Don’t Let The Trolls Shape Your Thinking

Scientists are beginning to explore how comments posted at the bottom of an online story may shape readers’ perceptions, writes Rachel Ehrenberg in ScienceNews—and their findings are worrying:

“For a test case, researchers chose an article about nanotechnology, a field whose fruits are already prevalent in consumer goods (hundreds of sunscreens, for example contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles) but is still largely unfamiliar to the general public.

More than 1,000 study participants read a neutral online news story that discussed silver nanoparticles, comparing risks (such as water contamination) and benefits (such as antibacterial properties).

Some readers then read civil-toned comments on the article: ‘Well I think the risks of this technology are just too high for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.’ Or: ‘Think of all the clean clothes we’ll have and the germs that we’ll keep our kids from.’

Other participants read uncivil versions: ‘You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.’ Or: ‘F*&# off! Think of all the clean clothes we’ll have and the germs that we’ll keep our kids from.’

The uncivil comments had a polarizing effect on readers, Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin–Madison reported in February in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Among people who had already identified themselves as wary of nanotechnology’s risks, those beliefs were exacerbated when the online comments were uncivil.

The rude comments also had an effect on participants who self-identified as religious; those people perceived nanotechnology as riskier compared with readers of the civil comments.

And people who considered themselves familiar with and supportive of nano­technology became surer of their opinions after reading the uncivil remarks.” (Read more here.)

What’s especially troubling about this phenomenon is that readers may not even be aware that their perceptions of the news story are being shaped by the comments below.

I learned a long time ago not to venture into the nasty trolls’ cave that is the comments section of the articles I write. (Comments on my blog and on Facebook page excepted, of course!) But I have often wondered why they are so vicious. Any ideas?

 

7 Responses to “Don’t Let The Trolls Shape Your Thinking”

  1. Jay says:

    Some people react very negatively to something that taxes their notion of something. You see lot of that in politics. You are set with your opinion and anyone who presents a view that is different, you view it as a threat.

  2. Alan Sweeney says:

    Because they can be. The Internet is where those who are so inclined can get away with it. Because the web provides anonymity, trolls can merrily troll without the risk of identification, which would otherwise lead to their being publicly shamed by others who might have kinder instincts.

    It also provides a stage of separation from those who might be inclined to exact summary retribution by those unprepared to accept their vitriolic input with the good grace forced upon many bloggers. Would there be more school bullies if every potential bully knew there was no risk of victims turning up later with a large and angry brother? I find it depressing to think that there might be.

  3. Ben Reynolds says:

    I don’t think it’s trolling so much as what my boss, Patricia Wallace, calls “disinhibition” in her book “The Psychology of the Internet.” Commenters generally don’t know the author and don’t have to see her or talk to her. That disinhibits the f2f need to be polite. So, they let it rip!

  4. Hi Annie – I heard about this study too. I think that in “thin communication” (social brain not activated) we don’t see others as people, so there is no empathic filter. When we read those comments, pushes us to more reactivity… and we have a rapid escalation!

    • Hi Joshua, I was re-reading all of this. I think you are right… we forget that others are “people”!

      We also don’t have our “social helpers” with us. For example, our spouse who gives us “the look” or our buddy who says, “Hey dude, back off!” In an online environment, support for “good behavior” is often lacking.

  5. Theresa Williams says:

    Annie, you raised a good question! My first reaction was to say that people seem more angry ALL the time, in print, on the road, waiting in line at the grocery store… Our American culture is busy, impatient, and stressed. This combination can lead people to respond with anger. :-(

    Then I thought, let me see what others have to say. So, I went looking for other answers and found this: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-is-everyone-on-the-internet-so-angry.
    Summary: …First, commenters are often virtually anonymous… Second, they are at a distance from the target of their anger … and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors. Third, it’s easier to be nasty in writing than in speech, … Markman said. [Infographic: A Typical Day on the Internet]

  6. Erik Kowal says:

    1) I have also occasionally noticed a kind of ‘piling-on’ effect, in which people whose opinion contradicts that of the majority of the regular contributors to a particular forum may find themselves set upon en masse by the habitués.

    2) However civil the discussion may be to begin with, it usually does not take long to degenerate if the topic is controversial, especially if there is a sense that nobody is being persuaded even by good arguments and evidence.

    3) Issues connected with one’s worldview (hence particularly in the domains of politics and religion) are particularly liable to evoke knee-jerk responses; attacks on one’s religious beliefs or opinions regarding the distribution of wealth in society, for instance, tend to be taken rather personally.

    4) Many people have not been taught, or have not learned, how to frame a persuasive argument and support it with evidence. They find it frustrating when other people can argue their points better, and often become angry and uncivil when they cannot defend their own views effectively.

    5) Especially in a highly individualistic, competitive and judgmental society like ours, everybody likes to give their opinions regarding other people’s behaviour, especially their perceived shortcomings. But they are not necessarily informed in proportion to their propensity to opine or speculate, or to the strength of their opinions. So then they are mostly trotting out their received opinions, prejudices and gut feelings in their comments, which inevitably degrades the quality of the overall discussion.

    This also demotivates those commenters who actually have something useful to contribute, but who do not want to have to fend off, or waste their time debating, those who do not. People in the former category are liable to be perceived as trolls — intentional troublemakers — if they are persistent; but unless all comments are moderated before they appear, there is no way to prevent their postings, short of banning them as contributors.

    6) People with a weak grasp of spelling or grammar get annoyed when these deficiencies are criticised; equally, other users are annoyed by people whose postings they have to struggle to decipher or make logical sense of. There are lots of people on comment boards whose spelling is poor. Non-native speakers sometimes face difficulties of this kind; sometimes they are resented and given an unwelcoming reception simply for being foreign.

    7) Unlike many real-time face-to-face discussions with many participants, there is usually nobody who acts as a real-time discussion moderator or arbiter of the discussion, and who actively tries to persuade angry or unreasonable commenters to calm down or be quiet.

    8) The fact that all the comments are permanently on view makes the discussion quite different to a real-time live conversation; old points can be rehashed, uncivil comments remain on the screen rather than being forgiven or retracted, and new entrants to the discussion who have not read all the previous postings may disturb the flow of a good discussion, or stir up a matter again that has already been discussed and settled among the previous commenters.

    9) I think many commenters have a presumption that on the internet, they are entitled to have their say, however contentious or unpleasant the content of their contributions may be. So they will often not accept the conventions of normal face-to-face conversation regarding politeness and sensitivity to other people’s circumstances, bullying behaviour, turn-taking etc.

    10) There is no natural end to the discussion, and none of the rituals of friendly leave-taking that we perform in real life even when the discussion was vigorous and contentious.

    So there are lots of ways that comment boards can go wrong, and usually there are few available mechanisms for ensuring that they go right.

    Well, that was my ten cents’ worth…

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