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You Suck: How Anonymous Commenters Descend Into The Uncivil

Jan 24, 14 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?

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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About 

Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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3 Comments

  1. Ralph Dratman /

    I am glad to see that the problem of uncivil comments is being brought out into the light. It is important to find ways of dealing with such meaningless, discordant noise. It appears to me that the system of downvotes, used on a few sites, actually helps. After a certain number of down votes, the nasty comment is hidden from a casual reader.

    Most of these nasty comments are no more significant than the yells of a child making faces outside a window, in order to annoy the adults inside. The payoff for such disruptive behavior is some attention, along with the naughty pleasure of mocking serious behavior.

    We would usually ignore the child, telling ourselves this is just a phase that will soon pass. But the nasty commenters have developed techniques of insult and vilification that actually hurt adults’ feelings.

    Although I should know better than to pay any attention, i still feel wounded at times after reading mean messages addressed to me. That is the child in me, feeling diminished after hearing someone’s speak ill of me. It is surprisingly easy to hurt people’s feelings with a few words.

  2. Danee Rivera /

    This is one reason why I tend to generalize everyone is racist as you cannot differentiate sarcasm or hostility in the Internet. Despite the anonymity, I am aware that the people that post comments are from the west due to a fact that the west, particularly the US has the largest internet users.

    When someone discovers your nationality, it tends to bring up issues from your country and sometimes resort to racial insults. The most embarrassing thing about posting flame-bait comments under the pseudonym “Anonymous” is that those who label themselves as “Not Racist” are in fact “Closeted Racists” specially those who “unintentionally” bring up even a simple derogatory term.

    The worst part of this is if the one who posted the comment is a youngster, this will likely affect their relationship in the long run with others who are completely “different” from them

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