Anonymous commenters lead to more ‘uncivil’ comments on newspaper sites, study finds
Allowing commenters on newspaper websites to keep their names secret leads to significantly more hateful comments on online newspaper stories, according to a new research study.
Arthur Santana, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, studied the tone of thousands of online comments posted on sites that allow either anonymous user names or non-anonymous commenters.
His study — titled “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards” — concluded 53 percent of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful. By comparison, about 29 percent of comments on sites that require commenters to use their names were deemed uncivil.
“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.”
Requiring users to use their names also lead to more civil comments, the study found. Nearly 44 percent of non-anonymous commenters posted civil comments, compared to 15 percent of anonymous commenters.
“In short, when anonymity was removed, civility prevailed,” Santana said.
The topic of a story also affected the tone of the comments, the study found. Stories involving race led to significantly more hateful comments.
Santana also found fewer newspaper websites are allowing commenters to use anonymous user names. Some sites have begun requiring users to sign in with Facebook accounts bearing their names.
Of the 137 largest U.S. newspapers, 48.9 percent do not allow anonymous commenter in their forums, 41.6 percent allow anonymity and 9.4 percent do not have forums, the study found.
NJ.com, the online home of The Star-Ledger, allows commenters to remain anonymous through the use of user names.
Santana’s research on anonymity, civility and story topics is scheduled to be published in the academic journals Journalism Practice and the Newspaper Research Journal.
Before becoming a communications professor, Santana spent 14 years as a journalist at the San Antonio Express-News, The Seattle Times and The Washington Post.
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