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."
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."
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?
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."
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