Trouble with Trolls

Via Chris Mooney at Mother Jones, a study on the effects of derogatory comments on the perception of issues:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

The cause of the polarization seems to be the instinctual response to combative language:

Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.

So rude comments and hostile discussions push people into an intellectual “fight or flight” mode. They become less interested in absorbing information and more interested in defending their turf.

This study was performed with discussions of nano-tech, something which very few people have developed strong feelings about(*). What happens when you shift to something like climate change where many people have established identities as supporters or deniers?

When it comes to climate change, in contrast, “the controversy that you see in comments falls on more fertile ground, and resonates more with an established set of values that the reader may bring to the table,” explains study coauthor Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If commenters have stronger emotions and more of a stake, it stands to reason that the polarizing effect of their insults may be even stronger—although, to be sure, this needs to be studied.

So, if the logic is accurate, the more people have invested in the argument, the more polarizing the effect of rude comments, which has obvious implications for Patheos and the rest of the religious/atheist social web.

Both Libby Anne and Daniel Fincke have drawn a lesson about the need for civil discussion from this article. I tend to think that there are a few more questions that need to be asked.

I’ve found that the simple existence of atheism is frequently a challenge to many strong religious believers. Any direct statement of atheism will therefor be judged as rude by many in our society. How do we move the line between direct statements (“You’re wrong”) and rude statements (“you’re an idiot”) without polarizing?

This isn’t unique to atheism. There are many movements that had to face the fact that their goals were unthinkable and unmentionable in polite society. Perhaps it takes pressure in both directions. Maybe every movement needs its hardliners as well as its moderates in order to enact change.


(*) With the exception of those of us in the Hudson Valley, where government has spent a lot of money attempting to attract nano-tech businesses. We’d like you to know that if you aren’t very, very excited about nano-tech, you’re an idiot.

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