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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anonymous commenters on the attack

Study finds most anonymous online comments to be uncivil

It's been an interesting few weeks around here concerning blog commenters. On my own blog, I've been called an idiot, a Nazi and those are just some of the nicer things.

Last week, I learned about the so-called Michael Berry Brigade in my comments section and was also personally blamed for 93.7 The Arrow KKRW becoming 93.7 The Beat KQBT. Remember Houston radio listeners, don't anger me or I might flip the format of your favorite station with a few keyboard strokes.

No one ever said online commenters were brainiacs? So just to be clear, I really do not have the power to change radio station formats. Changing television anchors? Now that's a different story...

One thing we do know is that commenters are mostly anonymous here and other online places. Now a University of Houston researcher has found that anonymity is key in empowering the name calling.

In the study, Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards, UH assistant professor Arthur D. Santana found a significant correlation between anonymity and civility. Poring over thousands of online comments, Santana found that 53.3% of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful. However only 28.7% of non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil. Sound the breaking news alert.

Can you imagine having to read thousands of newspaper site reader comments? Instead, I would have volunteered for the study on adult male reactions to Justin Bieber music if given a choice. Do you think I could become a Belieber?

"Anonymity has a long history in journalism dating back to the beginning of U.S. newspapers," Santana said in a release. "In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin used the pseudonym Silence Dogood to get his opinion published after being denied several times with his real name. It has long been seen as a valuable way to express an opinion, however unpopular."

In today's politically correct world, where one unpopular comment could get you canned from your job, the tradition continues.

Santana, a former journalist at newspapers like the San Antonio Express-News, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post, says the "online disinhibition effect" is at play. The effect predicts when people's identity is hidden, their actions or words have no consequences, thus their inhibitions drop. So under the cloak of online anonymity, people are more likely to behave in ways that they ordinarily would not if their identity was intact.

So on my blog that means obsessing over KPRC 2 anchor Dominique Sachse in the comments section - even if the post is not about her. Although maybe you know someone in your office who does this openly in real life too.

"One of the benefits of online anonymity is that it allows people to express their views, uninhibited, especially if it is an unpopular opinion," Santana said. "It's when commenting descends into hateful language, threats or racism that the conversation breaks down and any benefits of constructive dialogue goes away."

A constructive dialogue doesn't seem to be on many Houston TV and newspaper online commenters' minds from what I've seen over the years.

Some of Santana's findings:
- Non-anonymous commenters were nearly three times as likely to post civil comments.
- 44% of non-anonymous commenters posted civil comments following news articles compared to 15% of anonymous commenters.
- Vexed with an overwhelming number of uncivil comments that threaten to undermine the value of their commenting forums, newspapers are increasingly disallowing anonymity by making readers sign in with their Facebook account; 48.9% of the 137 largest U.S. newspapers have disallowed anonymity in their commenting forums, 41.6% allow anonymity and 9.4% do not have forums.
- Comparing comments following a racialized topic and a non-racialized topic, Santana observed that comments that followed the racialized topic were significantly more likely to be uncivil.

"These findings should be of interest to those newspapers that allow anonymity and that have expressed frustration with rampant incivility and ad hominem attacks in their commenting forums," Santana said. "Particularly those that follow sensitive news topics."

The study mentions how news organizations like the Huffington Post hope banning anonymous commenting will allow more people to join the conversation.

"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."

Read the study for yourself here.

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