Despite their ubiquity on news sites around the Internet, a movement against anonymous comments sections has slowly gathered steam over the past few years. The first call to action came in 2010 when the American Journalism Review said, “It is time for news sites to stop allowing anonymous online comments.” Since that bold declaration, a wide variety of media outlets, including ESPN, the Huffington Post, Popular Science, Sporting News and USA Today have either banned anonymous posts on their sites or eliminated comments sections altogether.
In August 2013, the New York state legislature even debated an ambitious bill that would have required all Web site administrators to pull down anonymous comments from “social networks, blogs forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.”
This “no anonymity” movement is motivated by two assumptions. First, when Internet users are allowed to post their thoughts anonymously, online discussions inevitably deteriorate into uncivil flame wars. The idea that anonymity can breed negativity is, of course, not new. Indeed, Godwin’s Law, which states that as anonymous “discussions grow longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” was first articulated in 1990.
More recent assessments of anonymous comments sections have not been more complimentary. In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts argued that anonymous comments sections “have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, factual inaccuracy and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.” In 2012, Buzzfeed’s John Herrman concluded his informal study of online discussion forums by describing YouTube’s anonymous comments section as “the room with the million monkeys and the million typewriters, but they haven’t even gotten half-way though Hamlet yet because they’re too busy pitching feces at one another.” Most opposition to anonymous comments sections is grounded in a pessimistic assumption about the quality and tone of online discussions.
Second, and more importantly, anonymous comments are assumed to exert a strong influence over Internet users. The number of effects attributed to anonymous comments is long and varied. In some accounts, anonymity allows for the kind of “cyberbullying” that produces low self-esteem and feelings of alienation in vulnerable members of online communities. In other accounts, anonymous commenters “wield enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a news story” and shape their attitudes about public policy. Regardless of the specific complaint, however, opponents of anonymity believe that comments sections powerfully shape the beliefs, opinions and behaviors of those who encounter them.
Unfortunately, evidence about the consequences of anonymous comments sections is in shorter supply than speculation. While there is an ongoing academic debate about the validity of the “no anonymity” movement’s first assumption (here, here, here), there are only two experimental studies that attempt to test its second assumption – one focusing on the policy attitudes of South Korean undergraduates and the other addressing American risk perceptions of nanotechnology.
Conspicuously absent, then, are studies that examine whether anonymous comments sections influence feelings towards the media. This is surprising given the lively debate about the origins of the public’s increasingly negative feelings towards the media and given how many news organizations have adopted interactive Web site tools in the hopes of improving their image with news consumers.
To shed light on whether anonymous comments actually matter for how people feel towards the media, we conducted a survey experiment in which Internet users were exposed to varying amounts of media criticism in an anonymous comments section attached to a hypothetical news story from USA Today. Specifically, our subjects were randomly assigned to a “media praise” condition (where comments used positive adjectives to describe the high quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “media criticism” condition (where comments used negative adjectives to address the low quality of the outlet’s reporting), a “mixed” condition (where half of the comments were drawn from the “media praise” condition and half were drawn from the “media criticism” treatment) or a “no comments” condition (where the comments section was left empty). We then asked our participants to rate the overall news media and USA Today on a “feeling thermometer.”
Consistent with the concerns of the “no anonymity” movement, we found strong evidence that anonymous posts shape the attitudes of news audiences. Specifically, we found that Internet users became significantly more negative towards the news media and USA Today when exposed to a story with an anonymous comments section. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that this pattern of negativity held even when the anonymous comments praised the media’s reporting. Below is a graph showing the average rating of USA Today and the news media in each experimental condition:
In short, it makes little difference whether anonymous comments shower news coverage with uniform praise or with uniform criticism; the average rating that Internet users give to the media always suffers when anonymous comments are included alongside news reports.
Of course, this one experiment cannot explain the complex ebb and flow of the American public’s attitudes towards the news media over the last decade. Moreover, our research cannot speak to the value of non-anonymous comments sections.
Our findings do imply, however, that the media’s widespread adoption of anonymous comments sections is not helping slow down the decline in their 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. In other words, news outlets that care about their reputations (including The Monkey Cage) should shut down their comments sections.
Kevin Wallsten is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Long Beach. Melinda Tarsi is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Bridgewater State University.