Motivations Underlying Commercial Web Sites Censorship: the Third-Person Perception

ABSTRACT - Given the increasingly important role the Internet plays in consumers’ lives, people have became more and more aware of the potential adverse effects of the Internet and have called for regulations and restrictions of some commercial web sites. This study set out to determine why people oppose or support the censorship of commercial web sites. Specifically, this study examined how the perceived impact on self, other adults, and teenagers predicted one’s willingness to censor commercial web sites. The results indicated that people perceive commercial web sites to have a significantly greater effect on others than themselves, and the perceived effects on third-persons were positively related to pro-censorship attitude, even when a host of potentially confounding variables were controlled.



Citation:

Fang Wan, Seounmi Youn, and Ronald J. Faber (2001) ,"Motivations Underlying Commercial Web Sites Censorship: the Third-Person Perception", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 90-100.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 90-100

MOTIVATIONS UNDERLYING COMMERCIAL WEB SITES CENSORSHIP: THE THIRD-PERSON PERCEPTION

Fang Wan, Vanderbilt University, U.S.A.

Seounmi Youn, University of North Dakota, U.S.A.

Ronald J. Faber, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.

ABSTRACT -

Given the increasingly important role the Internet plays in consumers’ lives, people have became more and more aware of the potential adverse effects of the Internet and have called for regulations and restrictions of some commercial web sites. This study set out to determine why people oppose or support the censorship of commercial web sites. Specifically, this study examined how the perceived impact on self, other adults, and teenagers predicted one’s willingness to censor commercial web sites. The results indicated that people perceive commercial web sites to have a significantly greater effect on others than themselves, and the perceived effects on third-persons were positively related to pro-censorship attitude, even when a host of potentially confounding variables were controlled.

INTRODUCTION

The Internet has become a borderless marketplace for searching for information, purchasing, and exchanging products and services. Recent studies of online users found that at least one third of interactive households used the web to investigate or buy products or services (Moran, 1997), with as many as 70% of regular web users having made one or more online purchase (Magill, 1998). The U.S. spending for online advertising is expected to grow from $1.3 billion in 1998 to $10.5 billion in 2003 (Mand, 1998). Internet-related commerce is projected to increase from $1.9 billion in 1998 to around $4 billion by year 2000 (Jupiter Communications, 1998).

As a consequence of this exponential growth in commercial domains, there have been increasing concerns about "commercial harms" that the Internet supposedly causes (Donnelly 1996). The concerns about the darker side of the Internet have been directed toward a number of web sites considered to be potentially dangerous or harmful to consumers, especially to children or teenagers. These include commercial web sites devoted to activities such as gambling, pornography, and online auctions.

Efforts to prevent the potential harm that the Internet allegedly inflicts on consumers have come from many sources, such as online industry themselves, consumer protection groups, law enforcement, and government agencies including the FTC. Claims of undesirable effects resulted in numerous calls for regulations on Internet content. These regulations include the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) to restrict obscene material to minors (McNeely and Moorefield, 1999), the Project Safe Bid to curtail online auction fraud (Roth, 2000; Snyder, 2000), the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act to ban cyber gambling (Rosen, 2000), and various attempts to preserve consumers’ online privacy (Furger, 2000).

Consumer’s growing willingness to restrict commercial web sites for products or services relies on the belief that these restrictions will help reduce pornography distribution, violations of intellectual-property rights and consumer privacy, new types of crime such as online auction fraud and addiction to online gambling. Critics also believe that these regulations can protect "vulnerable groups" such as children, teens, women, or minors from harmful materials or activities on the Internet.

One example of the attempts to regulate or censor Internet content is the current debate on gambling web sties. As the most popular form of entertainment in US, gambling is moving to the Internet. To date, there are more than 700 unregulated gambling web sites in U.S. (Mainelli, 2000). About 5 million Americans engaged in online gambling or played an online lottery in 1999, according to a survey conducted by non-profit Pew Internet & American Life Project (Mainelli, 2000). In 1999, 100 gambling sites generated approximately $1 billion in revenues (Cato Institute, 2000). These cyber casinos offered everything from casino games to horse and sports betting. Similar to real casinos, cyber casinos allow people to gamble for real money. Unlike real casinos, online casinos are not subjected to industry regulation and scrutiny, and their mostly offshore bases make such regulation difficult if not impossible.

Because offshore gambling operations are beyond the reach of both sate gambling and regulatory laws, online gamblers did suffer from the misconducts of Internet gambling operatorsCtheir losses are deducted immediately from their online accounts and their winnings often fail to appear (Keller, 1999). In most instances, the individual gambler does not know, or have the resources to determine, who exactly the Internet "house" is, further reducing the guarantee of a fair payout (Keller, 1999).

