More than 20 percent of the comments on the Arizona Daily Star news website are considered uncivil, according to a study of the language and style of communication those who posted comments used.
Three University of Arizona communication professors studied comments on the Arizona Daily Star website for three weeks. They looked for name calling, and comments that included personal attacks or which stopped the conversation, instead of fostering debate.
“What we wanted to do was get a sense of how prevalent is incivility? Are there things, contextual factors, that make incivility more or less common?” said Steve Rains, associate UA communication professor. “We looked for incidents of incivility in those comments. By incivility I mean not disagreement, but things that were name calling, or aspersion, which would be making fun of someone’s idea or talking negatively about someone’s idea. We looked at things like calling people a liar or claiming people were lying.”
The researchers choose those definitions of incivility because they affect the discourse.
"We think that when people make those kinds of comments, they do have that possibility of halting the discourse," said Kate Kenski, who worked on the study with Rains and is also an associate communication professor.
"If you’re trying to have a serious policy discussion and you call someone a liar, that ends the social exchange because there’s no point in continuing the conversation if you’re basically saying what the person has to say isn’t going to be truthful," she said.
Uncivil comments cropped up on all kinds of stories, from those about sports, to politics, to crime or tax policy, the researchers said. But not every commenter was posting uncivilly, Rains said.
“We found that people who are more frequent commenters are less likely to be uncivil and the folks who were less likely to be uncivil and the folks who were uncivil were folks who made one comment during the time period," he said.
One out of five comments included name calling, Kenski said.
Everyone has a role to play if the goal is improving the quality of discussion about an issue online, the researchers said.
The commenters can think before writing.
“If people can hold back a little bit on the intensity of their comments, try to make those same arguments but doing it without calling someone a liar, or saying someone’s bellyaching, I think that we would have more productive discussions online," Kenski said.
And news websites can hold commenters more accountable. Many already moderate the comments that get posted online, Rains said, and many, including the Star, are switching to authenticating users' identities.
“More of these websites are being associated with social network sites, so you have to have a Facebook account to log in. And what that does is it removes some of the anonymity, which in some ways might might foster more civil discussions," Rains said.
The researchers plan to continue their study by looking at comments on news websites in other regions of the United States. Before they do, Kenski said another piece of advice for online editors is to change the way commentators rate each others' posts.
Many websites use like/dislike buttons, or allow users to vote thumbs up and thumbs down on each others' comments. But allowing people instead to click a button that says "respect" may actually go further toward fostering thoughtful communication, Kenski said.
“It allows a person to say, 'I acknowledge what you’re saying even if I disagree,'" she said.