Civility, Anonymity and the Breakdown of a New Public Sphere
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Reader comment forums of online newspapers, a relatively new feature of online journalism, have been called spaces of public deliberation. At their inception among large newspapers just five years ago, the forums were heralded as a new way for the public to advance public dialogue by sharing opinions in an unconstrained way, promoting the democratic principles of the newspaper institution itself. Rampant incivility, however, has since become one the forums' chief defining characteristics. By content analyzing comments from online newspapers that allow anonymity, this research confirms anecdotal evidence from journalists that Latinos are regularly debased in the forums by commenters following news on immigration. This study also compares the civility of anonymous comments following news on the Tea Party movement, a non-racialized but also controversial topic. Finally, civility is measured in the comments following news on immigration from online newspapers that have disallowed anonymity. In all, more than 22,000 comments from nearly 200 news stories in more than a dozen online newspapers were collected between 2010 and 2012, and a sample of 1,350 was coded. The analysis shows that online newspaper discussion boards that allow anonymity and that follow news about immigration predominantly contain comments by those who support tough immigration laws and who express themselves with emotionally laden, uncivil comments directed at Latinos. Similar discussion boards that disallow anonymity predominantly contain comments by those who support tough immigration laws and who express themselves with emotionally laden yet civil comments directed at Latinos. Overall, this research demonstrates that a racialized topic is apt to draw more uncivil anonymous comments than a non-racialized one and that removing anonymity elevates the level of dialogue. Building on the theories of the public sphere, reduced cues in anonymity and critical race theory, this paper demonstrates that in their new role in creating a new public square of open discussion, newspapers are sometimes creating forums for hate speech while also publishing content that is perpetuating negative portrayals of Latinos. Findings reveal that a new public sphere created by online newspapers, meant to promote democracy, is actually having the opposite effect for some minority groups.