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A Wall of Incivility? Public Discourse and Immigration in the 2016 US Primaries

Thu, August 29, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Gunston East


Research on digital campaigns has primarily focused on how campaigns use social media for strategic communication (Stromer-Galley, 2014). Less attention has been given to the extent to which candidates become subject of public scrutiny and discussion in these platforms. Citizens can use comments on social media to express their views about the campaign, the candidate, or the issues, which may affect the public perception of a campaign. Social media are important venues for public discussion in the digital age, and discussion about pressing issues is essential to a healthy democracy and is an important activity for citizens to learn about others' views, express their own opinions, and ultimately become more knowledgeable about topics of collective concern (Eveland, Morey, & Hutchens, 2011). As these discussions are increasingly taking place online, scholars have been concerned that the presence of uncivil discourse may undermine the democratic value of political talk (Coe, Kenski, & Rains, 2014). While some researchers have argued uncivil discourse may increase political polarization, others contend heated online discussions are responsible for a revived public sphere, promoting democratic emancipation through disagreement (Papacharissi, 2004; Rossini, 2019).

In this context, we investigate incivility in public comments during the 2016 Presidential Election. Specifically, this study examines incivility around immigration, a particularly divisive topic in the 2016 campaign. Trump’s rhetoric when addressing immigration (“Build that wall”) and Cruz’s voter base in the border state of Texas made them the most prominent Republican candidates addressing this topic while leading Democrats Clinton and Sanders presented a positive message on the immigration issue. We focus on public comments on messages posted on Facebook by Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as well as Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, during the primaries (Jan 1 - June, 14, 2016). While most studies on online campaign strategies in the United States have focused on the general election period, the primary period offers an interesting opportunity to compare trends and behaviors within parties, focusing on candidates competing for the party nomination, and between parties.

We analyze 1,899,432 comments, posted on 524 campaign messages about immigration posted on the Facebook pages of the candidates and use automated classification models previously trained and validated to categorize candidates' posts and public comments. We hypothesize that negative posts (attacks) by the candidates about immigration drive more uncivil comments on those posts, while posts of advocacy/support drive less incivility by the public. Additionally, we ask a set of exploratory questions focused on differences between the volume of posts about immigration and the volume of uncivil comments by candidate and party.

Results suggest that there are significant differences in both the volume of posts about immigration by the candidates, with Republican candidates being more likely to talk about the issue on social media, as well as in the number of uncivil comments received by candidates, with Clinton proportionally receiving a much higher volume of incivility than her opponents. Contrary to what we hypothesized, there is a negative relationship between attack posts by the candidates and uncivil comments by the public. Finally, when candidates post advocacy messages about immigration, the public is significantly less likely to be uncivil. When party is taken into account, the model suggests that Republican candidates are significantly less likely to receive uncivil comments in their posts about immigration than Democrats.


Coe, K., Kenski, K., & Rains, S. A. (2014). Online and Uncivil? Patterns and Determinants of Incivility in Newspaper Website Comments. Journal of Communication, 64(4), 658–679.

Eveland, W. P., Morey, A. C., & Hutchens, M. J. (2011). Beyond Deliberation: New Directions for the Study of Informal Political Conversation from a Communication Perspective. Journal of Communication, 61(6), 1082–1103.

Papacharissi, Z. (2004). Democracy online: civility, politeness, and the democratic potential of online political discussion groups. New Media & Society, 6(2), 259–283.

Rossini, P. (2019). Disentangling Uncivil and Intolerant Discourse. In R. Boatright, T. Shaffer, S. Sobieraj, & D. G. Young, A Crisis of Civility? Contemporary Research on Civility, Incivility, and Political Discourse. New York: Routledge.

Stromer-Galley, J. (2014). Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age. Oxford University Press.