News outlets no longer want to just write for their readers; they want to communicate with their users. Yet, once they open their digital doors they quickly realise that users might leave their manners at the doorstep. Some insult, some rant, some bully. Mockery and malice rule. Sexism and xenophobia often turn up as ugly guests. So what can be done about the lack of respect in online comment sections? Media studies scholars are just beginning to study the phenomenon of in depth, but early research results shed some light on central questions.
It is hard to quantify exactly how uncivil it is out there. Media outlets have different guidelines and user communities in general are impossible to compare. Case studies in the US and in Canada revealed that 20 to 50 per cent of comments in newspaper comment sections are to some degree uncivil.
Obviously definitions matter here – not every rude comment is necessarily uncivil. As least common denominator, Kevin Coe and colleagues, from the Universities of Utah and Arizona, define incivility as “features of discussion that convey an unnecessarily disrespectful tone toward the discussion forum, its participants, or its topics.”
Research results also indicate that not all troublemakers fit the same mold. Not every online ruffian is a hater. The latter are a small minority. Erin Buckels, from the University of Manitoba, with Canadian colleagues, analysed personality profiles of online trolls. They conclude that 5.6 per cent of users find pleasure in the pain of others. Buckels et al. describe online trolls as “prototypical everyday sadists” who “just want to have fun … and the internet is their playground.”
Evidence about the motives of trolls also comes from Pnina Shachaf and Noriko Hara from Indiana University. They examined the behaviour of trolls on Wikipedia and found that boredom, revenge, attention seeking and pleasure derived from causing damage are driving forces.
However, not every troublemaker is a “pathologic” repeat offender. Coe and colleagues examined discussion forums of the Arizona Daily Star and concluded that infrequent users are more uncivil in their comments than regular contributors. The researchers also analysed whether specific factors stood out in triggering uncivil comments. Results were unequivocal: controversial topics (politics, sports) and particular writers (often commentators of the paper) attract more uncivil comments. If polarizing personalities are involved (i.e. President Obama), the atmosphere heats up, too.
Thus, context matters when it comes to incivility. There’s nothing wrong with polemics, of course. On the contrary, passionate discussions are essential for democracy. Yet, once the tone gets too pugnacious and partisan, the ramifications for public debate may be drastic. Research results in this area can be summarized in the following way: uncivil debates undermine trust in governmental and societal authorities and lead to apathy in some users. However, there are also signs that users are more likely to participate in discussion forums if the debate is more controversial. Conflict is a bigger incentive to comment than is consent.
Even more disconcerting are research results by Ashley Anderson and colleagues, scholars at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin. They examined whether, and to what extent, uncivil comments attached to an article, affects the way the article is read. They set up two groups and gave each a news article to read. The story was written in a neutral way, balancing pros and cons of a controversial topic (nanotechnology). The first group read the article surrounded by a high level of uncivil comments. For the second group, the tone in the comment section was respectful.
A subsequent survey revealed that users react more critically to information when the discussion in the comment section is uncivil. Researchers have tested strategies used by news outlets to keep discussion civil. It helps when journalists moderate the discussion forums, researchers at the University of Texas found. They also noticed that users participate more actively if journalists ask specific questions and also respond directly to user feedback.
Anonymity in discussion forums is a controversial issue. Preliminary research shows that anonymous users are more likely to engage in uncivil behaviour than those who have to register with their names. In a comparative study of 14 daily newspapers (Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times etc), Arthur Santana from the University of Houston found that more than half of anonymous comments were uncivil, while only a quarter of registered users lashed out in their comments.
However, there’s also an upside to anonymity. Researchers at Rutgers University surveyed anonymous users of the Sacramento Bee: 40 per cent of them indicated that they would no longer comment if they were forced to register with their actual names.
Both practice and theory confirm that discussion forums need rules. But what’s even more needed is courage – courage to speak up and fight back when online brutes try to wreak havoc on civil discussions.
Photo credit: De Platypus, Flickr