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

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

Another study published earlier this year found that anonymity made commenters meaner. The study of 900 random user comments about immigration stories on news websites found that 53 percent of anonymous commenters were uncivil. Of comments made by those who were registered with the website and not anonymous, 29 percent were uncivil.

The University of Houston professor who conducted the study concluded that anonymity encouraged incivility, reported psychologist and author Maria Konnikova in an article about the psychology of online comments published by the New Yorker.

Konnikova pointed out, however, that anonymity encourages participation and can boost creative thinking. She also pointed to a study that showed anonymous forums "can be remarkably self-regulating."

Ohio's Morgan seemed to see a similar phenomenon in the BYU study about comments across time.

"It's hard to say this is the case everywhere, but I think a lot of people don't have these discussions with friends and family because it's uncomfortable," he said. "But online they can be anonymous and try out ideas but also see how people respond to them, so there really is a dialogue going on.

"The fact that the immigration debate in our study did moderate to some extent was quite interesting."

Morgan, who conceived the study, would like to see it replicated in other areas of the country and in other types of forums.

Harris, who did the time-intensive work of coding the nearly 2,000 comments and preparing the research for publication in the journal "New Media & Society," completed his master's degree in sociology at BYU in 2011 and now works in the research information division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Morgan and Harris said Gibbs was crucial in helping them sift the mass of data they had gathered and finding the narrative about polarization.

"I think this is good news," Gibbs said. "I like the conclusion that extremists either opt out or are overwhelmed by people who want to appear reasonable and want to understand the debate. ... It appears the less polarized the platform, the less polarized the debates on comment boards become."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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