Moreover, gambling web sites present many other problemsCuneasiness about the morality of the activity; the likelihood of addiction; and the possibility of fraud. Questions of morality primarily surface in connection with gambling web sites’ accessibility to children or teens, which are reminiscent of arguments made by the Communication Decency Act (Kish, 2000). Because children or teens have potentially unlimited access to computers and the Internet, it is possible that without proper monitoring they will access gambling web sites. This concern mirrors the concern frequently expressed regarding children’s access to indecent materials. The likelihood of addiction of Internet gambling among both younger consumers and adults is another area of concern. For example, the video game-like nature of virtual casinos, (labeled the "crack cocaine of gambling"), could make online gambling a temptation difficult for children or teens to resist. Furthermore, the easy access and the fact that the visitors of gambling web sites need not leave the comfort and privacy of home could mean that an individual might become easily addicted. Therefore, supporters of a ban of Internet gambling maintain that outlawing the activity for all individuals is the only way to insure that a segment of the population, especially children or teens, will be adequately protected from corruption (Kish, 2000).

The Congress is working on the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act (H.R. 3125) that bans all online "gaming" and will seek to further create federal control over the Internet (McDonald, 2000). Supporters of the bill (antigambling forces) claimed that the legislation would protect U.S citizens from threats such as fraud, addiction, crime, and moral decline as well as from the dangers of untaxed and unregulated online betting (Mainelli, 2000). Also, they were worried that the expansion of Internet gambling could carry with it potentially devastating results for those Americans who are at risk of gambling addiction or are compulsive gamblers (Birnbaum, 2000). Whereas opponentsCthe American Civil Liberties Union and online gambling advocatesCargued that the federal government erodes civil liberties and rights of computer gamers. However, the language of this legislation is vague enough to allow abuse down the line that could wind up effecting online gaming.

The controversy concerning the regulation of e-commerce and the protection of minors is not limited to gambling web sites. Online auction sites, auctioning everything from oil field equipment to fake human bones, are one of the most hotly debated areas in electronic transactions. According to e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research, by 2003, $19 billion in goods will be sold to consumers through online auctions and other supply-driven dynamic pricing schemes, up from $1.4 billion in 1998 (O’Brien, 2000). Though online transaction via auction sites is booming, eighty-seven percent of the Internet fraud complaints reported by the National Consumer League in 1999 were related to online auctions.

To address the fraudulent practice of online auction, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a consumer alert notifying prospective online auctioneers that fraud was becoming more prevalent. However, the FTC has limited success in policing the auctions and bringing prosecutions of fraudulent merchants. Moreover, little has been done to address whether or not the provider of the online auction site should be held accountable for providing the arena in which fraudulent practice occurs.

Another concern about online auction is the controversial products put on sale. In 1999, a human kidney garnered bids up to $5.7 million on the Internet auction site e-Bay before the firm pulled the plug on the sale (Henderson, 2000). Most auction sites now cooperate with law enforcements to prohibit the sale of endangered species, internal organ of animals, police badges and human organs. However, it is difficult to police other controversial products sold on the net, especially when the bidding of the products is accessible to minors and teenagers. Consumer protection groups advocate for restrictions of online auction sites because the sites are held accountable for online fraud, and controversial products encourage consumers to engage in behaviors that are both "undesirable" at a societal level and "harmful" at a personal level.

However, online industries are worried that these restrictions discourage consumers from participating in online commercial transactions and make the commercial growth shrink in an online marketplace. Not surprisingly, online industries are strenuously arguing for a laissez faire government approach, pursuing an industry self-regulation standard (Snyder, 2000). Furthermore, the opponents of commercial web site regulation asserted that the regulation would deprive adults of the opportunity to acquire lawful products and services.

Lawmakers and e-commerce industry advocates have expressed conflicting viewpoints on censoring commercial web sites and regulating e-commerce. However, little research has been done to examine consumers’ attitude toward censoring commercial web sites. Therefore, the primary purpose of this study is to examine how consumers think about the censorship issue and what kinds of factors underlie their censorship attitudes.

Third-Person Effect

Previous research on the censorship of controversial media content has suggested that people support censorship in part because they perceive other members of society to be vulnerable to these messages. This explanation is frequently referred to as the third-person effect in the field of mass communication.

The third person effect claims that people perceive media messages to have a greater impact on others than on themselves (Davison, 1983). Furthermore, this theory argues that a perceptual disparity between the estimated effect of a media message on self versus others may lead people to support censorship or restrictions on speech (Gunther, 1995; McLeod, Eveland, and Nathanson, 1997; Shah, Faber, and Youn 1999). People may believe that advertising for controversial products does not have any negative effects on them, but fear it will adversely affect others. It is for this reason that they may support censorship on advertising for controversial products in general (Shah et al., 1999). However, little research in the past explored people’s attitude toward censoring commercial web sites promoting or selling products or services. The purpose of this study is to employ the third-person effect and explore people’s attitude toward censoring commercial web sites.

Several studies, across a variety of message topics and methodologies, found that people see a discrepancy between the effects of media on others and on themselves (Lasorsa, 1992; Perloff, 1993; Price & Tewksbury, 1996; Tiedge, Silverblatt, Havice, and Rosenfeld 1991). Research suggests that people are more likely to systematically overestimate the extent to which others are affected by mass media while they are more likely to underestimate the effect on themselves (Gunther, 1991).

