Comments sections on social media have become sites of mass conflict between strangers of differing opinions. The Washington Post and National Political Report are two of many sites that have recently shut down comments sections due to high levels of offensive, hateful, and rude language. The present study explores the ways that conflict unfolds and escalates in social media comment threads. The primary source was a set of 300 reply chains (4,500 comments) from the Facebook pages of CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times. Twenty recent articles were randomly selected from each news page and the top five most-liked comments on each article were analyzed. Each comment was coded for the presence and frequency of ad hominem attacks, outgroup attacks, threats, accusations of bias, use of personal experience as evidence, and expression of disagreement vs. support. Quantitative and qualitative analyses found that the structural components of social media comments sections enable the instigation and escalation of conflict by increasing the frequency with which online users encounter factors that incite and amplify conflict. Attempts to reconcile or resolve conflict were significantly low – almost all conflicts ended with the abrupt exit of a minority opinion and the categorical dismissal of alternative viewpoints.
Comments, Conflict, Escalation, Social Media, Online, Communication, Facebook, Forum
Undergraduate Student, Communication, Stanford University, United States