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Uncivil or Deliberative? News Comments in the 2016 Primaries & General Elections

Sat, September 2, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Hilton Union Square, Union Square 21


In the aftermath of one of the more ferocious U.S. elections in recent history, scholars, politicians, and citizens are scrutinizing political discourse in the United States. This is especially true of the online space, where “fake news” and social media blitzes have been blamed for distributing false information and, in the opinion of some, greatly altering the election results. Along these lines, scholars have recently increased their examination of online comments (e.g. Chen & Ng, 2016; Mandell & Chen, 2016; Chen, & Pain, 2016; Stroud, Muddiman, & Scacco, 2016).

This study will advance this existing scholarship by examining comments in news stories about the 2016 Super Tuesday primaries and the general election for attributes of both incivility -- insulting, profane, or hateful language -- and deliberation -- public talk that aims for rational discussion across disagreement (Gastil, 2008; Gutmann & Thompson, 1996; Stroud, Scacco, Muddiman, & Curry, 2015; Jacobs, Cook, & Delli Carpini, 2009). The political news ecosystem is receiving unprecedented examination in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and user-generated commentary is a critical part of this discussion. Drawing on the theory of deliberative democracy (Gutmann & Thompson, 1996; Jacobs et al., 2009), we will examine to what extent the computer-mediated public discourse on comment streams fosters the robust political debate needed for a healthy democracy. Ultimately, our goal is to understand whether these online interactions challenge the legitimacy of candidates, fellow citizens, and even the election process.

Our study will offer an extensive analysis of online comments from news stories on the results of the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1, 2016, and the general election on November 1, 2016. We have gathered more than 2,400 online comments from three major and ideologically diverse online news sources: The New York Times, USA Today, and Fox News (Mitchell, Gottfried, Kiley, & Matsa, 2014). Using a quantitative approach, we will code each comment, gauging incivility, deliberation, calls to action, political strategy, candidate policies, and other themes of the 2016 election season. We will compare comments from the primaries to those from the general election, as well as compare comments across news organizations.

Theoretically, our study examines whether incivility and deliberation can co-exist in digital discussions of two snapshot moments during the 2016 election campaign. This is an open question. Some prior research has found comments offer potential for deliberation (e.g. Manosevitch & Tenenboim, 2016), yet other studies show that incivility lowers expectations about public deliberation (Hwang, Kim & Huh, 2014). Our study will offer insight for political communicators, be it news organizations, political action groups, or campaign managers. Each of these groups share a desire to interact with the electorate, but what can they expect in these online spaces? Is this discourse productive? How does the level of incivility and deliberation shift over time? These findings may influence future strategic decisions by those most interested in effectively utilizing the ever-changing, sometimes volatile online space of political discourse.


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