Some scholars tried to explain the processes underlying the third-person effect by employing concepts in attribution theory like "fundamental attribution error" and "egotistical" or "differential" attributions (Rucinski and Salmon, 1990; Gunther, 1991). According to the fundamental attribution error, observers generally underestimate other people’s awareness of situational (external) factors such as the persuasive intent of media content and, thus, overestimate others’ susceptibility to the media content. But in judging themselves, observers are quite aware of the role of situational factors like persuasive intent. Due to their awareness, they view themselves as less susceptible to these message effects.

Observers may also engage in egotistical or differential attributions (Miller, 1976; Stephan and Gollwitzer, 1981) or self-positivity bias (Perloff, 1993). When a message is deemed negative or when being persuaded by it would be regarded as unintelligent, people perceive the message to have more influence on others in order to enhance their perception of personal invulnerability and control. Individuals may estimate more influence on others in order to preserve self-esteem and a sense of control by seeing themselves as more intelligent. Consequently they deem themselves less susceptible to undesired influence (Gunther, 1991). However, when a message is considered to be positive, people attribute more effect on themselves since they are "smart enough" to recognize its value (Cohen and Davis, 1991; Gunther and Thorson, 1992).

Theorists have examined the conditions that prompt these perceptual discrepancies. Some studies found that there is a greater disparity between perceived effects on the self and others when the source of the message is judged to be negatively biased (Cohen, Mutz, Price, and Gunther, 1988; Gunther, 1991) or when the audience attributes persuasive intent to the communicator (Gunther and Mundy, 1993). Other research shows that those who consider an issue important (Matera and Salwen, 1997; Mutz, 1989), perceive themselves as experts (Lasorsa, 1989), or are highly ego-involved in the message (Perloff, 1989) tend to perceive that others will be more affected by message content. Further, the extent of biased perceptions may increase as the hypothetical others become progressively more psychologically distant from the respondents (Cohen et al., 1988; Cohen and Davis, 1991; Gunther, 1991).

While much research has born out of Davison’s (1983) initial assertion that a bias in perception exists, his contention has received less support that the overestimation of negative or harmful effects of message on others leads people to take some preventive or compensatory action. Most of the initial research examining a behavioral outcome of the third-person effect failed to detect one (Gunther 1991). One explanation for these findings is that people do not exhibit the expected behavior because they view their perspective as different from the opinion of the general publicC a spiral of silence effect inhibits their behavior (Mutz, 1989). However, recent work has linked the third-person effect to a willingness to censor some type of media content such as excessive violence, violent and misogynic rap lyrics, advertising for controversial products or services, or pornography (Gunther, 1995; McLeod et al., 1997; Rojas, Shah, and Faber, 1996; Shah et al., 1999).

Other Factors Affecting Censorship Attitudes

Research on factors contributing to support for expressive rights of the mass media in general or advertising in particular has been rather limited, and often yielded mixed results (Andsager, 1993; Shao and Hill, 1994; Tewksbury, Huang, and Price 1996). Some studies found that attitudes toward censorship are significantly associated with religiosity, authoritarianism, conservatism, and traditional family ideology (Hensen and Wright, 1992; McClosky and Brill, 1983; McLeod, Guo, Huang, Rzeszut and Voakes, 1992; Ritts and Engbretson, 1991; Tewksbury et al., 1996). However, not all studies have found support for these relationships. For example, some studies reported little or no relationship between pro-censorship attitudes and authoritarianism (Schell and Bonin, 1989), or conservatism (Christensen and Dunlap, 1984; Thompson, 1995). One study even found a reverse relationship between conservatism and censorship attitudes (Suedfeld, Steel, and Schmidt, 1994).

Comparable confusion surrounds demographic predictors. Studies have yielded mixed findings regarding the relationship between demographic variables and support for individual and media rights of free expression. Some studies suggested that men are more tolerant of expressive rights than women (Andsager, 1992; Miller, Andsager, and Wyatt, 1992). However, others reported no gender differences (Schell and Bonin, 1989; Tewksbury et al., 1996). Tolerance for speech was also shown to correlate with age and educational level in some studies (Miller et al., 1992; White, 1986); while other studies reported no significant differences based on these variables (Ryan and Martinson, 1983; Schell and Bonin 1989).

It seems that the existing literature on demographic and ideological predictors provides a limited theoretical framework to understand the motivations for censorship of advertising. One commonality across studies appears to be that a willingness to restrict freedom of speech is associated with the belief that the outcome of communications will be negative (Marcus, Sullivan Theiss-Morse and Wood, 1995; Sullivan, Piereson, and Marcus, 1982). Perceived harmful effects are important in explaining the willingness to censor media content or speech. Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect that the third-person perception holds the most promise to account for the willingness to restrict or prohibit commercial web sites for products or services.

