To Comment or not to Comment in China: Exploring the Influence of Online Incivility and Argument Quality on Public Expression


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Guohua Wang (External person) (External Supervisor)
  • Haichun CHEN (External person) (External Supervisor)
  • Fei SHEN (Supervisor)
Award date11 Jul 2022


Due to the anonymous online environment, uncivil and low-quality comments are prevalent in news comment section, which runs counter to two core elements of public deliberation. Based upon the elaboration likelihood model, both online incivility and argument quality can serve as cues for influencing people’s information processing and behavioral responses. Numerous studies to date have investigated the impact of online incivility on public expression, but the evidence is mixed. Given that incivility and high-quality argument are not mutually exclusive, I wonder what role does argument quality play in the relationship between online incivility and public expression. Furthermore, few studies regarding online incivility have been conducted in authoritarian societies with highly regulated online environments, such as China. Considering the unique political culture and regulated online environment in China, online incivility can be divided into two types: explicit incivility (in which comments contain explicit uncivil words), and implicit incivility (comments convey a disrespectful tone without using explicit uncivil words). Against this background, this study raises two questions: (1) what is the impact of online incivility and argument quality on public expression in China? (2) Do implicit incivility and explicit incivility have different potential impacts?

I conducted two studies to answer these questions. First, a 4-week sample of 7,800 comments was obtained from NetEase News, one of China’s most representative news websites. I used this study to explore the impact of different forms of incivility in terms of its target and type on public expression, as well as how the presence of reason, the basic level of argument quality, influences this impact. On this basis, in the second study, I aimed to explore how the argument strength (which indicates a higher level of argument quality) of an uncivil comment affects public expression during discussion of a controversial issue. After several pilot studies, I conducted a 2 (comment tone: civil vs. incivility) × 2 (argument strength: strong argument vs. weak argument) × 2 (like-minded vs. opposed argument) × 2 (platform: Weibo vs. news website) online experiment. I then applied two online experiments with a 3 (comment tone: civil vs. implicit incivility vs. explicit incivility) × 2 (argument strength: strong argument vs. weak argument) × 2 (like-minded vs. opposed argument) between-subjects factorial design to two different controversial topics in China.

Based upon these two studies, I found that: (1) Uncivil comment is common in China, and the proportion of explicit incivility is higher than that of implicit incivility. Given few online comments demonstrate reasoning, comment sections in China had little potential to facilitate public deliberation. (2) Compared with civil comments, personal incivility increased expression, whereas impersonal explicit incivility decreased expression. The positive impact of online incivility on expression only exists among less-educated people, whereas for well-educated people, incivility decreased their willingness to express their ideas. (3) In civil condition, high-quality argument is better than low-quality argument in promoting public expression. But in uncivil conditions, heuristic cues play a more important role in influencing public expression. Even presented with strong argument, online incivility decreased people’s willingness to express their ideas. Whereas weak argument increased less-educated people’s willingness to express their ideas. But the pattern was contingent upon the news topic discussed. (4) Impacts of explicit incivility and implicit incivility did not differ significantly.

This study not only makes some contributions to existing scholarship on incivility, but also provides practical implications for online incivility governance. First, the findings provide some explanations for the mixed evidence regarding the impact of online incivility on expression. Argument quality, as well as people’s socioeconomic status, all play significant moderating roles. Second, the positive relationship between online incivility and public expression suggests that government should be more tolerant of online incivility in China. Third, through knowing the pattern of online incivility, this study lends support for managing online commenting system. Besides, both implicit incivility and explicit incivility deserve attention. Fourth, most extant studies of the impact of online incivility were conducted in Western democracies. This study extends our understanding of online incivility in an authoritarian society, mainland China.

    Research areas

  • online incivility, argument quality, public expression, China