Rules of Civility: Study Reveals How to Rein in Rude Online Commenters

New research demonstrates that having a person interact with online commenters can help reduce vitriol.

Whenever I’m dealing with a negative comment online, my first question is ‘Who is this person?’

It can be tempting to ignore rude comments made in online spaces, but a new study found that interacting with commenters may decrease the chances for incivility.

Conducted by the Engaging News Project of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin, the study analyzed roughly 2,500 comments made on a Texas TV station’s Facebook page.

Researchers analyzed the comments, which were made in response to political news stories the station posted, for obscene language, name calling, stereotyping, and exaggerated comments. They found that the chances for an uncivil comment declined by 15 percent when a reporter interacted with commenters as opposed to having no one respond. Incivility also declined by 9 percent when the station’s posts included a question or two, inviting people to comment.

“By commenting four to five times on average in response to a post, the reporter was able to improve the tone of the discussion in the comment section,” Natalie Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project, said in a statement. Stroud added that one possible explanation for the results is that “people appreciate being heard by a recognizable person from the news.”

While the study looked at comments made on news stories, a potential minefield of incivility, negative online discourse can happen anywhere, including on association websites and in their social media spaces. So how should an association respond?

“You need a plan in place before you are in the middle of dealing with a situation,” said Martha Jack, director and head consultant at eConverse Social Media Consulting, Inc. “Involve all stakeholders and decide key things like chain of command, timing, and the overall tone of your social media presence.”

Jack also advised knowing your audience. “Whenever I’m dealing with a negative comment online, my first question is ‘Who is this person?’” she said.  “You may not know them, but others in your organization may have dealt with them. You want to know things like how well-known they are in the industry, are they known for causing trouble, are they the type of person who is never going to be made happy, before you decide how to proceed.”

Should an organization itself respond to comments or is it better to appoint a specific, recognizable person within the association to do so?

“It depends on the tone you want to set, your resources, and the size of your association, among other things,” Jack said. “The upside [to a response by a person] is that users feel like they are connecting with an individual. The downside is that that one person becomes the face of the association. What happens when they leave their job?”

How does your association respond to online comments, positive or negative? Let us know (politely) in the space below.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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