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Can Facebook cure the Internet of comment section trolls – and if so, should it?

Funny reviews on Amazon may be delightful, but if there’s one thing we all know about the Internet, it’s that reading user comments for actual insight is a fruitless endeavor. It’s almost a guarantee that these sections will include homophobia, conspiracy theories, racial slurs, bigotry, spam, and god knows what else. But apparently, comment sections are not an entirely lost cause – according to new research, if you want to be in the company of kinder commenters, you best stay within the realms of Facebook.

Authored by Ian Rowe, Ph.D. candidate and Assistant Lecturer from the University of Kent at Canterbury, a study entitled “Civility 2.0: A comparative analysis of incivility in online political discussion” compared the behavior of commentors for The Washington Post, as exhibited through two of the paper’s online platforms: Their official website’s comment section and their Facebook page. A two-week sampling of articles was examined; for articles to be eligible for study, they had to be posted on both the site and the Facebook page, categorized under the paper’s Politics section, and had user comments attached to them.

Rowe’s findings were pretty much what anyone would expect – when political discussions happen through WaPost’s Facebook page comments, users who post them tend to be more civil, compared to those who freely voice their opinions through the site’s comment section while veiled in semi-anonymity (WaPost requires users to register before commenting, but does not require the use of real names). Additionally, while commenters on the WaPost website were often found to take impolite potshots at other participants in the discussion, those who commented through WaPost’s Facebook page were less likely to do so – if they ever did use derogatory language, it was usually directed at people not involved in the discussion, and more likely used as a comment enhancer rather than a mode of attack.

So what is it about Facebook that keeps us so polite – and is it necessarily a good thing?

The Facebook effect on commenting 

Daegon Cho and Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University are co-authors of a comparable study that examines how online commenting is affected by different degrees of commenters’ “identifiability” or level of anonymity, and both agree that Rowe’s findings are consistent with their own: Commenting using a real-name social networking service like Facebook makes people more sensitive about what they write because they are fully aware that it may later affect their reputation. “When there exists more social cues, commenters are less likely to be trolls and flamers,” says Cho.

“The most important contributor to incivility is the fact that commenters are not facing the people they are attacking.”

“These types of studies – our study included – tend to focus (by necessity) on one observable metrics (for instance, aggressive language, profanities) to the detriment of others,” stresses Acquisti, who has not had time to review Rowe’s study prior to our email correspondence. He was, however, able to point out an important factor. “The consequences of imposing identified communications may be many and subtle … civil discourse may be fostered, but freedom to express controversial yet legitimate views may be inhibited.”

While Cho emphasizes that he likes Rowe’s work, he was able to pinpoint a couple of limitations, all of which the author admits to in his paper. First is the fact that Rowe used two separate samples from two different platforms. “Although they were talking about the same topic, the demographic composition [as well as the commenting environment] of the two groups may be [significantly] different,” Cho explains. “Users may behave differently apart from the impact of anonymity. Commenting on Facebook might be a different experience from commenting to the news articles on newspaper Web pages.”

The second limitation is Rowe’s topic focus. While people who are politically inclined tend to be biased when it comes to voicing their points-of-view, other general topics may generate a different type of response from commenters altogether. Cho believes that if Rowe modifies his methodology to include other topics and is able to find consistent results, it would increase the study’s merit.

Another study, co-authored by University of Wisconsin-Madison professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, examines how uncivil online communication affects people’s perceptions toward a scientific issue (particularly, nanotechnology). Scheufele agrees that the differences Rowe found between two platforms may be due to the levels of anonymity each offers, but believes that these results are probably also due to the platforms’ varying designs: Comments and user exchanges are an integral and very visible part of Facebook’s main interface (read: Timeline), but they are much less prominently featured on WaPost’s website. “On the former, everything is designed with an eye toward exchanges and getting responses to posts,” explains Scheufele. “On the latter, it takes a reader at least one click and some scrolling before even getting to the first user comment.” In short, if you’re being a huge d-bag online, Facebook will make it more apparent, thereby discouraging you from showing said d-bag behavior.

