Have you ever really dug into the comments section below a controversial news article? The correct answer is “No, I am not a crazy person,” but if you have you’ll know that it’s a Hobbesian netherworld down there, and a new study in Journal of Communication puts some numbers behind the all-caps hysterics.
Researchers from the Universities of Utah and Arizona examined more than 6,400 comments posted on the website of the Arizona Daily Star (those poor, poor researchers … ) and found, in a result unlikely to shock anyone who has been called an OBAMABOT or RETHUGLICAN by a 12-year-old on the other side of the country, that we do not tend to interact with each other in a kindly manner online: Overall, one in five comments were not civil, but that number was often higher for more controversial subjects.
“We tracked six different kinds of uncivil language, but name-calling was far and away the most common,” said Kevin Coe, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah and one of the study’s authors. “Many people just can’t seem to avoid the impulse to go after someone else.”
The study also showed that these types of commenters do not fit the stereotype of a few angry individuals who spend hours at their computers blasting others and making baseless claims. In fact, incivility was more common among infrequent commenters. Equally surprising, uncivil commenters were just as likely to use evidence in support of their claims as were the more respectful individuals.
As might be expected, stories that focused on well-known leaders with clear partisan positions garnered more impolite comments. In stories that quoted President Barack Obama, for example, nearly 1 in 3 comments were uncivil.
Disrespectful comments also tended to spike in discussions about weightier issues, such as politics, the economy, crime and taxes. The one exception to this trend was sports articles, which generated the highest percentage of these types of comments.
But buried in all the trolly trollness is a small, glittering kernel of humanity: “When one commenter was directly replying to another commenter, they were more likely to be courteous.”
So it’s almost as though being reminded that you’re interacting with another human can help make you more civil online. Strange! And while things may look bleak, there are a growing number of troll-suppression solutions, some of which I wrote about a couple of years ago.
We welcome your thoughts below.