Research Spotlight: Online Communication Isn’t Always Uncivil

Deana Rohlinger, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology, Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement, and Research Director of the Institute of Politics at Florida State University. In this piece Dr. Rohlinger discusses her recently published article, “From ‘Please sir, stay out of it’ to ‘You are an abomination’: (in)civility and emotional expression in emails sent to politicians.”

Headshot of Deana Rohlinger, Ph.D. in a black blazer and smiling at the camera.
Deana Rohlinger, Ph.D.

There is a lot of social science research showing that people tend to be mean in their digital communication. Politicians are often the targets of nastiness online. Political missteps go viral and are repurposed as unflattering memes that breathe new life into incidents politicians would rather forget. Additionally, constituents take to social media to criticize the positions and decisions of their representatives, tagging politicians to ensure that insults appear on their accounts. My co-author and FSU alum, Christian Vaccaro, and I wondered, however, if this pattern of meanness would hold true in more personal, digital communication such as email.

To explore how individuals communicate with politicians about issues directly, we analyzed a sample of 2,509 emails sent to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush regarding his efforts to reinsert the hydration and nutrition tubes of Terr Schiavo in the early 2000s.  Here, we focused specifically on how individuals paired (in)civility and emotional expression in their emails – since these two concepts are often conflated in research. Here are two findings that we reported in our paper, which was published in Information, Communication & Society.

Incivility is Rare in Emails, but Emotion is Common

We found that individuals rarely engaged in incivility in emails (see the table below), even when they disagreed with Bush’s intervention efforts. 35.5% of the 2,509 emails expressed opposition to Bush’s intervention and did so politely. Individuals criticized Bush for “overstepping his bounds” and requested, “Please sir, stay out of it.”

Table 1. Frequency of Incivility in Emails

Table of information regarding the Frequency of Incivility in Emails which shows the frequency in percentages of incivility directed at Bush or others

In contrast, 73% of the emails contained an emotional expression – and individuals generally expressed a negative emotion, such as anger, first. In fact, the frequency of negative emotions is almost four times greater than the frequency of positive emotions. You can see the most mentioned negative and positive emotions in the table below.

Table 2. Most Mentioned Emotional Expressions

Table of information regarding the Most Mentioned Emotional Expressions which shows the frequency in percentages of emotional expression in emails

Negative Emotional Expression Isn’t Always Directed at Bush

In order to better understand how individuals used incivility and emotional expression together, we qualitatively analyzed the 383 emails containing incivility. We found that only 32% of the emails containing incivility were directed at former Governor Jeb Bush and the bulk of these (114 of the 122) expressed anger, and other negative emotions, at his intervention on the Schiavo case.

However, most uncivil emails directed ire at Michael Schiavo (Terri’s husband) and Judge Greer (the Florida circuit judge who presided over the Schiavo case). Individuals accused Michael Schiavo of being a “heartless sleezeball” who was “motivated by greed” and wanted Terri out of his way. Most of emails offered Bush legal, ethical and/or religious rationales for taking action against Schiavo and frequently suggested that Bush change the law to prevent future incidents.

Interestingly, the uncivil emails that directed ire at Judge Greer contained negative emotional expression and conspiracy theories. Individuals called Greer a “corrupt” man, arguing that he was involved in “shady dealings” that warranted investigation. Some emailers suggested that there was a conspiracy to kill Terri, informing Bush that there “seems to be a dirty thread linking quite a few people together with this judge.” Others suggested that a lawyer who investigated Terri’s initial collapse was a heavy contributor to Greer’s election campaign.

What Does It Mean?

There are a few key takeaways from this research. First, there may be important differences in the expressions of incivility and emotion between social media platforms and emails. Unlike Twitter, individuals typically engage in civil communication with politicians and recognize the authority in the positions they hold. Second, the target of incivility and negative emotional expression may not be the recipient of the email. While this may seem obvious, a growing criticism of analyses relying on “big data” is that scholars lose the context of, in this case, claims-making. Knowing the rate and type of incivility is helpful but understanding how individuals make arguments helps social scientists identify patterns that may be applicable in other cases. Finally, email is an underutilized source of data in social science research. Unlike most social media platforms, individuals are not rewarded for their meanness with likes and shares. In a highly partisan political environment, social scientists can learn a great deal about how individuals understand politicians, their actions and the political system via email.