Under the Influence (of Comments)

I’ve mentioned before that the general public needs to be more scientifically literate and engaged with science related issues.* Well, here’s some interesting news about science news… is your head spinning yet? It may be no surprise to you that scientists like to objectively evaluate everything- even how science is communicated to the general public. Someone from the science side or the journalism side is keeping track of how breaking discoveries are communicated and perceived. As it turns out there is a new wrinkle in the science communication arena- specifically with the ubiquitous reader comments that follow every online news article.**

Here’s what a recent study found: You are under the influence of other reader’s comments. Your perception of a news article’s validity and trustworthiness can be influenced by what other random people post at the bottom of the page.

Let that sink in a minute.

Just when you think you have been as objective as possible and trying to minimize your bias and tease apart the bias emanating from any given news article, you scroll down a few more inches and BAM! more bias.

I’m not gonna lie to you- I’m a big time comments section lurker.*** I rarely post anything, but I somewhat enjoy reading through the comments sections at the bottom of articles. Some of them are quite amusing. Some of them just make me sigh and shake my head. For me, it’s another level of data to process, a way to gauge how the most vocal members of society feel about certain issues, a way to get exposure to other perspectives much different than mine. Now, I wonder how much subconscious influence I was letting anonymous reviewers have over me.

In the context of social commentary on the behavior of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or who was wearing what and how well on the Emmy’s red carpet, this new insight on commenter influence doesn’t matter much. However, when it comes to ‘important stuff’ that shapes public opinion and influences national policy, the stakes are higher.

Check out this in depth analysis of the implications to science communication by Matt Shipman at Scilogs. As scientists, we want to engage with the public about our research and its implications. On-line news, blogs and social networks are convenient platforms for mass broadcasting what we think is important. Always up for debate and critique, scientists generally welcome commentary. However, these results mean that any random person in cyberspace with who-knows-what-probably-none credentials will influence how readers perceive the news as truthful or important.

So this new finding puts us in an uncomfortable position: (Presumably) the author of a science news article has carefully crafted an informative and well-referenced piece with solid supporting evidence that should adequately convey new information to the reader so that they can come to their own decisions based on the data therein. (I’m sure the author tried to contain his/her own bias and was not writing an overly-opinion-based piece.) All of that work can be undone by anonymous internet trolls**** that comment with impunity.

What can be done? Readers, just try to be aware of the influence of the comments section on your opinions of on-line news or skip reading them altogether. Commenters, comment judiciously. Please try to add something to the conversation and be honest about your biases. If you are Popular Science, you shut down comments on on-line news articles across the board. Click here to read their justification for the policy shift.

As for me, I will leave the comments section open. For any of you brave enough to de-lurk***** yourselves, I think there is currently more value in discussion than harm from undue influence.


* Again, check out the Resources page for links to science news sources.

** In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard can post their unsolicited thoughts for the world to see at the bottom of a news article. But you already knew that since you were savvy enough to find an internet connection and stumble upon my blog.

*** Lurker (n): the official internet term for one who reads lots of internet content, but never engages in the comments section of an article, a blog, etc.

**** Troll (n): the official internet term for one who posts ugly, offensive, obnoxious, and possibly-unrelated comments on news articles for the purposes of shock value and baiting other commenters in pointless debates that general have little to do with the content of the original article.

***** De-lurk (v): the internet term for stepping out of the shadows of lurker status and into the realm of insightful commenter. (Please don’t de-lurk into a troll).


4 thoughts on “Under the Influence (of Comments)

  1. galicolagfb

    Which is why it is important to engage in debates with commenters who promote “intelligent design”, anti-vaccinations or homeopathy through their comments in science news article, science blogs, forums etc…
    So that “innocent” readers will be influenced by *our* comments, not theirs…

    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Yes, but in the actual study (my link above is fixed to give the primary article and not just a perspective piece on it) it is a little more complicated than that. The tone of the debates in the comments section are critical determinants of influence. If the comments section is rude, then the readers perceive the science more negatively than if the comments are civil. So debates in the comments sections must be tempered and not resort to name-calling, over generalizations, and otherwise belittling comments about authors or other commenters. Ideally, evidence supporting or refuting arguments would be given, but sometimes links get filtered out upon posting. Sadly, these conditions for civil debate are not the norm among comments sections.

      In the spirit of this study and its implications, this comment was written very respectfully in response to galicolagfb 😉

  2. johnnaroose Post author

    One more thing… This study highlights the fact that humans do not process information in a vacuum relying only on facts. In this case, the commentary of other presumably non-experts affects how readers perceive science news. In that same vein, there was a blog post in the Huffington Post last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marty-kaplan/most-depressing-brain-fin_b_3932273.html) about how our own deeply ingrained biases keep us from processing data that is contrary to our strongly held beliefs. Definitely gives scientists and science communicators something to think about strategy-wise. Presenting info is just not enough (and, of course, rude debates seem to do even more damage!).

  3. Pingback: Tweet Your Science | New Under The Sun Blog

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