The social media discourse of engaged partisans is toxic even when politics are irrelevant

Michalis Mamakos*, Eli J. Finkel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Prevailing theories of partisan incivility on social media suggest that it derives from disagreement about political issues or from status competition between groups. This study-which analyzes the commenting behavior of Reddit users across diverse cultural contexts (subreddits)-tests the alternative hypothesis that such incivility derives in large part from a selection effect: Toxic people are especially likely to opt into discourse in partisan contexts. First, we examined commenting behavior across over 9,000 unique cultural contexts (subreddits) and confirmed that discourse is indeed more toxic in partisan (e.g. r/progressive, r/conservatives) than in nonpartisan contexts (e.g. r/movies, r/programming). Next, we analyzed hundreds of millions of comments from over 6.3 million users and found robust evidence that: (i) the discourse of people whose behavior is especially toxic in partisan contexts is also especially toxic in nonpartisan contexts (i.e. people are not politics-only toxicity specialists); and (ii) when considering only nonpartisan contexts, the discourse of people who also comment in partisan contexts is more toxic than the discourse of people who do not. These effects were not driven by socialization processes whereby people overgeneralized toxic behavioral norms they had learned in partisan contexts. In contrast to speculation about the need for partisans to engage beyond their echo chambers, toxicity in nonpartisan contexts was higher among people who also comment in both left-wing and right-wing contexts (bilaterally engaged users) than among people who also comment in only left-wing or right-wing contexts (unilaterally engaged users). The discussion considers implications for democratic functioning and theories of polarization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberpgad325
JournalPNAS Nexus
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2023


  • computational social science
  • echo chambers
  • incivility
  • political polarization
  • social media

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


Dive into the research topics of 'The social media discourse of engaged partisans is toxic even when politics are irrelevant'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this