HYPOTHESES

The primary purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between the third-person effect and pro-censorship attitudes towards commercial web sites. Specifically, this study explores beliefs about commercial web sites in general as well as two specific commercial web sites that have frequently fueled the censorship debateConline auction sites (e.g., e-bay) and gambling web sites. These two web sites were chosen because they share some similarity, but differ in some aspects. Both web sites are controversial. As discussed earlier, online auction sites have problems like fraudulent practice or controversial products put on sale. Comparatively speaking, gambling web sites are more controversial due to the nature and the consequence of the service they provideCgambling. Additionally, online auction sites seem to be more beneficial to the consumers than gambling sites. For example, online auction sites provide a new mode of commercial transaction and contribute to the rapid growth of e-commerce because consumers (for B2C site) and companies (B2B site) can bid for and purchase products at significantly lower price than buying them from a distributor or directly from a manufacturer.

Recently, much of the discussion regarding commercial harms the Internet cause is centered on the impact of commercial web sites on children or teenagers because of their vulnerability to promotional messages (Henke 1999). Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), a Chicago market research firm, reported that 81% of teens were using the Internet (Brown 1999). They used the Internet to search for information, download photos, chat about entertainment starts, or purchase products. As the Internet has become an essential part of their life, they are more likely to be exposed to potentially harmful message posted on web sites or socially undesirable products or services promoted by web sites. Thus, teenagers’ easy access to harmful materials available on the net makes the concerns about the potential impacts of commercial web sites timely and important.

Based on the findings on the third-person effect reported previously, it is expected that third-person effects will occur for general and specific commercial web sites, and the perceived effect will be greater for others, both adults and teenagers, compared to one’s self. Thus, we expect that

H1a: People will judge commercial web sites to have a greater impact on other adults than on themselves.

H1b: People will judge commercial web sites to have a greater impact on teenagers than on themselves.

The next set of hypotheses deal with the relationship between the third-person effect and censorship attitudes. Davison (1983) originally stated that the overestimation of the negative impact on others would lead people to engage in some form of protective action. When messages are thought to have more powerful and harmful effects on others as compared to one’s-self, people may manifest pro-censorship attitudes. An important motivation for censoring a message is the paternalistic desire to protect others from the harmful effects of this message. These beliefs could stem from "biased optimism" (Weinstein, 1989) and/or "self-positivity bias" (Fske and Taylor, 1991; Raghubir and Menon, 1998), or from attribution errors (Rucinski and Salmon, 1990). As a result, censorship attitudes are predominantly due to a concern that others will be affected by these messages rather than any sense of personal vulnerability. The third-person perception regarding commercial web sites should result in greater support for restrictions on commercial web sites. Accordingly, we expect that:

H2a: The greater the perceived third-person effect of commercial web sites on other adults, the more willing people will be to censor these web sites.

H2b: The greater the perceived third-person effect of commercial web sites on teenagers, the more willing people will be to censor these web sites.

METHODOLOGY

Data were collected in a large Midwestern American city during the summer of 2000. Overall, 171 undergraduate students and 103 adults participated in the study. In the student sample, most respondents (90%) were between the ages of 19 and 23. The majority (65%) were females reflecting the general make-up of the class. Just under half (47%) came from households with an annual family income between $20,000B$59,999. Thirty-eight percent reported their family income as $60,000 and over, while 15 percent reported their family income to be less than $20,000. Students received an extra credit in return for their participation.

Adult respondents were interviewed at an airport in a manner similar to a mall intercept technique. Ages ranged from 17 to 77, with a mean age of 41 years old. Fifty-three percent were women. As for education, 14% completed high school, about half (50%) had attended or completed college, and 36% had attended or completed graduate school. Forty-five percent came from households with an annual income between $40,000B$79,000. One third of respondents (33%) reported an income of $80,000 and over, and 22% reported an income of less than $39,999. These demographic data suggest that the interview at the airport produced a sample that was more educated, and affluent than the general population. However, these differences are also reflective of Internet users in general. Completion time ranged from 20 to 30 minutes for both groups.

Measurement

The survey instrument measured: (1) the third-person effect; (2) censorship attitudes toward advertising to each type of web sites; and (3) control variables including attitudinal or personal values, political affiliation, media use, Internet usage, and demographics.

To assess the third-person effect, this study took the typical approach in the third-person effect literature. That is, respondents were asked in separate questions to indicate how strongly they agree or disagree that each type of commercial web site has a powerful impact on "themselves," on "other adults," and on "teenagers." The wording of the items was identical except for the first- or third-person connotation. Respondents rated their level of agreement with each item using five-point Likert scales ranging from (1) "strongly disagree" to (5) "strongly agree." Two kinds of third-person effects were measured for examination: the difference between estimates of an impact on self versus other adults; and on self versus teenagers.

To minimize response reactivity, the order of items measuring "self" and "others" in terms of perceived impact was randomized. Though recent work has demonstrated that question order does not alter measurement of the basic effect (Price and Tewksbury, 1996), the "self" and "others" questions on the third-person effect were randomly arranged throughout the entire questionnaire as an additional safe-guard. Questions regarding each type of commercial web sites were also randomly interspersed to avoid any response bias due to the order of presentation.

