Owning the Comments

The naysayers’ strategy of flooding comment sections with ignorant contempt seems to work according to a new study from UW-Madison:

n an experiment mentioned in the Science paper and soon to be published elsewhere in greater detail, about 2,000 people were asked to read a balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.

“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” wrote authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele.

“In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”

Content doesn’t matter as much. Our intuitions are not tuned to the possibility of motivated virtual flash mobs. We perceive the tone of the conversation as representative of our peers and adjust ourselves accordingly. We don’t have the capacity to think rationally about everything, so we substitute coarse judgments, which can be manipulated. That is why we we are being gamed left and right.


  1. I was disappointed with this press release since it didn't specify HOW "readers’ interpretations of potential risks... [depended on] the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story" - civil vs uncivil. What reaction was triggered by the civil comments, and what by the uncivil ones? And were the uncivil ones uncivil toward fellow commenters, or toward the article? (It is nice to have evidence for the need to not let a comments section turn into a cesspool, but still...)

  2. The most lethal comments are the most plausible ones, and they are invariably couched with courtesy that must involve some restraint. They're very sciencey. There are personal attacks, but the best even get approval from the likes of us, as they probe personal shortcomings of commenters who point towards real information and science.

    Then there are the floods - a recent Grist interview with Al Gore (a magnet for this stuff) had hundreds of nasties, many of which called him a manbearpig. Not sure why that relieved their pent up hatred, but it seemed to be the mot of the hour.

  3. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, January 6, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  4. I believe professional distractors are largely courteous, providing a degree of skilled blather that is hard to decipher. Personal attacks are always phrased in a way that seems to discredit the person they wish to prevent delivering a message, cleverly changing or magnifying whatever they can find to make it seem less creditable.

    However, a month or so ago I checked in at an interview of Al Gore on Grist, and was startled by the hundreds of comments in a couple of hours. They were particularly fond of the epithet manbearpig. My minuscule efforts got me labeled a "troll".

    Unfortunately, this is all too effective.

    (A couple of earlier comments vanished on submission, so have saved the material here; hope it's fixed.)

  5. This seems to argue for heavy comment moderation, which brings with it several potential problems.

    The first is the tendency to moderate out anything that doesn't 'tow the line'. I might be biased but I would like to think that here at Planet3.0 we do a decent job of ensuring that any comment no matter what it says can bypass moderation if it provides value for the reader.

    The second issue is that with moderation comes the inevitable claims of censorship. In the context of this article it would be worthwhile to have some idea how damaging such claims are so we could compare them with the damage caused by a flood of wrong/unhelpful comments.

  6. While debating with Moshpit about normative science (whatever that means) and Hansen testimonies (God the metadata of the governmental documents suck), I stumbled upon this:

    > It takes leadership to maintain dignity. Running blogs with comments sections filled with the wailing of hyenas shows no leadership whatsoever.


    Coincidentally, the debate with Moshpit happens at Judy's and start with this provocative comment:

    > In short, if your goal is to convince a tough crowd of your scientific views, it’s less than optimal to stray from that goal by extending your remarks to areas that are explicitly policy oriented: ‘ our study of tree rings indicates that we need a carbon tax” kind of funny when you cut out all the connective tissue in between.


    This runs against everything The Benshi discovered, but if some prefer business-like uniforms while surfing the moshpit, whatever should suit their fancy.

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