Expressing emotion in online political talk. Detracting from the normative goals of deliberation?

Over the past two decades, researchers have questioned whether the internet provides an opportunity for the development of communicative spaces where public deliberation among citizens could thrive. However, most studies have operationalized and applied a formal notion of deliberation thereby neglecting its expressive nature. Though democratic theorists have increasingly looked to expand and redefine the notion of deliberation, empirical studies into how other modes of communication enhance or detract from the normative conditions of deliberation are scant. This paper moves beyond a formal notion by investigating the use of expressives within an online political discussion forum. The purpose is to use findings from a case study of online political talk as a means of developing a better understanding, theoretically, of how expressives interact and influence the more traditional elements of deliberation. A (qualitative) content analysis of 1215 postings from 30 discussion threads, taken from The Guardian’s online political discussion forum, was employed as the primary instrument for examination. The coding scheme operationalized six normative conditions of deliberation, which included rational-critical debate, coherence, continuity, reciprocity, reflexivity and empathy, along with three expressives: humour, emotional comments and acknowledgements. The findings reveal that expressives were a common ingredient of political talk; however, they tended to detract from the normative goals of deliberation rather than facilitating them. This paper discusses these findings in light of understanding everyday political talk in the net-based public sphere.