Engaging with the news : incivility, disagreement, and deliberation in Chilean news comments

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Although it is not a novel issue, uncivil attitudes and expressions have been at the center of communication research. Most specifically, the amount and extension of online incivility has been pointed as being detrimental to democratic values such as engaging in disagreement and deliberation without insulting others. Unfortunately, the idea that online spaces for citizens to discuss about pubic issues, such as news comments, have not delivered promising results, and incivility is pointed as one of the main handicaps. This dissertation studies three key variables related to online discussion: incivility, disagreement, and deliberation. Previous research has focused on relating either incivility with deliberation, or incivility with disagreement. However, disagreement and deliberation are closely related; with disagreement described as being either a consequence or an antecedent of deliberation. Therefore, I expect to have a more holistic understanding of how online discussion between strangers takes place when important social and political issues are at stake. To better respond to hypotheses and questions related to these three variables and how they affect online discussion, I divided this thesis into a two-step design with two different quantitave techniques: Study 1 sees a content analysis of news comments related to a Chilean presidential election in December 2017, while Study 2 brings an experiment embedded into a survey with a representative sample of Chilean population. While the first study focused on the frequency of each variable and how they relate to each other, the second analyzed two possible outcomes from the exposition of different levels of (in)civility and (dis)agreement: negative emotions and online participation. Results from the first study saw a whopping 41% of online incivility, when previous research conducted in the Global North usually average 30%. Moreover, disagreement was four times as common as deliberation, suggesting that at least in this sample disagreement is neither an antecedent nor a consequence of deliberation. Finally, uncivil disagreement is more common than civil disagreement, which reaffirms the notion that manifesting a disagreement would be the intended outcome, while the civility of the message is more related to the way in which the comment is presented. The experiment served the purpose of proving that uncivil disagreement comments produce negative emotions. In fact, both of the groups that were exposed to uncivil comments (with or without disagreement,) experienced an arousal of negative emotions such as anger and anxiety, in comparison to the groups that read either civil agreement or civil disagreement comments. One of positive outcomes that is usually mentioned in the literature when discussing incivility was also tested, so participants were expected to be more willing to participate in online actions such as putting a like/dislike in the comment, or posting another comment, after reading an uncivil post. However, this thesis was not supported as there was no association between the levels of incivility and willingness to further participate online. Among different explanations, a third variable like social trust could be mediating the relationship between the exposure to uncivil comments and willingness to online participation (e.g. users low in social trust putting less trust in others at the forum.) This dissertation matters in a context where democratic societies wonder if it is possible to have spaces for citizens to engage in public discussion without an important amount of incivility. Upon reading this thesis, I hope the reader would take a more comprehensive way of how political issues are being discussed online in a context accustomed to little-to-none moderation, and how these forums do not only involve the users who actively participate on them, but also can have detrimental effects on readers wanting to learn the opinion of their peers on issues that are important to them.
Tesis (Doctor in Communication Sciences)--Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2020