03.04.2013 09:28 AM

You stink: the psychology of online vituperation

From the Times:

“The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.”

As some of you may recall, I refused to permit comments on this web site for many years.  I was concerned about vicarious libel liability, one, and – two – I simply thought comments, particularly unmoderated ones, had turned the Internet into a cyber-sewer.  Despite that, or because of that, one guy even created an unaffiliated web site for people to comment on what I (and others) posted.

I eventually decided to accept comments, with rules, when I was persuaded that I could effectively moderate what was offered up.  The unmoderated streams at places like the Globe and Sun News are libel time bombs waiting to happen, and I’ve told friends in both organizations as much.  We’ll see if I’m right.

In the meantime, take a look at this study about nano-commenting.  It’s interesting.

And, of course, if you want to comment, go ahead.

Just be nice.



  1. W the K - No, not Warren says:

    Always observe the Mama Rule. Before commenting, ask yourself of what she`d think of what you have to say.

  2. Brad Young says:

    The comments on the sun site are awful.

    A lot of hate out there.

  3. The big principle which must never been violated on the Internet (or anywhere else) is Freedom of Speech, except where such speech would be illegal under a fair criminal code such as we have in Canada. We have always looked at is as an /ignore or a block (#philosophical) rather than a complete expulsion (which is pretty difficult anyway). /ignore and block counselling of aggrieved users is more effective than kicking, banning, and militarization of chat room defence (#political). Each user has their ‘my side’ and their ‘other side’ within a given social media space.

    It’s not just ‘don’t say anything online you wouldn’t want to hear on the media’, but ‘if you want to be heard on the media, keep it civil’
    Still, some have no sense at all, and that is what we have libel laws for.

    Why not lobby the content aggregators like DISQUS to have a block user function? I have found you do not have to block that many to have a pleasurable experience. I bet if you could block 20 people at the SUN it would be fairly benign.

  4. dave says:

    It happened with telephones.
    About three decades ago, mid afternoon, nice summer day, phone rings, I answer.
    Voice, an 8 year old kid ( I recognized my neighbour’s kid…I always helped him with his bike chain), called me, “Stinky, stinky, stinky!
    I did not say anything.
    “You’re a stinky.” He repeated.
    I said, “This hurts my feelings.”
    A few seconds silence, then the kid said, “Dummy!” and he hung up.
    I just could not help smiling.

    So, the vituperation on line has precedents.

  5. Moira Snorgnal says:

    Note that online news sources like the G&M offer a complaints outlet for nasties, subject posts to automated screening (e.g. why people write fu(K or sh*t), have editorial oversight on stories regarding persons (i.e. as opposed to concepts, ideas), and in some cases of controversial topics, will not allow comments at all. As you point out, if someone really wants to get wild, they will set up a server run by 14- year olds in Romania and post to it from unsecured public networks.

    Historically, William Tyndale published anonymously. A Modest Proposal by Swift was published anonymously. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson published anonymously. All of the dissident literature in the Soviet Union was published in anonymous samizdat format.

    The whole narrative of the danger of anonymous literature is usually the paranoia of the powers-that-be. In Canada, like the United Kingdom, the great danger is that because the truth is no defense (malicious intent), pretty much any serious critique of powerful and influential individuals or corporations is impossible short of self-destruction. Indeed, as the legal storm surrounding the book “Funding Evil” by Dr. Ehrenfeld proved, terrorists are well served by Toronto and London being first rate “libel tourism” destinations.

    Surely, if a society is so dysfunctional that a person’s reputation hangs by the mere threads of online discussion forums or facebook, loss of reputation is the least of it’s worries – the simulacrum has become all – which seems to be what this study is indicating.

  6. Steve T says:

    It is ridiculous that libel (or worse) can be alleged against an organization for comments posted on its “Comments” section by third parties. To me, that seems like alleging libel on a homeowner if someone spray paints a racist comment on their garage. Yet another example of acting against the easy target, rather than the actual perpetrator.

    We think we aren’t as litigious as our American neighbors, but in some cases, we aren’t any better.

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