Do you ever find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your social media feed whenever you have a few extra minutes? The temptation is understandable for there are infinite cat videos and humorous clips to post and share. But occasionally, we will receive a rude response to one of our posts, and we must decide either to coolly ignore it or jump in with a heated rebuttal. According to the researchers in this study, toxic comments like the one in our imaginary post, defined as “rude, disrespectful or unreasonable conduct”, is a pretty universal online experience. With the growing presence of social media in our lives, many of our interactions have moved to an online space where such toxic behavior not only exists but also thrives.

Using Google’s Perspective API, an extensively used toxicity classifier that interprets the tone of a comment through length, word choice, and grammar, researchers have uncovered certain patterns in online toxicity. To do this, they analyzed comments posted on modern platforms like Youtube, Twitter/X, and Facebook as well as an older forum called Usenet, which predated the World Wide Web. They then determined that online toxic behavior was consistently present regardless of the platform used. They also discovered that longer conversations tended to be more toxic than shorter ones, but that toxicity levels did not significantly increase over the course of a conversation. Researchers explained this could be because controversial topics often have longer conversations. These particular conversations may have also been toxic from the start, which could explain why toxicity levels did not significantly change over the course of the interaction.

The working hypothesis in the field is that a conversation will end once a certain toxicity threshold is reached. However, the findings in this paper suggest this may not necessarily be true as researchers found that toxicity does not necessarily lead to people disengaging from an online conversation. The results here provide an analysis of online human behavior over the course of many years and across different platforms, which may be helpful for future moderation of online communities and the eventual reduction of online toxicity.

This study was led by researchers at the Department of Computer Science at the Sapienza University of Rome with the help of corresponding authors Matteo Cinelli and Walter Quattrociocchi.

Managing Correspondent: Jenny Kim

Press Article: While social media changes over decades, conversation dynamics stay the same, new study suggests (ScienceDaily)

Original Journal Article: Persistent interaction patterns across social media platforms and over time (Nature)

Image Credit: Pexels/Tracy Le Blanc

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