Censorship attitudes toward commercial web sites were assessed with two separate items for each type of web site examined. The first one dealt with attitude toward restricting a web site (e.g., "There should be restrictions on auction web sites such as e-bay"), while the other measured the attitude toward an outright ban on commercial web sites (e.g., "Auction web sites such as e-bay should be banned"). Responses were given the same five-point scale. For each type of commercial web site, the two items showed acceptable internal consistency (a=.64 for commercial web sites in general; a=.74 for auction web sites; a=.79 for gambling web sites). Thus, scores from both items were aggregated for subsequent analysis.

To explore other factors that may affect people’s willingness to censor commercial web sties, this study included two attitudinal variablesBreligiosity and authoritarianismBthat had previously been found to influence pro-censorship attitudes. The religiosity scale was measured by four items (e.g., "I very often think about matters relating to religion") constructed by Putney and Middleton (1961). The authoritarianism scale includes ten items (e.g., "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues teenagers should learn"), developed by Altemeyer (1996). Both scales had acceptable internal consistency with an alpha of .87 for the religiosity and .79 for the authoritarianism. For each scale, individual items were summed for further analysis.

As for other attitudinal variables, innovativeness and general attitude toward web sites were also included because they were expected to have a negative relationship with pro-censorship attitudes toward commercials web sites. The innovativeness scale was estimated with six items (e.g., "I like to experiment with new ways of doing things") and had an alpha of .71. The attitude toward web sites in general was measured with nine items (e.g., "Commercial web sites are the best place to get information about products and services"), part of which were adopted from the Attitude Toward the Site (Ast) scale developed by Chen and Wells (1999). Cronbach’s alpha of this measure was .72. For each scale, individual items were aggregated for subsequent analysis.

To control for personal experience with web sites, respondents were asked to indicate how much time they spent online in an average day and how many times per month they purchased products or services on the net. To control for other factors that might relate to censorship attitudes, respondents were asked to indicate the amount of local and national TV new watching; their frequency of newspaper reading per week; and to indicate their political ideology (conservative to liberal) and political involvement (least involved to most involved) by using five-point Likert scales. Finally, demographic variables such as gender, age, education, and family income were included.

RESULTS

Hypotheses 1a and 1b predicted that people would perceive commercial web sites to have a greater impact on others than on themselves. To test these hypotheses, paired t-tests were run for each type of web sites. Since the respondents in the study were composed of both adults and students, we ran paired-t test for adult sample, student sample, and the total sample separately for each type of web sites (see Table 1.). For all respondents, a significant third-person perception was found for all three sitesBcommercial web site in general, online auction sites, and gambling web sites. Additionally, significant effects were found when the comparison group was either other adults or teenagers. Therefore, H1a and H1b were supported.

Overall, commercial web sites that promote gambling activities showed the largest disparities between the estimated effect on self versus others. The pattern remained the same when we ran the t-tests for student and adult sample separately or for the combined sample. For example, for the combined sample, the perceived impact on other adults was 1.61 points higher than on self (t=20.64, p<.001) and the perceived impact on teenagers was 1.45 points greater (t=16.77, p<.001). For student sample, the perceived impact on other adults was 1.49 points higher than on self (t=16.41, p<.001) and the perceived impact on teenagers was 1.25 greater (t=12.70, p<.001). The pattern is the same for adult sample, where the perceived impact on other adults was 1.83 points higher than on self (t=12.86, p<.001) and the perceived impact on teenagers led the perceived impact on self by 1.78 points (t=11.34, p<.001). It seems that adult sample tended to show a larger magnitude of third person effect than student sample. The difference here may be due to the fact that when compared to student sample, adult sample tended to have a higher estimation of the impact of gambling web sites on other adults (mean=3.14 for student sample; mean=3.42 for adult sample) and on teenagers (mean=2.90 for student sample; mean=3.37 for adult sample). The mean difference between adult and student sample in terms of perceived impact on other adults and teenagers are statistically different.

TABLE 1

PAIRED T-TESTS OF PERCEIVED EFFECTS OF WEB SITES

Comparatively, commercial web sites in general and online auction sites produced somewhat smaller discrepancies between the estimated impact on self versus others. For auction sites, the findings of the combined sample showed that the mean difference in the perceived impact between self and other adults was 0.97 points (t=12.11, p<.001) and the mean difference between self and teenagers was 0.61 points (t=0.62, p<.001). When compared to the combined sample, student sample showed a smaller magnitude of third-person effect (mean difference between impact on other adults and self=.86; between on teenagers and on self=.46; p<.001); while adult sample demonstrated a larger magnitude of third-person effect (mean difference between impact on other adults and self=1.16; between on teenagers and on self=.87; p<.001). Similar to the pattern in gambling web sites, adult sample yielded a larger magnitude of third-person effect for auction web site. The difference here may be due to the fact that students tended to have a higher estimation of the perceived impact of auction sites on self than adult sample (mean=2.50 for student sample; mean=2.14 for adult sample). The mean difference between adult and student sample on first-person perception was also statistically significant.

