Research News

To Understand YouTube Comments, Look at Video’s Tone, Topic

IPR associate Stephanie Edgerly studies link between online videos, comments


Can content creators shape their audience's comments? 

Launched in 2005, YouTube was quickly adopted not just by cat lovers and musicians, but also by politicians. By 2008, nearly three-quarters of Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate candidates had created their own channels. While the video-sharing site has provided new opportunities for political engagement and information, it also raises questions about the quality of such information and whether informed democratic deliberation takes place on the site. 

In a recent article, Stephanie Edgerly, a media scholar and IPR associate, and her fellow researchers seek to understand the relationship between the tone and focus of a political video and its online comments—and in doing so, ask why an online comment thread might veer from civility.

“We can all anecdotally reference terrible comments we’ve read, but you have to look at what underlies the meaning of those terrible comments,” Edgerly said. “How could you potentially build spaces that minimize those comments?” 

For their case study, Edgerly and her colleagues studied videos about California’s Proposition 8. The 2008 state ballot measure—also known as Prop 8—sought to legally define marriage as being between a man and a woman. It was one of the most expensive social media campaigns ever, and its passage was subsequently challenged—and eventually declared unconstitutional.

Stephanie Edgerly

Their study reviewed nearly 46,000 comments attached to 207 YouTube videos on Prop 8. The researchers were especially interested in examining videos that had an “uncivil” tone—using hateful language, name calling, or other derisive approaches—and those that took a “humorous” approach, such as parody.

While videos with a less than genteel tone generated more impolite comments, the researchers were surprised to find that there was no relationship between videos that take a humorous approach and uncivil comments.

“We thought that once you take on an alternative tone in a video, like being humorous or making fun of people, that that would lead into a cascade of incivility in the comments,” Edgerly said. “And that’s not what we found.” 

The researchers also examined whether the topics covered in a video could serve as a “springboard” for comments. For instance, if a Prop 8 video mentioned religion, would the comments also touch on religion? 

According to the researchers, they do. Of the three topics they focused on—religion, children, and rights, they find that the corresponding comments were likely to mention the respective issues, and videos referring to several topics generated single comments with “information breadth,” or references to multiple topics. 

Their results reveal the “important psychological mechanisms” behind the information processing and thought activation that takes place on YouTube, in addition to confirming effects of framing and the priming process—a psychological concept that describes how exposure to a certain stimulus can implicitly affect responses to a later stimulus. They also appear to indicate that “exchange” is taking place: Commenters do take up a video’s topics and a video’s tone can set the stage for the comments that follow.

The researchers conclude by noting that commentary on YouTube is neither “inherently deliberative, nor inherently meaningless chatter,” and suggest that subsequent research needs to further identify the factors that shape these online comments. 

Stephanie Edgerly is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School and an IPR associate. For more, read “Directing the Dialogue: The Relationship Between YouTube Videos and the Comments They Spur,” in the Journal of Information Technology & Politics by Edgerly with Emily Vraga of George Mason University, Kajsa Dalrymple of the University of Iowa, Timothy Macafee of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Timothy Fung of Hong Kong Baptist University.