Tone Of Comments Affects Perception Of Online Article's Content

from the who-are-you-calling-names? dept

One of the defining characteristics of online journalism is the possibility for readers to respond immediately, and to debate with each other in the comments — something that was much harder and slower in pre-digital days. Generally, that has been regarded as welcome, since it means that authors can engage more easily with their readers, and the latter become active participants rather than simply passive recipients.

However, some research in the field of science journalism suggests that there might be a serious downside to this ability of the readers to express their views freely:

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.”

Although the research was about science articles, it would be reasonable to assume a similar effect occurs for most kinds of online journalism, with “uncivil” comments leading to skewed perceptions of the matter being discussed. Good thing Techdirt readers never resort to name calling…

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Comments on “Tone Of Comments Affects Perception Of Online Article's Content”

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51 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Humor is preferred for sure. But there is truly nothing new under the sun. Everything anyone says has already been said and done. It’s really difficult to come up with anything original, take your very own post. I have seen this type of post almost word for word on just about every site ever, trying to 1 up the trolls.

But… we are all trolls… I mean they, I mean ME & YOU will be coming back for more because that is just human nature.

The very definition of a troll is just someone who holds a position (sincerely or not) that is willing to fight you over it. Kinda makes us all trolls… since you do have an opinion and all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No ...

No, a troll is someone who baits his audience. He can have some skin in the game.

A masterful troll can bait for a response while posting his honest, sincere opinion. It’s the way the troll writes that matters: he wants to incite a response, and that the response will also incite another response, and so on, until the whole forum is consumed by flames.

This is my honest, sincere opinion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No ...

I guess I should have spelled it out better.

I wanted to draw a parallel between people calling people trolls just because they did not like what they said, in the same vein that people eventually devolve to calling people Hitler when they feel they are losing the argument.

I am aware that there is a real meaning to the word, but people don’t bother with such things. That is why we are all trolls.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

its possible...

its also possible this is all-too-typical ‘soft-science’ bullshit…
the one thing i can pick apart without knowing what the particulars are, is how do they know that one of the ‘nasty’ comments didn’t have the germ of some reasonable objection which swayed the reader when presented ‘nastily’, but went otherwise unnoticed when presented ‘neutrally’ ? ? ?
in other words, i find it difficult to believe they can -in fact- ‘neutrally’ portray comments…

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Exhibit A

Recently Ars has been closely following the outcry of some tech community over the fact that Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich [who describes himself as not especially religious], made ONE donation of $1,000 to that mess known as Prop 8 back in ’08. Not actively involved mind you, just one simple donation of funds. Since he’s been appointed CEO there have been people publicly pressuring him, from outside and inside the company, to step down from that role because of that contribution.

The comment sections of those articles have been the most vitriolic sections I’ve ever seen on Ars. The majority of the comments immediately condemn Eich as a hateful anti-gay bigot and/or Mozilla as hypocritical for appointing him CEO.

Now every time I see a new article about the subject, my mind goes ‘oh great, how is Ars going to vilify Mozilla’s new CEO this time?’ even though the site’s just reporting the mess and not actually publicly shaming Eich for his views.

So yeah, this research seems right on the money, at least as far as this topic goes.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Exhibit A

Yeah, pretty much. I wonder how many of the sheep blindly jumping on the character assassination bandwagon actually know who Brendan Eich is and how much good he’s done for them.

Just for starters, he was one of the main engineers on the original Netscape browser project, and the inventor of JavaScript. I’m not gonna pull out any old memes that would be as silly about him as about Al Gore, but it’s safe to say that the World Wide Web as we know it, including the very activism sites driving this campaign of anti-bigotry bigotry, would not exist today without him.

Anonymous Coward says:

I always read the whole article, but I don’t always read all the comments. At most I skim through comments. Usually the first two sentences of someone’s comment determines if I’m interested in it or not.

If I wrote online articles, I imagine there would be many days where I wouldn’t read the comments for my own articles, because I wouldn’t want to let obnoxious trolls criticizing my work and ruin my mood.

I seriously hope people are able to form their own opinion and view independently. If they can’t, then that’s the problem science journalism, should have been focusing on.

People unable to form their own opinions and views, is a much more serious issue than trolls in the comment section.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

So, have 'The Monsters of the ID' have been recognized as fact?

So, have ‘The Monsters of the ID’ have been recognized as fact? So be it, but will we be any better that the Krell from that long lost Forbidden Planet? Depends, we could attempt to adjust the picture, like banning the use of subliminal messages on television, and realize that the place that is beyond sight and sound is still tempered, like all media before it, by human hands.

John says:

Same as physical articles?

Isn’t that the same with physical articles? I read a newspaper and discuss the story with family, friends & associates and they give their opinion. Those opinions would vary and possibly influence my reading of the article. Obviously with online articles the number of comments is more than the number of people I might talk to about the article but the effect is the same. i.e. we are influenced by those around us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Appropriately enough the comments section at the linked article are amusingly predictable:

“pointy headed scientists, 99% of whom are socialists and communists”, “Practically all journalists are scientific illiterates” and so on.

It’s hard to tell the sarcasm from the devout over there. Not like here.

But both articles (this and the linked) fail to include any reference to the original research. I rest my case.

vegetaman (profile) says:

It really depends on a person’s outlook on comments. It depends on if you can find any obvious bias in the story, any sources for data in the story, or any sources in the comments to prove the story is wrong or faulty. And on many sites, comments are youtube level failure. Like on reddit, which I browse from time to time, I always read the comments because undoubtedly somebody has posted a very good rebuttal of why the article or study is flawed or sensationalist, or somebody in the field explains in better terms why it is important or what the applications are. And then there’s the bias of if you are reading about something in your own field. That’s a lot of factors to control for, just right there!

Lance (profile) says:

To paraphrase one of my favorite SNL skits...

Glen, you ignorant slut!

Don’t you know that this is just more liberal dribble-drabble; meant to inflame the sensibilities of the uprightly indignant. This smacks of whore-mongering and unrequited humor. I simply won’t stand by while you attempt to stifle my mean spirited commentary, just because your “science” says it might make others less receptive to your writings.

< /hyperbole >

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

…which raises the question, what gives the person writing comments the authority to ‘lower the tone?’

I can’t abide authoritarianism, whatever flag they’re waving.

In any case, you’ve answered your own question, AC @7:56am. The writer is free to write as he sees fit and the commenters are free to write as they see fit, with neither asking permission of the other as to the tone or the setting thereof. It is up to the readers to decide whether or not to be influenced by either the articles or the comments.

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