Positive online civility trends reversed one year into the pandemic, new Microsoft study shows

A woman wearing a mask uses a laptop

Teenagers and adults in 18 countries said perceptions of online civility have deteriorated one year into the global pandemic, with respondents in Poland, Philippines, Italy, Germany and Hungary reporting the sharpest net-negative sentiment, new Microsoft research shows.

Respondents in 82% of the 22 countries surveyed said online civility was net-worse one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, while only one country – Colombia – reported net-positive online civility after a year of global, stay-at-home restrictions. These latest findings follow more mixed results about the state of online civility during the initial months of the pandemic in 2020. Last year, respondents in the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, reported an uptick in more respectful online interactions, while those in Latin America said digital civility worsened, dampened by a rise in the spread of false and misleading information. Both research projects were conducted in April and May: in 2020, when the world was just coming to grips with Covid-19, and again in 2021.

This latest study, Civility, Safety and Interaction Online – 2021, polled teens aged 13-17 and adults aged 18-74 about their exposure to 21 online risks across four categories: behavioral, sexual, reputational and personal/intrusive.[1] This year’s survey marks the sixth straight year of Microsoft’s digital civility research and builds on similar studies in each of the last five years, conducted in varying geographies.

Covid-19 and year six digital civility research

A total of 11,067 individuals participated in this year’s poll, and we’ve surveyed nearly 70,000 people since the start of this research. Full results, including the release of the 2021 Microsoft Digital Civility Index (DCI), will be made available on international Safer Internet Day 2022 on February 8, 2022. The DCI is a measure of the tone and tenor of online interactions as reported by consumers in all 22 geographies. Thanks to responsible online interactions by teens in particular, the 2020 index bounced back to 67 from a high-water mark of 70 in 2019, indicating the highest level of perceived online incivility among respondents since this work began.

Last year, we added a series of special Covid-19-related questions to our digital civility research, given the unique and challenging situation the world found itself in, and we hoped to gain valuable insights into people’s online attitudes and behaviors during these unprecedented times. As Covid-induced challenges persisted well into 2021, we wanted to see how those perceptions of online civility may have shifted one year later.

Digital civility chart

In 2021, fewer than two in 10 respondents (17%) globally said civility online improved as a result of Covid-19, while 30% said it worsened. Those percentages compare with 26% and 22%, respectively, last year. Any hopes for improved online civility were dashed by across-the-board drops in positive actions. Respondents were asked if they’d experienced or witnessed five different positive outcomes of online interaction associated with the Covid-19 stay-at-home environment, and all five categories yielded lower readings compared to 2020. For instance, “I see more people helping other people,” fell to 56% globally compared to 67% last year. Other findings included:

  • “A greater sense of community” tumbled 12 percentage points to 50% from 62% in 2020;
  • “People have been more encouraging to each other” dropped eight percentage points to 49% from 57% last year; and
  • “People have come together more to deal with the crisis” was down six percentage points to 53% from 59% in the previous study.

Finally, “more people are reconnecting with friends and family” slipped just two percentage points to 56% from 58%, but a decline, nonetheless.

Related, three of the five negative outcomes associated with Covid-19 saw increases in this latest poll, suggesting in at least two categories that Covid fatigue played a noticeable role, namely:

  • “People are taking out their frustrations online” was up seven percentage points to 67%;
  • “People are less tolerant” edged up to 59% from 54% last year; and
  • 54% of respondents said they had experienced or witnessed more personal attacks and negative comments this year compared to 53% in 2020.

A bit of good news came in the form of declines in two negative-outcomes categories: the spread of false and misleading information (60% in 2021 vs. 67% in 2020), and more people acting selfishly (49% vs. 52%).

Expectations for our 2021 Council for Digital Good

As more of the world begins to reopen and people return to some degree of pre-pandemic “normalcy”, we need to keep in mind at least one unique fact that emerged from Covid: Everyone on the planet experienced and endured it together. We need to use that unparalleled and unfortunate commonality to help build new bonds and improve interactions both online and off.

At Microsoft, we’re encouraged by the displays of positivity and the eagerness to confront various online challenges head-on, which we’ve seen from our 2021 Council for Digital Good. This new cohort, 12 teens from across the U.S., is preparing for its council summit next month, where we will discuss and outline individual action plans to help tackle issues such as cyberbullying and sextortion.

Later this month, we’ll introduce the full cohort and share some of their hopes and expectations for the council experience. This comes from one council member from California, who has vowed to “throw” himself into the experience and bring his multitude of skills to bear on the issues: “My generation is the first to grow up with technology completely embedded in our lives; it is a part of our happiness and our health,” he said. “I would love to contribute my thoughts and ideas about how … Microsoft can help evolve human interaction and equity using technology.”

In addition, we continue highlight our Digital Civility Challenge: four common-sense principles to help grow compassion, empathy and kindness. Everyone can commit to Live the Golden Rule; respect differences; pause before replying; and stand up for oneself and others. Learn more about the challenge here; visit our updated website and resources page for additional advice and guidance on online safety issues; and stay tuned for more from our Council for Digital Good!


[1] Reputational – “Doxing” and damage to personal or professional reputations; Behavioral – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying; encountering hate speech and microaggressions; Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexting messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”); and Personal/intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, experiencing discrimination, swatting, misogyny, exposure to extremist content/recruiting, or falling victim to hoaxes, scams or fraud.

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