After reading and a few cups of coffee in the morning, I like to start my morning off with this radio show out of Austin, Texas. Its host, Dale Dudley, fairly frequently gets fed up with commenters on FaceBook, Twitter and text messages, and just as frequently bans, blocks and busts the balls of the trolls who go off the rails in the comments.
One of my recent morning ritual additions is reading writer John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, who just happened today to have linked to a Scientific American post about commenting on social media. Which, besides making think about my favorite morning radio show, also made me think about just how skewed and rambunctious commenting and commenters can be. I thought this bit about a study to reveal attitudes about commenting was quite revealing:
A couple of weeks ago, an article was published in Science about online science communication (nothing new there, really, that we have not known for a decade, but academia is slow to catch up). But what was interesting in it, and what everyone elsejumped on, was a brief mention of a conference presentation that will be published soon in a journal. It is about the effect of the tone of comments on the response of other readers to the article on which the comments appear.
I have contacted the authors and have received and read a draft of that paper. Since it is not published yet, I will not break all sorts of embargoes by going into details, but can re-state what is already out there. An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.
The assumption is that on hot topics, like climate change, readers already come to the article with pre-concieved notions, and thus the civility of the comments would have no effect on them – they are already polarized. Chosing nanotechnology as a topic was a way to see how comments affect “virgin minds”, i.e., how the tone of comments starts the process of polarization in new readers.
They specifically chose a topic about which most people know very little and do not already have any opinion. Neither the article nor the comments contain sufficient information to turn the readers into experts on the subject. So they have to use mental heuristics – shortcuts – to decide what to think about this new subject. Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.
Sometimes it’s a street fight out there and all you want to is scream . . .