On the other hand, Brossard thinks Rowe’s study results are not convincing. “The researchers did not detect significant differences in the number of impolite statements on the Washington Post site, compared to its Facebook site,” analyzes Brossard. “The number of uncivil comments seem very low overall on both platforms, most likely due to the study design. Anonymity does not guarantee incivility on the web.”

Brossard explains her latter statement: In her opinion, people are rude online because of the lack of established norms that dictate acceptable behavior. “Anonymity in itself is not what makes people rude (although it might contribute to the problem). The most important contributor to incivility is the fact that commenters are not facing the people they are attacking.”

Is the fix for comment sections getting rid of them altogether?

Sharing well-thought-out opinions online definitely has its advantages. It can establish a strong community for the website that has a comment function enabled. It can forge a stronger relationship between the website and the reader. It can promote interesting, dynamic discussions and new ideas. But in exchange for all this, you have to deal with the trolls. 

“There’s a fine line between trying to force clean and respectful content and inhibiting freedom of speech.”

Unfortunately, as long as freedom of speech is something worth having, the Web will not be free from negative commentary. As a solution, many websites have explicitly drawn up policies on proper online behavior and have comment moderation and spam detection enabled. Others have given up on user feedback altogether. The most common way out of troll-infested woods – which Rowe’s study seems to suggest is ideal – is to switch to the Facebook Connect system, a move that has been done by the likes of ESPN and TechCrunch.

If users are forced to log in using their Facebook credentials before being able to post a comment, they are held more accountable for their actions online. They are inspired to come up with well thought out responses that use a kinder phrasing and are discouraged from using language that may reflect poorly on their character.

From a content management standpoint, Facebook Connect is a much better option for any website owner. Administrators can easily ban a specific user through their personal identity and not have to worry about them easily resurfacing on the site to resume unwarranted flaming. It is also better for avid site visitors because it frees them from having to deal with comments that have no purpose other than to ridicule. Of course it also means that anyone without an account is cut out altogether.

There’s also the fact that people who have valid opinions to share are not always willing to speak up without the safety of anonymity – users can’t get away with saying things that may offend close acquaintances. Personal anecdotes that make comments more lively, entertaining, and insightful would be used sparingly to avoid potential embarrassment. Furthermore, connecting your Facebook account to comment on your favorite websites does not free you from potential online abuse dished out those who vehemently disagree with you. In fact, it makes it easier for them to find you and mock you even more.

Steve Roy, head of marketing for Disqus – a popular comment management platform – believes the substance of the comment matters more than the identity of the commenter. “Each month there are 80 million votes on comments across Disqus, 85 percent of which are up-votes,” Roy shares. “There’s a lot more positive sentiment than negative. Sites that use any comment system with no moderation or fail to apply any guidance essentially create an open public space where anything is possible.”

“While it’s true that people tend to behave more civilly when they know that they will be held accountable for their actions, there’s a fine line between trying to force clean and respectful content and inhibiting freedom of speech, especially in political situations that can become heated and emotional,” says Jordan Kretchmer, founder and CEO of Livefyre, another online conversation service. “To keep their comments clean and constructive, publishers should leverage automated moderation technology to keep abusive users at bay by detecting very negative behavior, without inhibiting participation from people who have an important but maybe controversial point of view.”

Bottom line

When someone is insensitive or outrageous in person, you can easily convey your disapproval with a raised eyebrow, a frown, or a withering look. If someone is being impolite online, you don’t have the luxury of those non-verbal cues – all you can do to avoid unwanted confrontation is choose a platform that provides you the highest amount of civility.

While Facebook has been found to breed decent online commenters, with the current state of person-to-person communication and the Web, a commenter’s identity takes a back seat to the essence of his or her comment. User feedback is a crucial part of social media – turning the option completely off will definitely take away a huge chunk of the online experience. At the end of the day, having an effective comment moderation system is the best possible solution for Internet content producers.

As for you passionate commenters out there, Scheufele thinks there’s a good take-away lesson from all of this: “Never say anything in online comment sections that you wouldn’t want Mom to read.”