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'Nasty effect' of user comments

Flaming comments distort perceptions of what an article really says.

By Rich_Maloof Mar 4, 2013 11:32PM

User comments help keep blogs like the Daily Dose alive and interesting. The information superhighway, as the Web was once known, is a two-way road on which those who produce the content and those who absorb it now share the same lanes. The internet is a great equalizer and a powerful democratizer.

It’s a fantastic design with mixed results.

Photo: Mark Bowden/Getty ImagesIn our experience, user comments are sometimes flattering, sometimes funny and often add insight. But more than any other quality, they are polarizing — and are often written to cut either the writer or other commenters to the quick.

Some users wield sharp words while others convey their thoughts more bluntly. Stories touching on religion, sexual orientation and constitutional rights have been the flashpoints for some especially fiery exchanges.

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Anonymity seems to play some role in viciousness, we’ve noticed, as the attacks are harsher here in the messageboards than on our Facebook page, where the connection between one’s comments and identity seems to play a role in responding more thoughtfully and civilly.

User comments have a significant impact on a reader’s perception of an article, not only polarizing the reader’s opinion but altering his or her understanding of what the story actually says.

Two professors of science communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have observed this phenomenon and nicknamed it “the nasty effect.” In yesterday’s “New York Times,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele described a study in which they asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post about a new technology on a fictitious blog, review other users’ comments, and then respond to questions about the content of the article.

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Readers exposed to civil reader comments maintained their initial impressions about the fictitious post. But those exposed to rude comments – like, “if you don’t see the benefits…you’re an idiot” and “you’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks” — were polarized in their opinions about the technology covered in the article.

Reading other users’ attacks caused some readers to believe there were greater risks and problems with the technology despite what had been reported in the article.

The facts put forth in a scientific article were distorted when seen through the lens of nasty commenters. But users didn’t recognize the lens.

There’s a force behind the comments of fellow users that’s yet to be quantified or understood. As a footnote to their study, the authors noted hopefully, “It’s possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more — with users shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivatins civil debate instead.”

Tell us what you think. You know, in a nice way. 

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Photo: Mark Bowden/Getty Images

Mar 6, 2013 8:03PM
I think 54% of the nasty comments are from trolls. Especially when it comes to "religious" posts. I'm betting the majority of them are from 12 year old (mentally at least) atheists who just want to make Christians look bad. Because the majority of Christians I know don't act like that or believe the crap that's posted from people claiming to be Christian. (Just like all the mentally mature atheists I know are actually very nice, polite people. But there's good and bad in every belief system and some will use underhanded methods to make others look bad.)
Mar 5, 2013 2:41AM
Early in my career I wrote for and edited several national magazines. When I was editor, I loved a scathing letter to th editor, and always printed it. Today everything is divisive and I'm glad I'm not writing for a living. There is a significant percentage of the population, say 47%, who do nothing but spew hate. They're obviously poorly read and educated, radically believe in myth rather than fact or science, and absolutely hate to the point of threatening kill those with a slightly different view. Allowing anonymous feedback gives these demented idiots a forum for their hate and bigotry. We perhaps need to get back to printing verified names and home towns, and have contact information on file. This might protect others from their violent radicalism, or alert their local authorities of their possible mental health issues.    
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