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Source: goodluz/Shutterstock

I could post my shopping list and I’m pretty sure the thread beneath would include some variants of “go back to Africa”  - Hannah Pool

While the Internet has long been regarded as the last bastion of free speech where anyone could post comments anonymously without fear, the dark side of this freedom is also apparent.  Not only do women posting online face horrific abuse and threats, often focusing on rape or “slut shaming”, but people belonging to sexual, religious, or racial minorities typically experience abuse as well. 

Bloggers and journalists such as Hannah Pool (whose quote is included above) have long shared their concerns that the negative comments they receive based on their appearance, gender, or racial background can drown out legitimate commenters. As a result, many would-be contributors who are part of stigmatized groups are often afraid to have a voice on social media platforms such as Twitter or to start their own blogs  (which may be the intent of many of these anonymous abusers).

A new article published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture examines this phenomenon by focusing the negative reactions many non-White commenters receive to their online contributions.  A team of researchers led by Rachel Sumner of Cornell University’s Department  of Human Development examined reader comments to the Room For Debate blog published on the New York Time’s website.  

The Room For Debate blog is intended to allow people from different walks of life to post opinion-editorial (op-ed) essays on specific topics such as interracial marriage or health care and also allows readers to post comments on each essay.   For the purpose of their study, Sumner and her fellow researchers focused on eleven discussions of racial topics published over a one-year period. Topics included affirmative action, lack of minorities in popular television shows, racial relations following the election of President Obama, etc.  For each discussion, two essays were randomly selected:  one by a Black author and one by a White author.  The twenty-two essays selected were also evenly divided between male and female authors.

The responses each essay received were coded by undergraduates who had no knowledge of the racial background of the essay author. All responses were scored for negativity (i.e., denying the legitimacy of the author, denying legitimacy of the argument, accusing the author of overreacting, claims of author bias) as well as  word count and how many comments each essay received.  

As expected, comments given on essays written by Black authors showed significantly higher negativity than comments directed at White authors.  While most comments had little or no negativity, the majority of comments that did include negativity were written on Black author's op-eds.  Most of the negative comments focused on rejecting the author's argument or accusing the author of bias. Overall, Black authors also received far more comments than White authors did and total word count by commenters  was  significantly greater as well.

Due to concerns about possible  limitations for this study, including the lack of any real background information about commenters, Rachel Sumner and her fellow researchers conducted an online experiment.  Using Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk site,   161 participants were recruited (50.9 percent female, 70.9 percent White) for an online experiment measuring how they responded to online essays.

The experimental design compared responses to essays on race-related vs. non-race related topics as well as race of the essay author (always named as "Paul Butler"). The three racial conditions were:  Black author (featuring a picture of a Black male), White author (having a picture of a White male), and no-race (no picture given).  Instead of soliciting comments, all participants were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the essay, how legitimate they felt the author to be, how legitimate they felt the essay to be, and whether the author was biased or overreacting. Demographic information was also collected for each participant, including gender, race, age, and whether or not they wrote comments to essays they read online. Since there weren't enough non-White participants to make direct racial comparison possible, data analysis focused exclusively on White participants.

Results showed that Black authors were significantly more likely than White authors to be rated negatively for essays on racial topics. Black authors were also far more likely to be seen as overreacting or showing bias than White authors despite the identical nature of the essay used.  Participants also indicated that they were far more likely to leave comments for essays on racial topics if the author was Black than White or if no information on author race were available.

Overall, both studies show strong evidence that Black authors are  far more likely than White authors to face challenges to their intellectual competence or overall authority than White authors speaking on the subject of race. Regardless of actual content, Black authors are often seen as overreacting or biased on racial topics regardless of what is actually said. While most comments tended to be positive, the overall trend towards greater negative comments towards Black authors speaking on racial topics seems unmistakable.

In discussing these finding, Rachel Sumner and her co-authors suggest that discussions about racial discrimination may threaten the beliefs many people hold about equality of opportunity regardless of race. Belief in a "just world" in which prevailing differences in wealth or status are due exclusively to ability or that racial differences don't actually exist may cause people to react negatively to any attempt at challenging how they view the world.In much the same way, women authors speaking on topics relating to gender discrimination are also likely to encounter this kind of negativity as well.  

Given the limitations of these two studies, more research is needed to investigate what causes many people to react negatively towards stigmatized groups in society, particularly when their own beliefs are challenged.   While the negative comments discussed in this research asn't nearly as vicious as the verbal harassment and abuse coming from many anonymous posters in countless forums across the Internet, the underlying motivation is likely not that different. So long as this kind of negativity exists, many people will continue to be afraid to speak out.  

And we are all the lesser for it. 

References

Sumner, R., Stanley, M. J., & Burrow, A. L. (2017). Room for debate (and derogation): Negativity of readers’ comments on Black authors’ online content. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(2), 113-122. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000090

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