A new study finds that comments on news articles can have a dramatic effect on the reaction of subsequent readers. Researchers gave two groups fake tech stories with comments. One had “civil” comments; the other got the “nasty” batch. The results could have major ramifications on our participatory model of online journalism:
“Those exposed to rude comments … ended up with a much more polarized understanding … 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.”
Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staff writer for Salon who has also moderated Salon’s online community Table Talk, worries that this brings to light the power of trolls to hijack our digital environs:
What’s new about this study, however, is that it offers validation of what for many of us has been a gnawing fear: that the trolls really do hold tremendous power of persuasion. Why try to craft a well-reasoned argument, using facts and grammar, when the real way to influence how a person feels is a well-aimed “Kill it before it lays eggs,” or the classic “Your stupid”? Even if the effect is divisive, at least it’s substantial — to the point that it can strongly affect how one feels about the original piece itself.
Eesearchers have long looked at the ability for media outlets to “frame” news in a way that impacts the recipient. Does the Web’s obsession with comments bestow this power on everyone?