

The results showed that those more likely to use incivility in their tweets were more ideologically extreme, in safer electoral situations, and in a position of political opposition. While the language may be offensive to some, the hyped tweets did generate more attention from the public.

“There's a thought that civility is necessary for healthy deliberative democracy and people need to be civil to one another in order for democracy to work,” said Ballard, who began to assemble a database of Congressional tweets in 2017. “I'm not actually sure I agree--particularly because civility is often weaponized in order to shut out marginalized voices who have reason to be angry about things.”

On this premise, that civility may not always matter, the researchers looked to quantify the role it played: their findings suggested it was a tool, like any other, that could be used strategically by politicians. While uncivil rhetoric increased with Donald Trump’s announcement for the presidency, Democratic lawmakers responded in kind, escalating their Twitter use in 2017 and posting more uncivil tweets than Republicans during his term.

The benefits of the practice gave members an incentive to continue with their inflammatory language, the researchers note. However, it’s uncertain whether the incivility will persist past Trump’s presidency and just how much the discourse among politicians has spilled over into the electorate.

Ballard said he hopes the insights from the article will help people become smarter consumers, and to disentangle the emotional part of political messaging from the actual policy positions, and also highlighted the methodological contributions of the piece.

For this project, students hand-coded a sample of 2,500 messages for the presence of political incivility rhetoric--a subjective endeavor. The team also applied recent advances in machine learning to build a model that could classify the remaining millions of tweets. The approach proved to be very accurate, and the type of transformer model employed, Ballard said, is an “important new frontier for social science research.”

In a related article published earlier this year in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Ballard and the same researcher found that more ideologically extreme members, members in safer elections, and those who are not in the president’s party are more likely to use polarizing rhetoric in their tweets, and that polarizing tweets both garner more engagement--amplifying members’ messages--and lead to increased campaign funding.