Combative Comments Interfere with Readers’ Critical Thinking

Combative Comments Interfere with Readers’ Critical Thinking May 26, 2014

Angry, insulting, bullying commenters: all bloggers get them. They are at minimum annoying, and at worst they can put a pall over your day and leaving you feeling like you need a good shower (or perhaps a restraining order). Nevertheless, many bloggers are reluctant to moderate comments. Wanting to be open-minded and inclusive, writers may resist engaging in “censorship,” or they may want to ensure that discussions on their blogs include a range of views, even if some of those commenters express their views with a barrage of verbal abuse.

I respect the principles behind the resistance to moderating comments. But a recent study suggests that allowing readers to be exposed to combative comments interferes with their ability to process new information and think critically about it. In fact, readers exposed to such comments tend to double down on their existing beliefs, i.e. their beliefs about the topic become more polarized than before, while their perceptions of the negative aspects of the topic being discussed increase.

Professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele (University of Wisconsin, Madison) summarize the results of their research, which they’ve dubbed “the nasty effect,” for the New York Times:

Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”

The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

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.

On the strength of this research, Popular Science magazine has completely shut down its comments section:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Although “the nasty effect” is particularly destructive to scientists’ efforts to educate the public about crucial research–especially research related to climate change–we in the humanities who are concerned with educating readers about religion and social justice issues should take these findings just as seriously. Many of us write because we want our readers to think critically, not simply re-commit to their existing beliefs. Allowing abusive comments to stand makes this kind of reflection far less likely.

An additional study by Brendan Nyhan (Dartmouth) presents frustrating evidence that readers rarely shift their existing opinions in response to new information. There is some hope for critical thinking in the study, however: Nyhan’s research suggests that readers become much more open-minded to new information immediately after experiencing positive emotions relating to the self. Presenting topics in a way that seems unrelated to readers’ ideological commitments–for example, avoiding framing a viewpoint as liberal or conservative–also seems to help, apparently because the new information seems less threatening to readers’ sense of who they are.

So what do we, as religion bloggers, do with this information?

While I’m not ready to start shutting down comments sections entirely, I urge bloggers to post comment policies advocating nonviolent communication; to practice nonviolent communication themselves; to use filtering technology to help prevent abusive, malicious comments; and to strictly eliminate such comments when they slip through–regardless of whether those comments come from friends or opponents. Toxic comment sections are not just an annoyance; they interfere with readers’ ability to think.

We owe ourselves and our readers something better than a no-holds-barred textual free-for-all. Let’s make it more possible for us to actually listen to each other.


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