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Publications Address Anonymity

Published: June 15, 2015

Sports Illustrated, Reuters, ESPN, the Huffington Post, Popular Science, Sporting News and USA Today have either banned anonymous posts on their sites or eliminated comments sections altogether. Political Science’s Kevin Wallsten thinks he knows why.

In an August article in the Washington Post headlined “It’s time to end anonymous comments sections,” Wallsten and co-author Melinda Tarsi argued that the media’s widespread adoption of anonymous comments sections may be hurting news organizations’ favorability with the public.

“When considered alongside the significant legal liabilities that come with hosting anonymous posts, our results suggest that media companies have very little to gain and much to lose by hosting anonymous comments sections,” he said. “In other words, news outlets that care about their reputations should shut down their anonymous comments sections.”

Despite the actions of these news outlets, Wallsten sees as a strong current of support for anonymous speech online.

“Many people view it as a kind of refuge for the expression of unpopular views and a protection against the tyranny of the majority,” said Wallsten, who earned his undergraduate degree in political science is from UC Irvine and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 2008. “The Supreme Court has said that Americans have a right to anonymous speech outside the online context. But I think the days when news organizations will provide a venue for people to post anonymous comments is coming to an end.”

Wallsten has detected a “no anonymity” movement among news professionals and legislators.

“A lot of popular websites had anonymous comment sections from the start,” he explained. “In the last few years, however, a huge number of these sites have moved away from the anonymous commenting format. A number of state legislatures including New York and Illinois have debated bills that ban anonymous comments on the Internet.”

Wallsten believes the “no anonymity” movement is motivated by twin assumptions—that anonymous comments sections breed incivility in online discussions and anonymous comments exert a strong influence over the attitudes of Internet users who read them.

Wallsten believes the assumption about anonymity breeding incivility is true.

“When you compare the same news site before they instituted a verified comment system and after, the comments become more positive,” he said, noting that he sees nothing new in the idea that anonymity can breed negativity. “Indeed, Godwin’s Law, which states that as anonymous discussions grow longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one was first articulated in 1990.”

What is new is the impact of these anonymous comments with an increasingly large body of research suggesting anonymous comments impact individuals’ attitudes.

“They matter for the way we interpret the stories we read,” he said. “They matter for how we think about political issues. They matter for how we feel about the media more broadly.”

To conduct his research, Wallsten used Amazon.com’s crowd-sourcing site called “Mechanical Turk.” A typical experiment involved showing a test participant a news article where the content of posts in an anonymous comments section was systematically manipulated. Some comments praised the article as the best. Others said it was the worst. Then there was a mixed section more reflective of reality and a controlled section with no comments at all.

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PHOTO BY MICHAEL SULLIVAN
Kevin Wallsten

He expected that, if anonymous comments really mattered, he would see the negative comments drag down perceptions of the news organization, the positive comments bolster perceptions of the news organization and the mixed comments to have no effect.

“In fact, just having anonymous comments, regardless of their content, led to less trust of the hosting news organization and the media in general,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter whether posts praise or criticize the media. Their presence next to a news report always seems to exert a negative impact on how people feel about the media.”

Wallsten believes these finds raise important questions for media outlets such as why should news organizations pay the substantial costs associated with building a commenting platform, moderating it, managing it and hosting it on their sites, when all they are doing is dragging down how people feel about their brand and the media?

“From a simple cost-benefit perspective, hosting anonymous comments sections may not make sense,” he said, noting that news organizations are increasingly abandoning anonymity and adopting a Facebook-commenting model. “That means logging in through Facebook then Facebook hosts the comments on your site,” he added.

The biggest question, to which no one has an answer, he believes, is how much incivility Internet users and news organizations are willing to accept online?

“There is a range of incivility depending on what site you’re looking at,” he said. “Incivility tends to rise with political and sports reporting. When there are anonymous comments, approximately 50 percent are uncivil. When you shift to verified comments, incivility drops considerably. Is 25 percent incivility still problematic? Nobody has an answer for that yet. How much name-calling and vulgar language are we willing to tolerate?”