“The Drag Effect”: Dragging and Discourse in the Digital Age

Editors note: Earlier this week, The Florida Squeeze ran a post on DeSantis and Regeneron. We linked to several tweets about potential donations impacting DeSantis advocacy of the treatment , but the story was more focused on the angle that The Governor was mimicking Mike Lindell’s cheap TV pitches. However, we did mention the potential “pay-to-play” angle which was covered around the same time with far greater documentation and research in the AP story by Brendan Farrington

By Dr. Rachel Pienta

Earlier this week, journalist Brendan Farrington broke a news story about a political donor and investments in Regeneron. According to the August 18, 2021, Associated Press article, records document the donations and financial connections:

Citadel, a Chicago-based hedge fund, has $15.9 million in shares of Regeneron Pharmaceutical Inc., according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin has donated $10.75 million to a political committee that supports DeSantis — $5.75 million in 2018 and $5 million last April.

Farrington, 2021

Shortly after the article was published, a paid spokesperson for Florida’s governor posted a tweet with the phrase “drag them”:

The tweet resulted in online threats to Farrington, including death threats. Christina Pushaw would later take the post down. In a follow up article, she asserted she was using internet slang without intending harm. Farrington’s employer, the Associated Press, then issued a statement addressing the seriousness of the situation (full text of letter is below).

What is “Dragging”?

“Dragging” is a form of online bullying that originated on Twitter. The phrase “drag them” first started appearing on Twitter around 2016. The practice of dragging can be characterized as a way to anonymously bully someone on the Twitter platform. The term has been used off the platform as well. In an April article The Grio site referred to the bullying behavior with a headline that referred to a political figure being dragged on Twitter .

In fact, dragging seems to be an accepted part of political twitter. A February 2017 Buzzfeed article about Chelsea Clinton implies that some may find it amusing when one public figure drags another on Twitter been-dragging-trump-on-twitter-and-its-p. The practice is not solely limited to Twitter spats between famous people. Anyone with a Twitter account can participate. A 2019 news headline referred to fans dragging Kylie Jenner . In June 2020, the dragging phenomena was documented on TikTok when an intergenerational critique dominated the platform for a few days.

Dragging on Twitter and TikTok can be characterized as having a “pile-on” effect. A related form of cyber-bullying has emerged, when online posts post reviews and comments on sites with negative intent

While there is a robust body of literature about youth and the effects of bullying, researchers have more recently started to address the gap in studies on cyberbullying among adults (Barlett and Chamberlin, 2017). Jenaro et al., (2018) defined and characterized cyberbullying:

Cyberbullying, the use of technology to deliberately and repeatedly threaten, insult, harass or tease another, is a worldwide phenomenon. Five core components define cyberbullying: (1) it is a relational or interpersonal aggression; (2) intentional; (3) it occurs in asymmetrical situations; (4) it is repeated over time and is not a single event; (5) and is carried out via ICTs* so that authorship is not always obvious (authors, in press).

In 2016, Lowry et al. examined how online disinhibition and deindividuation contribute to cyberbullying behavior. Jenaro et al., (2018) noted that, “cyberbullying is in part a consequence of living in increasingly aggressive societies and there is greater potential for harm through diverse means. The chances of interpersonal conflicts increase with the anonymity that characterizes Internet exchanges.”

Journalist Sali Hughes explored the impact of cyber-bullying and online dragging in an in-depth report for BBC News, “Me and My Trolls” Lowry et al., (2016) assert that “cyberbullying in social media can cause more psychosocial and emotional damage than traditional offline physical bullying because of the increased volume, scale, scope, and number of witnesses.”

Violence Against Journalists

In January 2021, the North American Committee of the International Press Institute convened a townhall to address the rising incidents of violence at journalists. One takeaway from the townhall was that online abuse and threats may lead to in-person violence. The important role of journalists in documenting and reporting news is recognized internationally. In fact, the United Nations Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists specifically addresses their roles and concerns of violence that may impede their work . The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported on the rising levels of violence experienced by journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests.

Violence against reporters has been on the rise for several years. At their 2021 annual meeting, the World Broadcasting Union called for concerted efforts to combat threats and violence against journalists and other media professionals which constitute an attack on democracy.”

Journalists and the Rise of Incivility

Geamanu (2017) notes that the “advances in information and communication technologies have made it easier for an increasingly broad and diverse range of actors to participate in public debate.” While the tone of public debate has become increasingly polarized and characterized by incivility, Geamanu suggests that the role of journalists is integral to a democratic society. Violence against journalists has a chilling effect not only on discourse but on the availability of information:

Journalists play a particularly prominent role in society: when they are threatened, attacked or killed, information flows shrink and entire communities are cowed. Citizens are deprived of the necessary information to develop their own opinions and take informed decisions about their lives and development.

