Feb 19 2013

Comments to Science Articles

A study presented at the AAAS meeting (and yet to be published) looked at the effects of the tone of comments following a science article on the interpretation of the article itself. The researchers presented a balanced article on the dangers of nanoparticles, followed by fake comments. One group read fake comments that were polite, while another read comments that were rude and personal.

Because the study is not published I can’t review the details, but the way it is reported (and discussed here on NPR) makes it sound like the content of the comments were the same, and only the tone was varied. Also, the rude tone was just rude, and did not rise to the level that we would call trolling. The researchers found that the rude comments significantly affected how the content of the article was perceived, pushing readers to believe that nanoparticles were more dangerous.

This is a question that every bloggers, and perhaps especially science blogger, faces – how do we moderate the comments to our articles. It is not uncommon, for example, for commenters to hold me as the author of a blog post responsible for claims made in the comments, as if I obsessively police every comment. At the same time, if the author is participating in the comments perhaps it is reasonable to make inferences about which comments they challenge and which they do not.

There is also a conflict between having a free and open forum, and managing the tone of the comments to encourage productive conversation, rather than counterproductive trolling. This latest research suggests that, perhaps, we should pay closer attention to tone.

On this blog I have chosen to influence tone largely by example. I try to always remain calm and respectful in the comments, while not pulling punches when peddlers of pure nonsense wander in.  I do think that this works to a degree. I learned this lesson from e-mail exchanges long before I started this blog – if you respond with vitriol, then the vitriol level escalates. If you respond with polite professionalism, then the other side often feels embarrassed if they behaved rudely, and they will feel compelled to tone it down. No one wants to look like the child in an adult conversation.

Self selection then comes into effect – over time people who appreciate the polite tone are likely to stay while those getting no satisfaction from their trolling may find more fruitful pastures elsewhere.

I have rarely had to ban commenters, but there are some trolls that simply need to be banned. Sometimes you can starve a troll by ignoring them, but that is very difficult to do as there seems to always be someone who caves or who simply does not know the rule – please don’t feed the trolls. Sometimes a warning has the desired effect, but warnings are only effective if they are backed up by action, which means banning.

I also think there are different kinds of science blogs. There are those that have a certain flavor that attracts a targeted community. I consider this a community blog – it has a deliberately skeptical editorial flavor. There are also more public blogs (mainstream science news outlets) that attract comments from a wide audience. You know this is the case when a news story is followed by thousands of comments. I find these comments to be almost worthless – there never appears to be any meaningful discussion, just senseless trolling and naive people being offended at the trolls. Anyone with sense stays far away.

The whole social media and online news thing is still relatively new and constitutes a massive social experiment. I welcome studies like this one that try to tease apart the actual effect of components of online science news. We certainly want to avoid the unintended consequences of decreasing scientific literacy, propagating misinformation, or fomenting conspiracy thinking because of the forum of science news reporting.

Have we simply given equal (or perhaps even louder) voice to the most irrational or radical elements of our society? Perhaps. I definitely think we cannot ignore this issue, and we do need to explore ways to maximize the positive aspect of online science news, blogging, and discussions. It would be great if the average citizen could interact dynamically with the science online without being overwhelm by trolling and misinformation.

If the results of this study hold up, it should make science bloggers and news outlets feel more empowered and responsible to manage the culture that develops in their comments, and perhaps to think about new ways to allow for discussion without degenerating into a counterproductive free-for-all.

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