From our Department of Holy Crap, This is Disturbing: an article in The New York Times by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele on the findings of a study they recently published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication about the impact of negative comments on the mindsets of readers of online articles. According to the results of their study, rude Internet commenters aren’t just lowering the level of discourse for all of us — they’re also shaping the way we think.
Brossard and Scheufele examined commenters’ effect on readers by setting up an experiment: they built a fictitious blog and asked over 1,000 participants to read an article about a tech product called nanosilver. Everyone saw the exact same article on the exact same blog with one important difference: half read a version with “civil” comments and half read a version with “rude” ones:
“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.'”
In other words, even on the “civil” version commenters were skeptical about nanosilver. The only difference was the skeptics’ tone: either rational or irrational. And apparently “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” Baseline tests prior to reading the article were used to established subjects’ predisposition to nanosilver. Those who read the civil version largely held their original opinion; those who read the mean version “ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.”
These results suggest that what writers say is often just as important to a reader’s understanding of their point as how that point is interpreted by readers’ peers. It’s groupthink, pure and simple. But it’s not just a matter of opinion — as noted, there were skeptics included in the comments for both pieces — but the way that opinion was delivered. Essentially, Internet readers can be bullied into submission. Put on a big enough and loud enough show and you can sway people into thinking you know what you’re talking about — even if you’re an anonymous person posting something under the name “WangtimusPrime23.”
Think of the potential implications here for film criticism. Forget what your garden variety jerks do; can you imagine the possibilities that exist out there to deliberately undermine critics with this theory? Say you’re a movie studio with a big tentpole film coming out and an influential, taste-making critic publishes a strongly negative review of your movie. You could hire a few ringers to go into that review’s comment section and call the writer a douchebag and shithead and say that whoever listens to them is a goddamn moron. Or even better: just make a couple of interns do it, and make them do it multiple times under aliases. If this study is correct, then pretty soon anyone who goes to the trouble to read the comments below the review could wind up with a seriously tainted opinion of the original article. The cynic in me worries about this happening. The conspiracy theorist in me worries it already does.