(Geamanu, 2017)

Attacks on journalists may be part of a larger pattern of incivility

Bybee (2020) examined civility in the era of President Donald Trump. According to Bybee (2020), “Civility is fundamental to public life. It is this sense of fundamentality that explains why perceived declines in civility are often greeted by choruses of alarm. If civility is the zero point for appropriate behavior, then incivility undermines the rudiments of order and all is lost.” Bybee (2020) suggests that Trump’s incivility was strategic.

According to a 2013 study of civility, a decline has been in progress for some time:

70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions. With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day on average (2.4 times per day), and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. Additionally, 81 percent of Americans think that incivility is leading to an increase in violence.

(KRC Research, 2013)

Study respondents placed some blame on social media and Twitter. The study findings suggested that survey responses indicated, “most notably, for the first time since the survey began in 2010, the Internet/social media has risen into the top ranks of perceived causes of incivility. Of those who expect civility to worsen in the next few years, 34 percent blame Twitter – a significant rise from 2012”.

In 2017, an American Psychological Association (APA) study on “Stress in America” found that close to 60% of Americans felt stressed due to perceived social divisiveness. The APA hosted a panel discussion that same year to address the decline in civility called a “National Conversation on Civility” (view the panel discussion at this link: https://youtu.be/09YQxlX4uDk).  

In a recent Southern California Law Review article, George Mason University law professor Donald Kochan (2020) discussed the nature of civil discourse from the time of Alexander Hamilton through the present day and noted that “political and legal discussions risk falling prey to tribal positioning and highly polarized rhetoric.” Kochan (2020) asserts that modern day discourse can potentially be improved if guided by key principles from Hamilton’s first Federalist essay:

Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1 packs a powerful anti-polarization punch. In it, Hamilton offers profound lessons on civil discourse as an imperative to serious debate, the importance of respect for the opinions of others, the necessity of adopting a presumption of good faith on the part of others, and generally what I will call an “avoidance of demonization” principle that should guide our characterization of the views of others.

What Kochan (2020) calls an “avoidance of demonization” principle is key to the conditions required for civil discourse. The very act of online “dragging” is premised on dehumanizing and demonizing the person under attack.

When a government spokesperson invokes the Twitter mob to “drag” a journalist for reporting the facts and news of the day, there is an immediate negative impact on civil discourse and an impediment that hinders the flow of information to the public. In effect, an agent of the government has called for an attack on a person, in this instance a journalist performing the duties of his job. The online pile-on also elicited death threats, showing the inherent dangers of inciting attacks of this nature. The incident further exemplifies how a decline in civility impacts government and the culture of daily life in society.

What is the answer? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously stated, “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people.” We might start with making Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1 essay required reading for public service.

*ICT refers to “information and communications technology.”

Works Cited

Barlett, Christopher P.; Chamberlin, Kristina. (2017). Examining cyberbullying across the lifespan, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 71, Pages 444-449, ISSN 0747-5632, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.02.009. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217300821)

Bybee, K. J. (2020). The Rise of Trump and the Death of Civility. Law, Culture and the Humanities16(1), 6–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/1743872118785956

GEAMĂNU, Radu Florin. (2017). FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND VIOLENCE AGAINST JOURNALISTS Lex et Scientia; Bucharest Vol. XXIV, Iss. 2, : 118-135.

Jenaro, Cristina; Flores, Noelia; Frias, Cinthia Patricia. (2018). Systematic review of empirical studies on cyberbullying in adults: What we know and what we should investigate, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 38, Pages 113-122, ISSN 1359-1789, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2017.12.003. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178917300459)

Kochan, Donald J. (2020). On the Imperative of Civil Discourse: Lessons from Alexander Hamilton and Federalist No. 1, 94 Southern California Law Review Postscript 32.

Lowry, Paul & Zhang, Jun & Wang, Chuang & Siponen, Mikko. (2016). Why do adults engage in cyberbullying on social media? An integration of online disinhibition and deindividuation effects with the social structure and social learning (SSSL) model. Information Systems Research. 27. 962-986. 10.1287/isre.2016.0671.

KRC Research. (2013). Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey.


  1. […] Sunday, Dr. Rachel Pienta brilliantly outlined the “drag” effect, something I knew nothing about before Governor DeSantis’ Press Secretary, Christina Pushaw […]


  2. Patrick Joseph Fowler · ·

    Much research is available showing that higher levels of economic inequality correspond with lower levels of trust and social cohesion and higher levels of bullying and violence. See books by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett for more on this.


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