Anonymity and Online Commenting: An Empirical Study


SSRN, April 2015

Alfred Moore, Research Associate, Conspiracy and Democracy Project (2013 – 2018)
John Naughton, Project Leader, Technology and Democracy (2014 – 2017), Project Director, Conspiracy and Democracy (2013 – 2018)
Rolf Fredheim


In this study we ask how regulations about commenter identity affect the quantity and quality of discussion on commenting fora. In December 2013, the Huffington Post changed the rules for its comment forums to require participants to authenticate their accounts through Facebook. This enabled a large-scale ‘before and after’ analysis. We collected over 42m comments on 55,000 HuffPo articles published in the period January 2013 to June 2014 and analysed them to determine how changes in identity disclosure impacted on discussions in the publication’s comment pages. Our results support the two dominant hypotheses in the literature: the move away from disposable identities resulted in sharply reduced commenting levels and improved user behaviour, partly because the worst offenders withdrew, and partly as commenters modified their tone. However, we found the rate of reduction to vary widely across subject areas: subjects particularly prone to spamming saw the greatest reduction in interaction, while a number of issues saw little reduction at all.