Surprise! BYU study shows online comments on immigration stories trended toward civility, moderation

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 2013 11:45 p.m. MST

PROVO — Online comments on a British website ravaged BYU professor Ben Gibbs and his co-author last spring for publishing research that suggested overeating may be learned in infancy.

"I think the first 10, 15, 20 comments on the story all had versions of the word 'rubbish,'" Gibbs said with a laugh.

For Gibbs, those comments were richly ironic. At the same time those commenters were trashing him, Gibbs and two other colleagues were preparing another study for publication that found that over time, online comments on newspaper websites can improve the overall debate about serious topics and improve civility.

"Sometimes the crowd isn't as acrimonious as the first couple of comments can seem," Gibbs said. "By the end of 50 comments, they become less and less severe."

Screaming match

That phenomenon also played out over the length of the study.

"I was surprised that over two years, the debate about immigration became more moderate online," Gibbs said. "I thought it would end in a screaming match. The media made it seem like we were screaming at each other, but we found that the more we talked about immigration, the more we became familiar with it, the less extreme our views were."

In 2007, immigration scholar Charlie Morgan noticed what many others did: As the immigration debate heated up, newspaper stories about immigration were getting the most comments.

Morgan, then a BYU professor (he is now at Ohio University), launched a study that would analyze a random sample of 1,768 comments at the end of 121 immigration-related articles published on deseretnews.com between June 2007 and June 2009.

Morgan, Gibbs and Brian Harris, a graduate student at the time, found that extreme positions moderated over the time of the study.

In 2007, 50 percent of comments took extreme positions. By 2009, that number had decreased to about 33 percent.

That held true even as events driving the debated intensified. For example, during the worst months of the recession, the number of stories and the number of comments about immigrated increased steadily.

"By April 2009," the BYU study found, "the frequency of immigration comments was at its highest in a year. Throughout the recession and amid popular interest in immigration, the trend toward greater moderation still continued."

What happened?

Researchers found that within the comments on a single story, the debates generally grew more moderate. Then, over time, they saw the same thing happening overall. Some people seemed to be trying out extreme views they might never have shared in a conversation, then moderated their views as others rejected those views or provided more information.

The researchers believed that the forum itself was important.

Harris said intense, polarizing comments on news articles tend to stick out but don't always reflect the entire debate on stories at a news website.

Specifically, Harris, Morgan and Gibbs believe that news websites, because they seek to provide balanced information about an event or a topic, draw a wider mix of readers and commenters than websites that take one side or the other. That bolsters civility.

"When we talk with others with opposite views and keep speech civil, it is possible to understand each other," Harris said. "People are capable of talking with each other without blowing up. I think we need to practice. I think news forums are good for this."

Is anonymity bad?

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