For commercial web sites in general, the findings for total sample showed that the mean difference between the perceived impact on self versus other adults was 1.02 points (t=14.47, p<.001) and the mean difference was 0.99 points when comparing impact on self with that on teenagers (t=12.85, p<.001). Compared to the combined sample, student sample showed a smaller magnitude of third-person effect when others were teenagers (mean difference between perceived impact on teenagers and on self=.89; p<.001); while adult sample demonstrated a larger magnitude of third-person effect (mean difference between impact on teenagers and on self=1.16; p<.001). However, the pattern was reverse when others were adults (for student sample, mean difference=1.05; for adult sample, mean difference=.70; p<.001).

Among three types of commercial web sites examined, the larger third-person gap for gambling is primarily due to less of a perceived effect on self for this type of site. Thus, respondents appeared to believe that they are better able to avoid being effected by gambling sites than other commercial web sites, although they saw other people as being similarly effected by all three types of commercial web site.

Hypotheses 2a and 2b stated that the perceived effect of commercial web sites on others would lead to people’s willingness to censor commercial web sites. The findings in Table 1 revealed a very similar pattern of third-person perception in terms of each type of commercial web sites for student sample only, adult sample only, and the combined sample. Therefore, we combined student and adult sample ad conducted regressions to test H2a and H2b(see Table 2). The impact of the first- and third-person variables were analyzed individually as suggested by Stenbjerre and Leets (1997). Censorship attitudes toward each type of commercial web sites served as the dependent variable. Overall, the results demonstrated a linkage between the third-person perception and pro-censorship attitudes toward commercial web sites. The third-person variables combined with the first-person variable accounted for from 12% to 17% of total variance in the pro-censorship attitudes.

A closer examination of regression results revealed different patterns of how the third-person effects predict pro-censorship attitudes. Specifically, for general commercial web sites, the perceived effect on teenagers (b=.32, p<.001) appeared as a strong predictor in explaining people’s desire to censor general commercial web sites, but the perceived effect on other adults (b=.08, ns) was not significantly related to censorship attitudes. These findings indicate that the concern about teenagers’ susceptibility to general commercial web sites plays a pivotal role in accounting for pro-censorship attitudes toward these web sites. As expected, the perceived effect on self was not linked to censorship attitudes for general commercial web sites (b=-.09, ns).

TABLE 2

REGRESSION OF CENSORSHIP SCALES ON FIRST- AND THIRD-PERSON EFFECT VARIABLES

In the case of online auction sites, the perceived impact on other adults (b=.16, p<.05) and teenagers (b=.21, p<.01) were both significantly associated with pro-censorship attitudes. Notably, the first-person variable had a negative relationship with a willingness to censor online auction sites (b=-.16, p<.01), indicating that the larger the estimated impact of auction sites on self, the less willing people are to censor these web sites. The results suggest that people may consider online auction sites have a powerful impact on themselves, but this impact on themselves is not perceived as potentially negative or harmful. Instead, they likely saw the commercial benefits of auction sites to themselves, but the more they saw an impact on others, the more willing they are to censor these sites.

For commercial web sites promoting gambling activities, the perceived impacts of other adults (b=.20, p<.01) and teenagers (b=.28, p<.001) appeared to be strong predictors in accounting for people’s willingness to censor these web sites. The perceived impact on self was not significantly related to censorship attitudes (b=-.07, ns).

To determine if third-person variables were still predictive of censorship attitudes after controlling for other confounding variables, hierarchical regression analyses were performed (see Table 3). A total of eighteen independent variables were grouped into seven separate blocks. To control for the difference between student sample and adult sample in terms of the attitude toward censorship, we created a dummy variable with 0=student sample and 1=adult sample and entered it as the first block in the regression. Demographics (gender, education, and income), orientational variables (media usage and political orientation), and attitudinal variables (religiosity, authoritarianism, and attitude toward sites) were entered in the second three blocks. Internet usage was included in the fifth block, first person effects were entered sixth and finally, the two third-person variables were entered in the seventh blocks.

Overall, the full model explained from 21% to 35% of total variance in an individual’s willingness to censor. After controlling for all other variables, the estimated impacts on the third-person variables remained stable for each form of commercial web sites, consistent with patterns found in Table 2.

For general commercial web sites, consistent with prior findings, the estimated effect on teenagers remained a significant predictor of pro-censorship attitudes (b=.28, p<.001), while the estimated effect on other adults was not a significant predictor (b=.04, ns). The perceived effect on other adults and teenagers accounted for additional 8% of the total variance. In the case of general commercial web sites, student and adult sample showed no significant difference in terms of po-censorship attitude, as indicated by the insignificant regression coefficient of the dummy variable entered as the first block. Demographic and attitudinal variables accounted for 10% and 15% of the variance, respectively, but orientational and Internet usage variables did not significantly predict pro-censorship attitudes. Women (b=-.24, p<.001) were more willing to restrict general commercial web sites than men; more authoritarian people were more willing to censor commercial web sites in general (b=.37, p<.001). Interestingly, the attitude toward the web showed a negative relationship with pro-censorship attitudes (b=-.29, p<.001). The result implies that people who had more favorable attitudes toward the web in general were less willing to censor commercial web sites.

