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Are 'internet trolls' wielding more influence than scientists?

Categories: Community, Science & Technology

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Online forums and comment threads have gained a reputation for generating more heat than light -- a problem often linked to so-called internet trolls.

These disruptive, often anonymous users may be hard to ignore, but a growing body of research suggests they are also more influential than one may think. Unlike people standing up to hurl insults in the middle of a town hall meeting, who are usually hauled out before the discussion continues, those who seek to antagonize others in online threads may change the entire atmosphere of the room.

Science News writer Rachel Ehrenberg recently rounded up the latest studies on this topic in her post: "When trolls come out from under their bridges, it's bad news for scientific discourse."

'[Internet trolls'] rancor turns what ought to be open-minded considerations of the facts into ad hominem shouting matches among antisocial dwellers beneath bridges.'

-- Rachel Ehrenberg, Science News
Much like the antisocial creatures from Scandinavian folktales, she observes, "postmodern trolls" prevent ordinary people from considering intelligent counter-arguments and making important connections.

"Their rancor turns what ought to be open-minded considerations of the facts into ad hominem shouting matches among antisocial dwellers beneath bridges," she writes.

"[T]hat cantankerous rhetoric pushes some deep primal buttons that may override the more reasonable, conscious parts of our brains."

The research she highlighted about comment threads, specifically, posits that heated threads make us more close-minded.

A study led by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, suggests that rude comments polarize readers.

The researchers had more than 1,000 participants read an article that weighed the risks and benefits of nanoparticles.

The text itself was as neutral as possible, but the thread beneath it was either civil or crude.

Sample civil comments:

  • 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.
  • Think of all the clean clothes we'll have and the germs that we'll keep our kids from.

Sample crude comments:

  • You're stupid if you're not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.
  • F*&# off! Think of all the clean clothes we'll have and the germs that we'll keep our kids from.

In a presentation about the results, researcher Dominique Brossard said both people who were wary and supportive of nanotechnology felt more certain of their own stance after reading the rude thread, and less open-minded about the other side of the debate.

Given the already well-documented challenges posed by confirmation bias - that is, our tendency to prefer evidence for that which we already believe -- an added layer of hostility only seems to make us more likely to dig in our heels.

"That incivility makes people less open-minded is troubling, because it aggravates an already difficult problem," writes Ehrenberg.

Many scientists, she notes, believe well-founded evidence will win over off-the-cuff opinionating.

"They often think that if people just knew more about science they would more strongly support all sorts of research, from climate change to nanotechnology."

Do you read the comment threads below science stories? Are you more forgiving of a negative tone or personal attacks when you agree with a person's position?

Are you careful to word your own comments in a constructive way?
 


(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' replies.)

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