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?