Saturday, March 2, 2013

Nasty Blog Comments Can Sway How We Remember Stories

I always read blog comments - until there are just too many or I start to believe that many of them are written by people who are paid to take a negative viewpoint. Some of the arguments are just too ridiculous (those are probably real people) while others are totally partisan (paid I assume). Anyway, I never really understood the reasoning behind paid commentary - other than to market a company or product - but it turns out they can also sway opinion. 
In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, the New York Times and the previously mentioned publication tested the effect on readers of nasty article comments.
They asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.
Then they had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.
Half of the sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.