Arthur Santana is an assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. Before he was a professor, he spent more than a decade as a print journalist. He wanted to see if there was a way to quantify the civility of online comments.
"Is there a difference between the way people express themselves, express their opinion, whether their anonymous, or non-anonymous."
For about a year-and-a-half, Santana studied more than a dozen daily newspapers. Most of them require people to log-in through their Facebook profile to comment on stories. Three of papers in the study, the LA Times, the Arizona Republic, and The Houston Chronicle, allow commenters to remain anonymous.
"I found that 53% of anonymous comments included language that was either vulgar, or racist, or hateful in some way. And just about 29% of the non-anonymous comments were found to be uncivil."
So why go to the effort of quantifying something that, to most people, would seem so obvious?
"We can now say that there has been a significant correlation between anonymity and civility. And now that we've found this to be true, and real, and valid, we can move on with other research and build upon this."
And that research, Santana says, would look deeper at what happens when anonymity in newspaper article comments is removed.
"What we're finding is that, effectively, when you remove anonymity, you rise the level of the dialogue, because people are more civil. People are a little nicer to each other. And, theoretically, there's more productive conversation."
But Santana says while newspaper commenters might be nicer and more civil to one another, their conversations might become shallow and boring.
"I think the way to have a productive conversation and move the ball forward with two people who disagree is to have a frank, honest, raw, unfiltered, unvarnished dialogue about a topic. It's the incivility that, from a psychological perspective, just shuts down the conversation."
So what's the solution? Santana says he prefers anonymous commenting forums, but with moderators to filter out the nastiness. But he concedes the practical answer may lie in a trend his survey found. Nearly half of the 137 largest newspapers in the country have already eliminated anonymity. About 40 percent still allow it. And almost ten percent don't have comment forums at all.