A dozen years ago, we had crossed the “bridge to the 21st century” and optimists saw great promise in a wired society to attack our wicked problems. The online masses could be connected and directed to solve issues. People who would otherwise be hindered by physical space could share ideas and potential fixes online. Granted, that has happened in some instances, but a stroll through online comments sections on most websites dealing with news and public policy often reveals something less than wisdom.
Instead, commenters are rude and nasty. Freed from face-to-face confrontation, trolls spread their hatred with no regard. Because most trolls desperately seek attention, I’ll not give them the satisfaction of quoting anyone specifically. The worst of it resorts to name-calling, racism, homophobia and vulgarity. Use your imagination.
“It’s like the Wild West out there, because there are no social norms in online environments,” said Dominique Brossard, co-author of a recently released study on the impact of negative online comments.
University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Mason University researchers wanted to test a basic premise: Did rude online comments affect readers’ understanding of a news article?
To do this, the survey presented 1,183 readers with a news story about nanotechnology. For half the test subjects the comments beneath the online story were civil and thought-provoking responses. The other half saw comments that were the opposite — mean-spirited and off-topic ranting, rudeness and full of insults. (An example: “This article is 100 percent propaganda crapola.”)
“What we saw was that readers interpreted the story very differently, and often incorrectly, based solely on the tone of the comments,” said Brossard, who is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I’ve yet to meet a newspaper editor who doesn’t worry about the tone of online comments. Newspapers are in the business of democracy building, a notion that depends on the civil exchange of ideas. Rude comments — usually spewed by a handful of trolls — turn newspaper websites into an unwelcoming space, a swamp of bitterness, name-calling and insults. A reader with a sincere thought can’t be blamed for remaining silent, knowing that leaving a comment will invite reaction often laced with personal nastiness.
That’s unproductive in the goal of informing the public, something further confirmed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Mason University study. It’s also the equivalent of inviting the trolls to write vulgar graffiti on a building. The public would come to look upon the building’s ownership as either uncaring or helpless.
Since July 2011, The Star has required a Facebook account to leave a comment on our website. The service isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than the previous commenting system, which allowed for anonymity. Now would be a good time to remind everyone of The Star’s rules for online commenting: Commenters must have a Facebook account and must not engage in personal attacks, name-calling, off-topic discussions or infringement of copyrighted material.
One last thing: I still believe in the power for the digital masses to solve problems. So, if you’ve got an idea for how to better foster a civil online conversation, please share.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.