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Local newspaper’s new online community has led to the worst behavior

 

The Leaf Chronicle NewspaperYesterday’s Leaf Chronicle editorial writer, Lori Riegelmann – StoryChat comments were crude, insensitive, has a point.

Anonymous users hiding behind pseudonyms online frequently engage in hateful, bigoted, and mean spirited behavior. Abuse by a minority of the users of the Leaf Chronicle Story Chat has already caused several people to shy away from participation in the public discourse at the Leaf Chronicle’s web site, including myself. It’s just not worth the hassle of participating.

Even Yahoo! decided that story chat type forums were a bad idea without significant controls being in place to prevent abuse.

To Yahoo! News readers:

Yahoo! News is working on new ways for readers to comment on the news and participate in a discussion around it. While we work on our new community features, the message boards that were linked from individual news articles have been taken offline.

As they were set up, the Yahoo! News message boards allowed a small number of vocal users to dominate the discussion. In addition, related discussions from similar news articles were not easily linked.

Over the next few months, we plan to offer new discussion forums based on topics in the news and incorporating the latest features to foster a better discussion for all of our readers.

Neil Budde
General Manager
Yahoo! News

A meaningful step towards combating incivility at the Leaf Chronicle, would be to require users posts to display their real names and zip codes, as is done when the user sends in a letter to the editor. The ability of the community to apply peer pressure can be one of the best weapons for preventing forum abuse. Users should also be required to provide contact numbers viewable only by the staff of the Leaf Chronicle, which can then be used to contact and warn users who frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior. It also is a tool which can help prevent people from establishing multiple accounts to engage in abusive behavior.

Anonymity is a double-edged sword when it comes to an online community. While anonymity may allow people to feel more free and disinhibited to discuss otherwise embarrassing or stigmatizing topics, it can also be a community’s biggest enemy. Anonymity allows people to hide behind their computers while saying whatever they want with little ramification. Psychologists know that online community is far more disinhibited than face-to-face communications. Pair that disinhibition with anonymity and you have a recipe for potential disaster. – John M. Grohol, A List Apart

It’s been found in scientific studies that anonymity online frequently leads to abusive behavior which the person would have never considered taking part in when offline. It even has it’s own specific psychological term, the online disinhibition effect:

The online disinhibition effect — to two unique aspects of the Internet: anonymity and invisibility. The perception that one’s identity is hidden, beyond discovery, becomes intoxicating; people can express how they truly feel without worrying about being held personally accountable for what they say. – Flamed, The Stanford Daily

I seldom find reason to agree with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, but on the subject of online anonymity, I happen to find myself in strong agreement with the statement he made below:

Summing up the 1995 case of McIntyre v Ohio Elections Commission, Justice Scalia stated that anonymity ‘facilitates wrong by eliminating accountability, which is ordinarily the very purpose of the anonymity’. To create legal protection for words communicated anonymously without legitimate reason to expect ‘threats, harassment or reprisals’ was ‘a distortion of the past that will lead to a coarsening of the future’. – Justice Anthony Scalia as quoted in Net anonymity: free speech or cheap words? by Dave Amis

Free flowing discussions on issues of public importance can still take place even with the Leaf Chronicle being proactive in prohibiting personal attacks. It’s the duty of the site’s operators to ensure that people are not ganged up on, or attacked due to their beliefs, or positions on issues.

As someone who runs several online communities, I can tell you that to be successful they require active moderation by a trained, neutral, and professional staff, and this is something the Leaf Chronicle should seriously consider putting into place. Once people in the community see that the Leaf Chronicle’s staff won’t tolerate continued abusive activities, the level of abuse will drop, and civil discourse will increase.

“The Internet really amplifies everything,” says Jeffrey Cole, of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. “We have a lot of opinions out there. All of a sudden there’s a place we can go to share them.”

Add to that the freedom that anonymity provides, he says, and it “can lead to a rowdy Wild West situation, with no one to filter it.”

“It’s all things said reflexively, without thinking,” says Cole, who tracks the political and social impact of the Internet as director of Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future.

“My guess is that if you went back to these people, a lot of them would have second thoughts.”

And if you asked them to add their name, as in a traditional letter to the editor?

“They’d be embarrassed.” – Web-Based Anonymity Often Leads to Abuse, a Fox News/AP article


About Bill Larson

    Bill Larson

    Bill Larson is the Creator and Publisher of Clarksville Online, and works as a network administrator for Compu-Net Enterprises. He is politically and socially active in the community. Bill serves on the board of the Clarksville Community Concert Association, and is a member of the Friends of Dunbar Cave.

    You can reach him via telephone at 931-249-0043 or via the email address below.

    Email: clarksville@clarksvilleonline.com

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3 Responses to “Local newspaper’s new online community has led to the worst behavior”

  1. Bill Larson Says:
    April 10th, 2007 at 5:48 am
    Bill Larson

    For a good example of what is being discussed here check out Muslims on alert after hate crime:
    Defaced Quran found on steps at Islamic Center
    and the Story chat comments for the article….

  2. Terry McMoore Says:
    April 10th, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    Bill this is one of your best articles. I hope the Leaf Chronicle hears this. I hope you consider sending them a copy.

    Great insight!

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