January 24, 2014
You Suck: How Anonymous Commenters Descend Into The Uncivil
Bullies are everywhere. And anywhere there is a bully, censorship follows. Bullies make people stop talking partially out of fear, but also out of frustration. Those around the bully often find themselves frustrated by not feeling open to talk and by the bully’s lack of civility. This is true even of online comments, as found by University of Houston researcher Arthur D. Santana of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. In fact, Santana found that “53.3 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful; only 28.7 percent of non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil” according to a University of Houston press release.
Santana’s interest likely stems from his previous life. Before working for the University of Houston, Santana spent 14 years as a reporter and editor for newspapers all over the country including The Washington Post. In an effort to better understand civility, or a lack thereof, on online news sites, he compared the tone of thousands of online comments posted by both anonymous and non-anonymous users. He found that anonymous commenters were much, much more uncivil.
As the press release notes, “At play is the so-called “online disinhibition effect,” which predicts that when people’s identity is hidden, their actions or words have no consequences, thus their inhibitions drop. Online, under the cloak of anonymity, people are more likely to behave in ways that they ordinarily would not if their identity was intact.” And doesn’t that make sense in a messed up sort of way? If certain people know that others will not know who they are, they just might feel freer to post really awful things. They obviously do not care about civility. No bullies do.
Because of the overwhelming numbers of uncivil comments and the effects that these bullies have on open discussion, almost half of the 137 largest US newspapers now require that anyone who wants to post a comment sign in with their Facebook accounts. In other words, no one can post any comments anonymously. They must give names. Naturally, this does not mean that the uncivil no longer are uncivil; however, it does mean that the uncivil are identifiable.
Santana also looked at whether a story’s topic had anything to do with the civility of comments. What he found was comments that followed more racialized topics tended to be significantly more uncivil.
The University of Houston press release explains, “Incivility serves as a barrier,” Santana said. “People don’t want to enter the fray when there are a bunch of bullies in the room. Why would you want to join a conversation when everyone is shouting at each other? It’s possible to be forceful, robust and emotional in your argument, but when even a small minority of people resort to hateful or even intimidating language, others are reluctant to join a conversation.”
I must say that I read comments to news stories less and less for just this reason. I do not like to even passively approve uncivil comments by reading them, so if I read a story that I think might evoke the uncivil, then I will not read the comments. This is a shame because sometimes the most thought-provoking part of stories comes from the comments. These are one of the reasons I love reading news stories online sometimes. In fact, the letters to the editors are part of my favorite moments when reading print newspapers and news magazines.
Online, though, we see all comments and not just those chosen for publication by the editors. The comments sections allow an open forum, an open discussion, but when people become vulgar, rude, and uncivil that shuts down communication and effectively censors us all. And who wants that?
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