Is Aggression Contagious Online? Swearing in Response to Donald Trump’s YouTube Campaign Videos

Trump at CPAC 2011 / Gage Skidmore, CC BY-2.0

We are excited to announce a new publication that examines whether swearing is contagious on Youtube. This work is supported by the Social Media Lab Visiting Scholars program, and the result of a collaboration between Dr. K Hazel Kwon, a visiting scholar at the Lab in 2016 and Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd, Director of Research at the Lab. Below you will find a structured abstract of this new study! It builds on our earlier research on Emotion and Virality on Social Media.


K. Hazel Kwon, & Anatoliy Gruzd. (2017). Is Offensive Commenting Contagious Online? Examining Public vs. Interpersonal Swearing in Response to Donald Trump’s YouTube Campaign Videos. Internet Research. 

An earlier version of this project was presented at HICSS 2017 (open access).

Purpose: The current study explores the spillover effects of offensive commenting in
online community from the lens of emotional and behavioral contagion. Specifically, it
examines the contagion of swearing –a linguistic mannerism that conveys high arousal
emotion –based upon two mechanisms of contagion: mimicry and social interaction

Methodology: The study performs a series of mixed-effect logistic
regressions to investigate the contagious potential of offensive comments collected from
YouTube in response to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign videos posted
between January and April 2016.

Findings: The study examines non-random incidences of two types of swearing online:
public and interpersonal. Findings suggest that a first-level (a.k.a. parent) comment’s
public swearing tends to trigger chains of interpersonal swearing in the second-level
(a.k.a. child) comments. Meanwhile, among the child-comments, a sequentially
preceding comment’s swearing is contagious to the following comment only across the
same swearing type. Based on the findings, the study concludes that offensive comments
are contagious and have impact on shaping the community-wide linguistic norms of
online user interactions.

Originality/value: The study discusses the ways in which an individual’s display of
offensiveness may influence and shape discursive cultures on the Internet. This study
delves into the mechanisms of text-based contagion by differentiating between mimicry
effect and social interaction effect. While online emotional contagion research to this date
has focused on the difference between positive and negative valence, Internet research
that specifically look at the contagious potential of offensive expressions remain sparse.