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Online aggression from a sociological perspective: An integrative view on determinants and possible countermeasures

English title Online aggression from a sociological perspective: An integrative view on determinants and possible countermeasures
Applicant Weingartner Sebastian
Number 183204
Funding scheme Digital Lives
Research institution Soziologisches Institut Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Sociology
Start/End 01.12.2018 - 31.01.2021
Approved amount 87'170.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Communication sciences

Keywords (7)

Survey; Social media; Online aggression; Model of frame-selection ; Theory of action; Interview; Sociology

Lay Summary (German)

Das Projekt integriert Erklärungsansätze zu aggressivem Online-Kommentieren in einem Modell, mitberücksichtigt explizit soziologische Einflussfaktoren und testet das Modell durch Verknüpfen von Befragungsdaten und Online-Kommentarverhalten. Zusätzlich wird die Wirksamkeit juristischer Strafen mithilfe von Interviews mit juristisch belangten aggressiven Kommentierern untersucht.
Lay summary
Inhalt und Ziel des Forschungsprojekts
Aggressive Kommentare auf Social Media gegen Personen, Gruppen, und strukturelle Akteure sind weit verbreitet. Aufgrund negativer sozialen Folgen dieser Aggression möchte das Projekt seine Ursachen verstehen, erklären und Gegenmassnahmen ableiten. Bisherige Forschung hat einzelne ursächliche Faktoren identifiziert. Darauf aufbauend verfolgt das Projekt drei Ziele: (1) ein umfassendes, theoretisches Modell entwickeln, das diese Einflussfaktoren integriert und (2) dabei bisher kaum unter-suchte soziologische Faktoren berücksichtigt (z.B. sozioökonomischer Status). Dessen empirische Prüfung wird quantitative Befragungsdaten von Online-Kommentierern mit ihrem Kommentarverhalten verknüpfen, um relevante (psychologische, situ-ative oder soziostrukturelle) Ursachen zu identifizieren. (3) Qualitative Interviews mit Personen, die bereits für aggressives Kommentieren juristisch belangt wurden (eine bisher wissenschaftlich nicht untersuchte Zielgruppe) erlauben Einblicke in ihre Motive und die Wirksamkeit juristischer Strafen.

Wissenschaftlicher und gesellschaftlicher Kontext
Die Integration theoretischer Erklärungen von aggressivem online Kommentieren und die innovative Datenlage und sozialwis-senschaftliche Forschungsherangehensweise bergen Innovationspotential und tragen bei, hitzige Diskussionen über Online-Aggression mit stabiler Evidenz zu untermauern.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.11.2018

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Online aggression from a sociological perspective: An integrative view on determinants and possi-ble countermeasures
WeingartnerSebastian, StahelLea (2019), Online aggression from a sociological perspective: An integrative view on determinants and possi-ble countermeasures, in Proceedings of the Third Workshop on Abusive Language Online (ALW3), FlorenceAssociation for Computational Linguistics , Florence.


In the past years, online aggression in social media has become widespread in political, economic, and educational contexts. Studies show that offending, defaming, or threatening online comments posted by Internet users fundamentally negatively affect the targeted persons’ well-being, social harmony, and democratic outcomes. Accordingly, knowing why people aggress online is the first step to counter it. Although previous research on online aggression has been successful in suggesting and explaining single determinants driving aggressive online commenting, three theoretical gaps emerge. First, there is no over-arching theoretical framework integrating several determinants suggested. Second, it is necessary to relate online aggression systematically to - so far commonly ignored - social-structural factors. Third, there is an imperative to explore whether for-mal legal sanctions effectively deter and prevent online aggression. Moreover, we identify two methodological gaps. First, there are no studies that systematically link digital commenting data to offline information on adult aggressors. Second, large-scale samples of frequent online aggressors as well as samples of those legally sanctioned are practically non-existent.To fill these gaps, this project aims to introduce a theoretical model that relates determinants of online aggression to each other in a more general framework of sociological explanation. The model also explicitly theorizes social-structural factors. Based on the model, this project plans to answer the following research questions: (1) Which individual determinants, situa-tional determinants, and social-structural determinants drive online aggression? (2) How do various determinants relate to each other when producing aggressive online behavior? (3) Are there differences in online aggression between social-structural groups? (4) Which modes of decision making (deliberate vs. spontaneous) are prevalent in the production of ag-gressive online comments? (5) How effective are formal legal sanctions in order to prevent online aggression?In order to answer these questions, we pursue a twofold strategy: On the one hand, to answer research questions 1 to 3, we intend to conduct a large-scale quantitative survey in German-speaking Switzerland, including aggressive and non-aggressive online commentators. They are drawn from a population of approximately 40’000 commentators having submitted to several Swiss news media online platforms. We match their survey information with their commenting behavior, ranging from non-aggressive to frequently aggressive (this classification emerges from human/automated content analysis of commentators’ 700’000 comments submitted overall). On the other hand, to answer research questions 4 and 5, we intend to conduct qualita-tive interviews with individuals out of a pool of 140 persons who have been legally sentenced for aggressively commenting in the Internet.This project is scientifically innovative as it proposes an integrative, sociological explanatory model of online aggression, as it links digital data with survey data of a large adult sample including frequently aggressing commentators, and as it produces explorative knowledge on the effectiveness of legal sanctions using a population of persons otherwise difficult to access. Be-sides, findings of the project can be used to inform the wider society about online aggression, how to approach and counteract it.The project can be expanded along three promising lines. First, the proposed integrative model could be applied more exten-sively, i.e. in other socio-cultural contexts in order to identify geographically and culturally determined “civility divides” or cross-nationally in order to determine the impact of institutional systems. Second, assessing the causal influence of online aggression determinants identified in the current project requires more elaborate empirical approaches. This could be accom-plished in subsequent longitudinal studies or (field) experiments. Third, the sociological focus on social-structural groups might not only be relevant for the production of online aggression, but also for its consequences. In line with “digital divides”, it is worth exploring whether certain groups are more at risk to be influenced by online aggression. Overall, this project strong-ly contributes to building the foundation for a constructive climate on the Internet, increased social well-being, and a healthy democracy.