COMMENT: The Telegraph, Bhubble, and the Online Disinhibition Effect

Jeff Weaver
By Jeff Weaver
February 28th, 2014

The comments section of a news website like the Rossland Telegraph and those on community forums like Bhubble should have little in common other than being on the internet.  News website comment sections are for voicing opinions and fomenting discussion about articles, has a much wider circulation of readership and geographical association with the topics and, almost always, will have issues with trolling. On the other hand, community forums like Bhubble are supposed to be a forum for communities to come together and discuss issues that are important to them, where users can benefit from the knowledge base of their community, help buy/sell used items, etc. Often, however, sites like Bhubble seem to be increasingly hijacked by uncivil discourse.

While the severity of uncivil behavior on community forums is far less severe that what is found on large news and magazine websites, the levels of vitriol does make one wonder how people who are ostensibly neighbors  can have their discussions degenerate to the level of troll-like behavior.

The answer is, in large part, internet anonymity.

An internet “troll” is slang for someone who sows discord on the internet by deliberately posting inflammatory, often off-topic remarks on blogs, comments sections, and community forums in an attempt to sow discord.  If you’ve spent any time in a community forum or the comments section of any major news media organization, you’ve probably come across trolls and troll-like behavior. 

Recent developments have led the CBC program ‘The Current’ to ask whether anonymous comments on certain types of websites may become a thing of the past?  The Huffington Post – an industry leader in the advent of web journalism– in an effort to “starve the Trolls”, recently required individuals to sign in using their Facebook accounts.  By doing so, they hope to increase the number of serious, thoughtful commentaries on their website while concurrently reducing the number of trolling comments.

Prior to this decision, The Post had 40 employees whose sole function was moderating comments – indeed, it was their commitment to their comments section (they publish 9 million moderated comments a month) that so surprised users of their site when they announced the new policy towards removal of anonymity.  The Huffington Post argues that the resources required to police anonymous comments (they claim that three quarters of comments that must be removed from their website are trolling in nature) far outweigh the benefits of allowing anonymity, and they are not the first website to attempt to police the behavior of trolls.  Popular Science magazine recently eliminated internet comments altogether, while YouTube has asked posters of videos to moderate their own comments section.

A recent study out of the University of Manitoba asked, “what kind of personality is drawn to trolling behavior?”  Their findings were mildly disturbing, and yet not altogether surprising.

They found that Trolls exhibit personality traits like sadism (they enjoy hurting people), Machiavellian leanings, narcissism, and sometimes psychopathic (in that they are devoid of empathy).   This is why people – rightfully so – take offense to being called a Troll on community forums.  It’s obviously unfair to equate ‘sadism’ with someone that is merely being childish or unconstructive, and yet we should be wary of the degree of vitriol found in some of our community online discussions and ask ourselves how we can change the paradigm to endanger more respect amongst users.  What’s the point of a community forum if we can’t speak to one another with civility?

Online anonymity releases users from the social repercussions that influence face-to-face interactions.  In a 2004 study, psychologist John Suler coined the term “The Online Disinhibition Effect”.  It states that “while online, some people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person.”  Another study by a communications professor in Houston found that anonymous comments were far more likely to be uncivil, and as such concluded “anonymity encourages uncivilty”.   So how does one foster an increased sense of civility online without removing anonymity?  Are the two doomed to be dichotomous?

It is important to note that there is a lot of value in online anonymity. It is also true that simply removing anonymity will not automatically increase online civility.  Some website users must concern themselves with repercussions from their employer or their community if their opinions on various subjects were known, and many people are also far more likely to engage on issues when they know that they will not be held accountable for those opinions.  Creativity flourishes.  For instance, it can be very awkward when you might have to regularly pass someone on the street or the grocery store who you may have disagreed with online! 

There is cause for optimism that the solution may yet be in the hands of the users themselves, not the website administrators.  The CBC discussed removing anonymity from their comments section, but the feeling was that their user community was already fighting back against trolling – that trolls and troll like behavior are no longer as effective – or disruptive – as they once were because savvy users often simply ignore (arguably the most powerful tool in the online comment arsenal) the Trolls, thereby disempowering them and found that if no one reacts, they simply go away.

By extension, small community forums can simply choose not to react to comments and behavior that are not constructive – easier said than done – but users can simply stop before they press “submit” and ask themselves “does this add to the discussion”.  It’s a simple, yet very powerful tool that has proven to work for large websites with thousands of users, and it can work on the smaller community forums as well.

Community forums are a place to come together and discuss issues both importantand trivial – the delineation so often in the eye of the beholder – and each user can choose whether to discuss those issues in a controlled and respectful way, perhaps as they would do in person.  Face-to-face interaction always engenders a different behavior than letters, the phone, email, and while the lack of anonymity in a person’s public life will always undoubtedly translate to a yearning for the freedom of anonymous commentary online, community discussions do not have to go the way of the Troll.

Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

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