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U Houston Research: Anonymous Commenting Less Civil

As you might expect, when people can maintain their anonymity in online forums, they're more likely to post uncivil comments. That's also the conclusion of a researcher at the University of Houston. Assistant Professor Arthur Santana, part of the School of Communication, found a significant correlation between anonymity and civility.

His study, "Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards," published last year, examined the "tone" of thousands of online comments posted to online newspaper articles. More than half of the anonymous messages — 53 percent — contained language that could be considered vulgar, racist, profane, or hateful. Where people had to log in using their actual identities before posting, only 29 percent of comments were found to be uncivil.

In fact, Santana found that non-anonymous commenters were almost three times as likely to post civil comments as anonymous ones — 44 percent vs. 15 percent.

"In short, when anonymity was removed, civility prevailed," Santana said.

Santana is no stranger to the newspaper business. He spent 14 years as a reporter and editor in newsrooms including the San Antonio Express-News, the Seattle Times, and the Washington Post. All require going through a registration process before the user is allowed to make comments on stories.

Newspapers are increasingly moving to a model in which anonymous commenting is no longer allowed. Santana reported that 49 percent of the 137 largest newspapers published in the United States have disallowed anonymity in their commenting forums; 42 percent allow anonymity; and 9 percent don't have forums.

Santana also studied whether "racialized" topics in articles drew more vitriol than non-racialized ones. He found that comments following the former were significantly more likely to be uncivil.

Although Santana acknowledged that anonymity has "a long history in journalism dating back to the beginning of U.S. newspapers," when writers such as Benjamin Franklin used pseudonyms to press their positions, "Incivility serves as a barrier," he noted. "When even a small minority of people resort to hateful or even intimidating language, others are reluctant to join a conversation."

For that reason, he said, the findings of his research "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, particularly those that follow sensitive news topics."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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