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Trolls Are Ruining Science Journalism

Negative comments, regardless of their merit, could sway readers' perceptions

Image: Cali4beach

Anyone who’s spent any time on the internet is familiar with trolls. From politics to sports to science, trolls take pleasure in bashing a story from every possible angle. Science is no exception, and recent research shows that when it comes to science news, the trolls are winning.

The University of Wisconsin reports on a recent study that tried to quantify just how much of an impact trolls could have on a reader. Basically, the researchers showed comments on a blog post about nanotechnology to study participants. They surveyed their users pre-existing ideas about nanotechnology and measured how those ideas might change based on the blog and the comments beneath it. What they found was that negative comments, regardless of their merit, could sway readers. The University of Wisconsin writes:

For rapidly developing nanotechnology, a technology already built into more than 1,300 consumer products, exposure to uncivil online comments is one of several variables that can directly influence the perception of risk associated with it.

“When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgment,” explains Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the lead author of the upcoming study in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.

At Mother Jones, Chris Mooney puts it this way:

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.

So without a background in nanotechnology—or whatever other subject you might be reading about—an emotionally charged comment is going to trigger your brain to act far before a logical explanation of how something works. And emotionally charged comments are a troll’s weapon of choice.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)
How Technology Makes Us Better Social Beings

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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