The Science Of How Comment Trolls Influence Your Opinion

It's almost second nature to expect a series of trollish comments below any science story published on the internet.  Generally, we like to think that these responses don't influence us; but this couldn't be further from the truth.  New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that their tone can actually impact readers' opinions about the subject of the article.

Findings showed the tone of comments posted can make a significant difference in the way new readers feel about the article's subject matter, and the "less civil" they are the accompanying comments, the more easily influenced readers are by them.  Simply put, if a comment pushed people's emotional buttons, they'll be more likely to adopt a more biased opinion over something that is statistically unbiased.

"The day of reading a story and then turning the page to read another is over," researcher Dietram Scheufele commented. "Now each story is surrounded by numbers of Facebook likes and tweets and comments that color the way readers interpret even truly unbiased information. This will produce more and more unintended effects on readers, and unless we understand what those are and even capitalize on them, they will just cause more and more problems."

These unintended consequences of web 2.0 technology can provide a sheer detriment to the scientific community.  They are usually born from a means of access to the correct information being clouded by misinformed sources, such as news articles written with high Google rankings in mind, cutting down the scientific information of a story and leading a story entirely by its most popular points.  This affects what is seen, and so the commenting commences.

Scheufele's proposition for fixing this is simple: a group effort between sciences and social sciences to adapt to this new internet landscape.  Push science out to the mass audiences that never usually see past a troll's comment to ensure that people see the full picture without bias.  

Essentially, fight fire with PR tactics.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jason England