Trolls do more than spoil our reading enjoyment

Researchers have found that trolls not only make reading posts and articles less fun, the psychological backlash leads people to increase their sense of the negative implications in the writing, as well.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, This Story Stinks

We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.

Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

While it’s hard to quantify the distortional effects of such online nastiness, it’s bound to be quite substantial, particularly — and perhaps ironically — in the area of science news.

An estimated 60 percent of the Americans seeking information about specific scientific matters say the Internet is their primary source of information —  ranking it higher than any other news source.

Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges — and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.

Another great reason to move commentary from blogs to other venues, like Twitter. 

I’m considering dropping comments from this blog altogether.

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