Measuring Offensive Speech in Online Political Discourse


Rishab Nithyanand, Brian Schaffner, and Phillipa Gill, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


The Internet and online forums such as Reddit have become an increasingly popular medium for citizens to engage in political conversations. However, the online disinhibition effect resulting from the ability to use pseudonymous identities may manifest in the form of offensive speech, consequently making political discussions more aggressive and polarizing than they already are. Such environments may result in harassment and self-censorship from its targets. In this paper, we present preliminary results from a large-scale temporal measurement aimed at quantifying offensiveness in online political discussions.

To enable our measurements, we develop and evaluate an offensive speech classifier. We then use this classifier to quantify and compare offensiveness in the political and general contexts. We perform our study using a database of over 168M Reddit comments made by over 7M pseudonyms between January 2015 and January 2017 – a period covering several divisive political events including the 2016 US presidential elections.

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@inproceedings {205916,
author = {Rishab Nithyanand and Brian Schaffner and Phillipa Gill},
title = {Measuring Offensive Speech in Online Political Discourse},
booktitle = {7th USENIX Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI 17)},
year = {2017},
address = {Vancouver, BC},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,