Why Keep Arguing? Predicting Engagement in Political Conversations Online

Sarah Shugars and Nicholas Beauchamp


Individuals acquire increasingly more of their political information from social media, and ever more of that online time is spent in interpersonal, peer-to-peer communication and conversation. Yet, many of these conversations can be either acrimoniously unpleasant or pleasantly uninformative. Why do we seek out and engage in these interactions? Who do people choose to argue with, and what brings them back to repeated exchanges? In short, why do people bother arguing online? We develop a model of argument engagement using a new dataset of Twitter conversations about President Trump. The model incorporates numerous user, tweet, and thread-level features to predict user participation in conversations with over 98% accuracy. We find that users are likely to argue over wide ideological divides, and are increasingly likely to engage with those who are different from themselves. In addition, we find that the emotional content of a tweet has important implications for user engagement, with negative and unpleasant tweets more likely to spark sustained participation. Although often negative, these extended discussions can bridge political differences and reduce information bubbles. This suggests a public appetite for engaging in prolonged political discussions that are more than just partisan potshots or trolling, and our results suggest a variety of strategies for extending and enriching these interactions.

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