Abstract: Right-wing populist user comments on social media are said to impair online deliberation. Right-wing populism’s anti-pluralist and conflict-centered message might hinder deliberative debates, which are characterized by reciprocity, arguments, sourcing, politeness, and civility. Although right-wing populism has been found to foster user interaction on social media, few empirical studies have examined its impact on the scope and deliberative quality of user debates. This study focuses on debates on 10 Facebook pages of Austrian and Slovenian mass media during the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015–2016. Proceeding in two steps, we first analyze how right-wing populist user comments affect the number of reply comments using a dataset of N = 281,115 Facebook comments and a validated, automated content analysis. In a second step, we use a manual, quantitative content analysis to investigate how right-wing populist comments affect the deliberative quality of N = 1,413 reply comments. We test five hypotheses in carefully modeled regression analyses. Our findings show that right-wing populist comments trigger replies but impair their deliberative quality. People-centric comments decrease the probability of arguments in replies, and anti-immigrant comments spark incivility. Countering populism further increases impoliteness. We discuss our findings against the backdrop of an increasingly uncivil online public sphere and populism’s ambivalent relationship with democracy.
Keywords: deliberation; immigration; incivility; online news; populist communication; political communication; reciprocity; social media; user comments