Tracking the viral spread of incivility on social networking sites : The case of cursing in online discussions of Hong Kong–Mainland China conflict

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-61
Journal / PublicationCommunication and the Public
Issue number1
Online published5 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018


Scholars are increasingly concerned with the polarizing nature of incivility which extends from the offline context to interactions on social networking sites. Although this is a common concern in the literature, few studies have empirically tested whether online swearing behaviors are purely individual acts of uttering strong emotion or contagious social practices that may heighten group polarization. Using the case of Hong Kong–Mainland China conflict, the current study taps into the discursive struggles in Sina Weibo discussion over contentious issues that provoke major conflicts between Hong Kong and Mainland China residents, with a focus on the use and diffusion of swear words. To explore the mechanism that underlies the virality of swearing on Sina Weibo, this study links the expressive and social functions of swearing to its linguistic contexts. Our findings show that emotion is not the single motivating factor. Personal pronouns—which the swearers used as positioning devices and identity markers—are the most important predictor. The effects of source cues particular to social networking site settings were also examined.

Research Area(s)

  • Emotion, incivility, social networking sites, swearing, viral, Weibo