For online auction sites, there was no difference between adult and student sample in terms of pro-censorship attitude. Demographic and attitudinal variables accounted for 5% of the variance in pro-censorship attitudes, respectively. Consistent with the results for general commercial web sites, women tended to support pro-censorship attitudes toward online auction sites and people with the more favorable attitude toward sites in general were more reluctant to censor Internet auction sites.

Consistent with prior results in Table 2, the perceived impact on self was negatively associated with an individual’s willingness to censor online auction sites when other variables were controlled (b=-.14, p<.05). After controlling for other variables, the estimated impact on other adults (b=.15, p<.10) had a weaker relationship with pro-censorship attitudes toward Internet auction sites than initially found. Perceived impact on teenagers (b=.15, p<.05) however continued significantly predicting the willingness to censor even after accounting for the influence of all other independent variables. The third-person effects on other adults and teenagers explained an additional 6% of the variance, beyond that explained by the five previously entered blocks. In the case of gambling web sites, student and adult samples showed significant difference in pro-censorship attitude (b=.21, p<.01) and adult sample were more likely to favor censoring gambling web sites than student sample. The dummy variable itself explained 5% of the total variance. The difference between student sample and adult sample may be due to their age, since after controlling for sample difference, age became insignificant predictor of censorship attitude. Demographic variables explained 10% of the variance in the censorship attitudes. Constantly, women were more willing to regulate gambling web sites (b=-.21, p<.001). Among attitudinal variables, authoritarianism appeared to be a strong predictor of the censorship for gambling web sites (b=.37, p<.001). Notably, attitude toward the web in general was not related to pro-censorship attitudes for gambling web sites (b=-.04, ns), even though it was significantly and negatively related to pro-censorship attitudes toward general commercial web sites and online auction sites. These results suggest that the attitude toward sites in general might play a different role in explaining pro-censorship attitudes, depending on the degree of the perceived controversy of web sites.

TABLE 3

HIERARCHICAL MULTIPLE REGRESSION PREDICTING WILLINGNESS TO CENSOR WEB SITES

When the censorship for gambling web sites served as the dependent variable, the estimated effect on other adults and teenagers remained to be the significant predictors of people’s willingness to censor (b=.12, p<.10 for other adults and b=.15, p<.05 for teenagers), even after all other independent variables were controlled. The effects attributed to other adults and teenagers explained a significant amount of additional variance in pro-censorship attitudes (R2=.04, p<.01). As expected, no significant relationship was found between the pro-censorship attitudes and first-person effect on self (b=-.02, ns).

DISCUSSION

To examine the third-person effect and its relationship with censorship attitudes toward commercial web sites, this study focused on three kinds of commercial web sites: commercial web sites in general, online auction sites, and gambling web sites. These sites were chosen because of growing complaints about undesirable effects of commercial web sites and the concomitant calls for regulation or censorship of them (Roth 2000; Snyder 2000; Rosen 2000).

Consistent with previous work on the third-person effect, this study demonstrated that there was a significant disparity between the perceived effects of commercial web sites on self and others. This is true when other adults and teenagers were used as the comparison group. The third-person effect also emerged when we analyzed student and adult samples separately. The results also provided additional support for the theorized linkage between the third-person effect and pro-censorship attitudes and the findings extended the conclusions drawn for traditional media content to a new mediumCcommercial web sites.

Although most of the findings were similar for the general and specific forms of commercial web sites, there were some differences worth mentioning. Respondents were more likely to believe that they were personally influenced by general web sites and online auction sites than gambling web sites (M=2.29 vs. 2.37 vs. 1.63, F=56.28, p<.001). Respondents may perceive themselves to be wise enough to avoid being influenced by web sites promoting gambling activities or they may think they were unlikely to encounter such sites.

We also found that student sample yielded a smaller magnitude of third-person effect than adult sample in each type of the commercial web site examined. That is either because adult sample tended to overestimate the impact of commercial web sites on other adults or teenagers, or because student sample tended to overestimate the impact of commercial web sites on self.

Support for censorship also showed significant differences across the three web sites examined. Overall, respondents were less supportive of restrictions for general web sites and online auction sites, while they showed greater support for censoring gambling web sites (M=4.59 vs. 4,18 vs. 5.97, F=106.36, p<.001). Student and adult samples showed difference in terms of censorship attitude only for gambling web sites. That is, adults favored censorship of gambling web sites more than students.

Less support for regulations of commercial web sites in general and online auction sites in particular may stem from the belief that these web sites were seen as having commercial benefits. Consumers go online because they want to search for information about products or services or purchase items. People may perceive these electronic transactions to have positive social consequences. In contrast, people are more willing to regulate gambling web sites because they want to protect children and communities from the problems of addiction, crime, bankruptcy, and family difficulties that come from online gambling (Rosen 2000).

