Why People Fight Online


Research Releases in Culture & Media • May 18, 2017

Internet comment sections have become known for their bias and bitterness, particularly in a digital era driven by political division and “fake news” accusations. At times, “trolling” can veer into cyber bullying and other dangerous tactics like doxxing (publishing private or identifying information about an individual). As moderators struggle to keep up, some publications have chosen to entirely remove the option to comment, and YouTube has even launched a program to help young people become kinder “internet citizens.”

Thankfully, not too many Americans reside in these dark corners of the digital world—or, at least, do not admit to it. When a new Barna survey asked U.S. adults if they ever get in arguments on social media, more than half (55%) say never. A quarter (24%) say it’s a rare occurrence, while one in five argue online at least sometimes (21%).

Millennials, given their device dependencies and bent toward online activism, seem a likely candidate for digital skirmishes, and are indeed more likely than other generations to butt heads (33% “sometimes” + “often”). Still, two-thirds of them (67%) say they rarely, if ever, take their disagreements to social media. One in four Gen-Xers (25%) and one in 10 Boomers (11%) say they argue at least sometimes. A majority of Elders (80%), who perhaps don’t spend much time online anyway, avoid altercations entirely.

Along party lines, Republicans (8%) and Democrats (5%) are more likely to report frequent disagreements than Independents (.4%), perhaps because the latter doesn’t have a dog in as many political fights.

While “Get a job!” might be a popular retort for those bickering online, it seems most arguments involve the people who already have one; three out of 10 (30%) full-time workers report arguing online at least sometimes, far more than the retired (12%) or unemployed (10%). Interestingly, parents with young children at home are five times as likely as those with no children under 18 to admit often clashing with a cyber friend (11% compared to 2%). Perhaps a result of the so-called “Mommy wars” and the ubiquity of online parenting advice and opinion.

30% of full-time workers argue online at least sometimes, far more than the retired or unemployed. Click To Tweet

White adults generally are engaged in more social media squabbles; they are 10 percentage points more likely than all non-white adults to report getting into social media arguments sometimes or often (25% vs. 15%).

Sixteen percent of practicing Catholics say they frequently argue on social media—the highest percentage of any faith segment. Practicing Protestants, on the other hand, are pretty conflict-averse, with six in 10 saying they never have this experience (compared to 41% of practicing Catholics). Evangelicals often seem to be caught in the crosshairs of internet controversy, with recent debates covering everything from the Benedict Option to the rules of the blogosphere. Still, they claim to mostly bite their tongue; seven in 10 evangelicals (70%) say they never argue on social media.

Seven in 10 evangelicals (70%) say they never argue on social media. Click To Tweet

Reasons for Social Media Arguments
What’s the most common reason for social media spats? “They started it!” Among those who argue at least rarely, more than one-quarter (26%) credit an argument to a stranger who didn’t like what they posted, while one in five (22%) say someone they know challenged them. From there, percentages are fairly split among those who defended someone else who was embroiled (19%) or took issue with something a peer or stranger shared (17% each).

Curious power dynamics seem to motivate confrontation. For example, college graduates (25%), conservatives (23%), those of no faith (23%) and men (22%) demonstrate a willingness to pick fights with people they don’t know. Meanwhile, black adults (32%), notional Christians (24%), those with a high school education or less (24%) and women (23%) are prone to go to battle in defense of others.

Practicing Christians (33%)—particularly Protestants (43%) and non-mainliners (41%)—, those with only a high school degree (34%) and white adults (29%) are groups likely to say strangers come to them with disagreements about something they posted. If the unchurched (23%), those without children under 18 (22%), liberals (22%) or Catholics (19%) are arguing on social media, there’s a good chance they’re confronting someone they personally know. Meanwhile, adherents of faiths other than Christianity seem to attract strife from a few angles; they are more likely to say they have been provoked by a stranger (37%) or sparked arguments by disagreeing with someone they know (29%).

What the Research Means
“Our most fraught conversations seem to have moved from the dinner table to the screen,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “However there are very few rules of etiquette in place for the internet yet. Where once family members could put a stop to an argument with a cry of ‘no religion or politics at the table!’ the digital world does everything to encourage such debates. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to be an anonymous jerk to a stranger than it is to yell at your mom.

“Yet, there is a real person on the other end of that comment and online bullying has proven to be a truly destructive force,” says Stone. “The number of teen suicides attributed to it is but one extreme and horrifying example of its potency. Our level of civility and straight-up kindness should not be dependent on whether we are physically with a person or whether we know them. It’s easy to disembody the messages we read online and imagine our own posts are simply going out into an indifferent void. But real people are really hurt by the things said about and against them online.

“It seems important today that we expand our idea of ‘neighbor’ to the digital space as well,” continues Stone. “Treating our digital neighbors as ourselves—even loving our digital enemies—would go a long way in making the internet a better place. Perhaps a simple guideline for all of us might be: If you wouldn’t say it ‘in real life,’ then don’t say it online. There’s no such thing as someone who is super nice in the physical world and then a bully online. The world is no longer so bifurcated. Your online actions are as revealing as your real life ones.”

It's important that we expand our idea of ‘neighbor’ to the digital space as well.—Roxanne Stone Click To Tweet

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About the Research
The research was conducted with a total of 1,021 adults who participated in web-based surveys among a representative sample of U.S. adults ages 18 and older in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted February 8 to February 14, 2017. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier

Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian

Evangelicals: meet nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

About Barna
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2017


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