“We are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide,” wrote Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s online content director. “The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”
“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” she added. “Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
Incivility and polarization
Anybody who spends any amount of time online understands the frustration expressed by LaBarre toward the uncivil and sometimes amazingly uninformed reader-comments that accompany online science articles.
Furthermore, LaBarre is justified in being concerned about the effect that these uncivil comments have on people’s perception of science. As she notes, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study published earlier this year found that the more uncivil the comments to a news story, the more polarized readers became about the issue — a phenomenon dubbed “the nasty effect” by the authors of the study.
In addition, uncivil comments tended to change readers’ interpretations of the news item itself — making them believe, for example, that the negative aspects of a technology being reported upon is greater than they had previously thought.
A ban may not be the answer
But will banning online comments help?
A ban on article comments may simply move them to a different venue, such as Twitter or Facebook — from a community centered around a single publication or idea to one without any discernible common identity. Such large group environments, in turn, often produce less than desirable effects, including a diffusion of responsibility: you feel less accountable for your own actions, and become more likely to engage in amoral behavior.
In his classic work on the role of groups and media exposure in violence, the social cognitive psychologist Alfred Bandura found that, as personal responsibility becomes more diffused in a group, people tend to dehumanize others and become more aggressive toward them. At the same time, people become more likely to justify their actions in self-absolving ways.
Multiple studies have also illustrated that when people don’t think they are going to be held immediately accountable for their words they are more likely to fall back on mental shortcuts in their thinking and writing, processing information less thoroughly. They become, as a result, more likely to resort to simplistic evaluations of complicated issues, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock has repeatedly found over several decades of research on accountability.
Removing comments also affects the reading experience itself: it may take away the motivation to engage with a topic more deeply, and to share it with a wider group of readers. In a phenomenon known as shared reality, our experience of something is affected by whether or not we will share it socially. Take away comments entirely, and you take away some of that shared reality, which is why we often want to share or comment in the first place. We want to believe that others will read and react to our ideas.
Konnikova argues that what the University of Wisconsin-Madison study shows is not “the negative power of a comment in itself but, rather, the cumulative effect of a lot of positivity or negativity in one place, a conclusion that is far less revolutionary.”
Konnikova seems to support commenter policies that enable readers to vote a comment “up” or “down.” “Users can set the tone of the comments, creating a surprisingly civil result,” she writes.
Here at MinnPost, we have another system in place, of course. We ban anonymous comments and also use a dedicated team of volunteers to review comments before they are posted, thus ensuring that they follow the site’s rules. As a result, we have fewer comments, perhaps, than other websites, but the ones we receive are (usually) highly civil and often add depth and insight to the articles themselves.
I know I’ve learn a lot from many of the comments (and e-mails) I’ve received from Second Opinion readers. Of course, I receive my share of uncivil comments as well, although usually via e-mail.
Still, that’s nothing new.
“While it’s tempting to blame the Internet, incendiary rhetoric has long been a mainstay of public discourse,” writes Konnikova. “Cicero, for one, openly called Mark Antony a ‘public prostitute,’ concluding, ‘but let us say no more of your profligacy and debauchery.’”
That was actually one of Cicero’s tamer comments about Antony. One wonders what he might have done with a Twitter account.
You can read Konnikova’s essay on the New Yorker website.