A new study has shown that internet comments are destroying science and influencing public opinion about science to a dangerous degree. Anti-science bullies who troll the internet, leaving wholly unscientific comments under science articles, actually have the power to change other readers’ perceptions. It’s gotten so bad that the web version of the magazine Popular Science has had to completely shut down its comments section. The reason, they say, is because internet trolls lurk in the comments section and unleash negative opinions on the public. Many times, the trolls write and publish ad hominem attacks on other commenters, such as, for example, saying “you’re an idiot and have no idea what you’re talking about.” They also frequently write ad hominem attacks on the author which have nothing to do with the concept or facts presented in the article. The problem with this is that these comments can actually invalidate the original article in the minds of the readers.
The study, out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was widespread, and involved 1,183 participants. The study subjects were asked to read an article and then read the comments section underneath. The comments section had been filled with fake but balanced comments, both positive and negative. After reading the comments section, the participants viewed the article in a more negative light and were more prone to doubt the validity of the facts presented after reading the comments than were the participants in the control group.
The study says that ad hominem (personal) attacks on commenters, even those which had nothing to do with the ideas presented in the article, made the study subjects think more negatively about the facts presented in the article. “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought,” the study authors wrote.
Previous studies support the findings of this new study. In addition to comments being able to influence public perception of an article, no matter how fact-driven that article might be, internet comments are also tied directly into “mob mentality.” A study done on an internet “upvoting/downvoting” system, such as the system employed by social sharing site Reddit, showed that people were greatly influenced by the previous positive vote they saw, and tended to vote the same way 32% more of the time than in the control group. The researchers called this “positive herding behavior.” It is notable that in the negative comment group, results were similar to the control group because of what researchers term the “correction effect”; the study subjects were “correcting” unwarranted negative comments by giving the story an upvote. This neutralized the positive herding behavior and equalized the active group to be level with the control group.
While people may have a tendency to “correct” negative comments by upvoting a story, the effect of those negative comments seems to still influence their perception of the facts within a story according to the study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They also found that people who tended to get most of their news from the internet, rather than newspapers, were more likely to be influenced by the negative comments. The participants exposed to the comments were also more likely to think that the commenters’ opinions were fact when in reality the comment was not fact-based at all.
What’s perhaps even worse than the effects of the negative comments is the fact that internet trolls purposely go on message boards and undermine science. A study out of Lancaster University shows that internet trolls deny science and only agree with facts they already think are true. The video below explains what drives trolls to behave in the way that they do:
So, why shouldn’t we simply ignore the trolls? The danger, the study authors contend, lies in the commenters’ ability to alter public opinion. Indeed, it seems that lately, there has been an all-out war on science, and sometimes it feels as though the anti-science trolls are winning. It seems the anti-science bullies who lurk on science-based article pages and then tear down the facts presented by leaving comments in the section under the article have great influence over what the public thinks and perceives about science overall.
From evolution deniers to climate change “skeptics,” to people who deny the effects of violent media, to people who still think vaccines are harmful, the trolls are everywhere, and they if they shout loudly enough, no amount of replicated, peer-reviewed research will get them to quiet down. The vast majority of the time, the people leaving the comments are not scientists and have no scientific training whatsoever, and yet, they feel comfortable making statements that are in direct conflict with scientific consensus.
The magazine Popular Science explains it thusly:
Commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch. Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story. A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. 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.
Within the scientific community, there is no debate on climate change, nor is there any debate on evolution. The studies have been replicated over and over and over again, and that’s what science is: testing and retesting, then inviting others to test as well. A consensus is reached after many years of replication. The video below explains this process in more detail:
A new study says anti-science trolls are destroying science with internet comments. The magazine Popular Science has decided to stop feeding the trolls, and because of their decision, scientists, at least, would say society is much better off.
By: Rebecca Savastio