Roots of Incivility: How Personality, Media Use, and Online Experiences Shape Uncivil Participation

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

Roots of Incivility: How Personality, Media Use, and Online Experiences Shape Uncivil Participation


  • Lena Frischlich Institute for Communication, University of Münster, Germany / Department of Media and Communication, University of Munich, Germany
  • Tim Schatto-Eckrodt Institute for Communication, University of Münster, Germany
  • Svenja Boberg Institute for Communication, University of Münster, Germany
  • Florian Wintterlin Institute for Communication, University of Münster, Germany


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Abstract:  Online media offer unprecedented access to digital public spheres, largely enhancing users’ opportunities for participation and providing new means for strengthening democratic discourse. At the same time, the last decades have demonstrated that online discourses are often characterised by so-called ‘dark participation’ the spreading of lies and incivility. Using ‘problematic behaviour theory’ as framework and focusing on incivility as a specific form of dark participation, this article investigates the role of users’ personal characteristics, media use, and online experiences in relation to offensive and hateful online behaviour. Using a random-quota survey of the German population, we explored how dark personality traits, political attitudes and emotions, the frequency and spaces of online-media use, and users’ experiences with both civil and uncivil online discourses predicted participants own uncivil behaviour, such as posting, sharing, or liking uncivil content. We found that 46% of the participants who had witnessed incivility in the last three months also engaged in uncivil participation. A hierarchical logistic regression analysis showed that incivility was associated with manipulative personality traits as measured by the dark triad, right-wing populist voting intentions, and frequent social-media use. Experiences with both civil comments and hate speech predicted higher levels of uncivil participation. The strongest predictor was participants’ personal experiences with online victimisation. Overall, the results confirmed that dark participation in the sense of uncivil engagement results from the interplay of personality traits, an online environment that allows for deviant engagement, and, most importantly, participants’ experiences in said environment.

Keywords:  dark participation; dark triad; hate speech; incivility; offensive speech; personality; political anger; problematic behaviour theory; social media; victimisation

Published:   3 February 2021


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v9i1.3360


© Lena Frischlich, Tim Schatto-Eckrodt, Svenja Boberg, Florian Wintterlin. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.