Faculty & Staff

Anonymity limits civility in online discussions


Arthur Santana

Jack J. Valenti School of Communication professor Arthur Santana has published a study that gives an in-depth look at how anonymity affects how people treat each other in discussions on the Internet.

Santana’s study, titled “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The Effect of Anonymity on Civility in Online Newspaper Reader Comment Boards,” takes a look specifically at the comment sections on the websites of major newspapers and compares how people treat each other on websites that allow the user to remain anonymous versus ones where users are required to identify themselves.

“It’s a different kind of study,” Santana said. “I worked with major newspapers for 14 years before I became involved with education, so I looked for something that bridged that gap, rather than being purely academic.”

The study found that anonymous commenters are significantly more likely to post uncivil comments. Specifically, out of the content surveyed, 53.3 percent of comments posted under anonymous accounts were uncivil, versus only 28.7 percent from non-anonymous users. The study defines an uncivil comment as one containing vulgar, profane, racist or hateful language.

The study refers to this as the online disinhibition effect. In layman’s terms, the subject states that giving a person anonymity removes a lot of the consequences they would normally face for what they say, encouraging them to post and say things they wouldn’t in real life.

“This is the sort of thing that newspapers and other businesses are concerning themselves heavily with right now,” Santana said. “I’ve worked in the news industry through this sort of turbulent transition to online. It’s definitely a popular phenomenon, letting readers express their opinions. It bridges the gap between your print and online editions.”

This study was part of Santana’s dissertation when he was studying for his doctorate at the University of Oregon. University of Oregon professor John Russial, who was the dissertation chair for Santana’s study, said he remembers the study particularly well because it’s an issue that the industry as a whole has to face.

“It’s clearly typical and clearly of interest,” Russial said. “All of the big news organizations are studying this same thing. Do you have comments at all? Do you police them? Do you force users to use their Facebook accounts or their real names? It’s not easy to deal with. You want freedom of speech, but you don’t want it to be a cesspool.”

Obviously, the effect is not universal. While the study found that nearly three times as many non-anonymous users tended to post civil comments, this still only amounts to 44 percent of users. At the same time, some UH students, when polled, said they personally prefer a degree of anonymity on the web for other reasons.

“Basically, I don’t have to worry about embarrassing myself if I say something dumb,” said liberal arts junior Thi Cong.

Santana said that popular news organizations have been abandoning anonymous comments altogether in recent years, in hopes of encouraging civil, intelligent discourse.

“One of the benefits on online anonymity is that it allows people to express their views uninhibited, especially if it’s an unpopular opinion,” Santana said in a press release from the University. “Incivility serves as a barrier. People don’t want to enter the fray when a bunch of bullies are in the room.”

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