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Good Question: Why Are There So Many Mean, Anonymous Commenters Online?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Novelist Anne Rice, best known for her books about vampires, has signed onto a petition asking Amazon.com to stop allowing people to post anonymous reviews. In an interview with the Guardian, Rice says the “anti-author gangsters” make her a victim of bullying.

It doesn’t take long to find a cruel, anonymous comment on everything from newspaper websites to Yelp and Amazon.

“That’s the stupidest book I’ve ever read,” wrote one person while reviewing a novel on Amazon.

Well-known vlogger, ZE Frank, recently taped a YouTube video responding to online critics. In it, he says: “For example, some young gentleman said he wanted to punch me in the face because my voice was so annoying.”

A Pew Research study found 25 percent of people admit to posting anonymous comments online. A communications professor at the University of Houston studying the issue found anonymity contributes to less civil discourse. He looked at online comments in newspapers for more than a year and half and found 53 percent of comments were uncivil in papers that allowed anonymity. That percentage dropped to 29 percent when newspapers required names or links to Facebook accounts.

“I think people are also much more inclined to comment about something if they have a complaint. Sometimes it’s the only way you feel that you can be heard, so it winds up feeling like online comment sections are filled with negativity,” said Shayla Thiel-Stern, a professor of new media and culture at the University of Minnesota.

Though she says it’s hard to study, Thiel-Stern believes anonymous online posters are generally a small group with a loud voice.

“We just don’t know,” she said.

That research difficulty was acknowledged in a 2013 study that found writing and reading online rants was unhealthy and the people that do it are generally angrier.

“It’s just people trying to get a rise out of folks, trying to get other trolls to come out and hijack a conversation,” said Sam McConnell of Minneapolis.

Thiel-Stern says anonymity makes it easier for some people to post things they normally might not.

“I don’t think we’re getting meaner as a society,” she said. “I think social media emphasizes some of that meanness.”

Websites are able to allow as many or as few comments as they like, the posters are still held to same defamation standards.

“A lot of people think the internet is anything goes. That’s just not true,” said University of Minnesota journalism professor Amy Kristin Sanders. “Any actionable speech printed in a newspaper would be actionable online as well.”

She does acknowledge, though, legally finding out the identity of an anonymous poster can be difficult, because there is no national legal standard for what is necessary in the courts to unmask an identity.

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