This study examined several important factors influencing people’s attitude toward commercial web sites. Consistent with previous research, gender was significantly associated with a willingness to restrict commercial web sitesCwomen were more in favor of censoring web sites than men (Andsager 1992; 1993; Miller, Andsager, and Wyatt 1992). As to attitudinal variables, this study revealed some interesting findings across the three types of web sites. Authoritarianism was positively related to a willingness to censor commercial web sites in general and gambling web sites. People with a low level of tolerance of socially deviant behaviors, which is one of the major characteristics of authoritarianism, were more supportive of censoring gambling sites as well as general web sites. Such finding suggests that people’s willingness to censor commercial web sites may be due to a predispositional preference. In this situation, the motivation of censorship is more trait-based and inherent of individuals themselves.

Notably, general attitude toward the web emerged as a significant and negative predictr of a willingness to censor commercial web sites in general and auction web sites in particular. These results indicated that the more favorable attitude consumers held toward the Internet in general, the less supportive they were of censoring these sites.

One surprising finding was that Internet usage did not emerge as a significant predictor in explaining pro-censorship attitudes toward web sites. This study included the two Internet usage measures, amount of time consumers spend online in a day and the frequency of buying products or services on the net. When predicting censorship of auction sites, amount of time spent on the Internet approached, but did not reach significance. The findings here contradict the literature that prior product usage has a significant and negative relationship with a willingness to censor advertising for controversial products (Youn, Faber, and Shah, 2000). One explanation is that our Internet usage measure is a global one. In future research, it may be more desirable to use more specific measures of Internet usage (e.g., prior experience with online gambling or auction site) to predict the censorship of a specific kind of web site.

The contribution of this study lies in its attempt to examine the relationship between the third-person perception and people’s willingness to censor or restrict commercial web sites. With regard to commercial web sites in general, the strongest predictor among the third-person variables was the perceived impact on teenage consumers. Respondents were more likely to perceive commercial web sites in general to be harmful to teenagers and such perception resulted in greater willingness to censor commercial web sites. For controversial web sites promoting online gambling, we found that the estimated impact on both other adults and teenagers led to a greater willingness to censor gambling sites. Respondents may perceive that gambling sites have more powerful and negative impacts on both other adults and teenagers because of the easy access, when compared to gambling at casinos or buying lottery tickets at the stores. For both general commercial web sites and gambling sites, the relationship between the third-person variables and pro-censorship attitudes remained stable even after other factors were controlled. As expected, the first-person variable was not related to pro-censorship attitudes toward these sites.

In the case of online auction sites, after controlling for possible confounding variables, the estimated impact on other adults appeared to be a weaker predictor, but was still significantly significant. The estimated impact on teenagers remained a significant predictor in explaining pro-censorship attitudes. Interestingly the estimated impact on self had a negative relationship with pro-censorship attitudes toward auction sites. One possible explanation is respondents perceived that online auction sites had a powerful impact on themselves, but they did not think the impact was negative. Therefore, the perception of a positive benefit for themselves created a desire not to restrict the sites. This is consistent with the notion that the third person effect occurs only for perceived negative effects (Gunther and Thorson 1992).

Regardless of different findings across the three types of web sites, one commonality is a concern about teenagers’ susceptibility to commercial web sites. A stronger belief that commercial web sites will have an impact on teenagers leads to a greater willingness to censor the commercial web sites. The results echo with the controversy concerning the regulation of Internet content and the protection of minors, especially children and teens, from harmful materials on the net (McNeely and Moorefield 1999). Therefore, our finding resonates with the public’s concern over the impact on young people.

The study also has some implications for public policy related to the regulations of commercial web sites. Despite the rapid growth of e-commerce, people are concerned about the harms or the adverse effects commercial web sites inflict on consumers. To date, numerous calls have been made to limit or restrict commercial web sites. Advocates may believe tat regulations help preserve consumers’ online privacy, reduce violations of intellectual-property rights, curtail online fraud, and protect vulnerable minors from the harmful materials on the net. However, the contrasting view is that regulations discourage consumers from participating in electronic transaction on the net, shrink the commercial growth in an online marketplace, or deprive adults of the opportunity to obtain information of lawful products.

The findings in this study indicate that when it comes to the regulation of the commercial web sites, consumers are concerned more about how other people, especially teenagers, are affected by web sites. It is important for policy makers to separate public opinion from actual affects when they make policy decisions.

Though it is prevalent that consumers perceive that other adults and teenagers are potentially affected by commercial web sites in a negative way, the perception may not be the true reflection of the reality. Nonetheless, such overestimation prompts a willingness to censor the commercial web sites. Therefore, it remains to be discovered that whether consumers’ perception of the negative impact of commercial web sites is a true reflection of reality or a perceptual bias. A readiness to regulate commercial web sites based on consumers’ misperception may cause problems in terms of policy efficiency and consumer protection (Petty 1992). Therefore, the policy debates on the regulation of commercial web sites need to rely on the actual effects of commercial web sites rather than the perceptions of the effects.

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Authors

Fang Wan, Vanderbilt University, U.S.A.
Seounmi Youn, University of North Dakota, U.S.A.
Ronald J. Faber, University of Minnesota, U.S.A.



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001



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