Comments Distort Facts

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It is widely known that the comments section is not always a place of deep analysis or conversation. Too often I have seen these spaces littered with worthless phrases like This Story Stinks or “how could you be dumb enough to think that!”, hardly thought provoking. However, studies have shown that comments like these are impacting how we assess the news we read online.

One such study was performed by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, who discovered the content of a comment had less affect than the tone of the comment. Their study , known as the The Nasty Effect, , stated that by viewing uncivil comments individual’s opinions become more polarized on the subject matter being presented, which in this particular study was nanotechnology and its possible risk factors. So what does this mean exactly? It means that snarky comments left behind by other readers can actually influence how we perceive a story and in some cases even change our initial interpretation of the information presented.

So are we doomed to be influenced by the unpleasant and distasteful comments left by previous readers? Some online forums are saying, “No.” Popular Science, for example, decided that it would completely remove the comments section from its website in an attempt to prevent such biases from affecting its readers. Like my fellow Slate author, Will Oremus, I do not believe that this is the best solution. By removing the comments section all together, this online magazine eliminates their readers’ ability to share information, to facilitate deeper discussions, and to gain a different perspective. The good comments are swept away with the bad and the information presented by the magazine is seen as final and absolute, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I have seen a much more inclusive and perhaps more practical solution being attempted by several online newspapers. Their approach is to moderate comments while also allowing readers to rate each others’ responses. This system allows the readers to decide what is seen as important and can help to eliminate some of the issues related to uncivil remarks and trolling commenters. The issue of tone is no longer a problem and the reader is able to analyze the comments more objectively.

One particular newspaper takes this method a step farther by sifting through the stream of consciousness provided by its readers to award the most interesting or thought provoking comments, not the individual commenter themselves. By doing this, this site acknowledges that there is value to what its readers have to say and redirects the readers focus back to the content of the article. This online news outlet has embraced the idea that comments have and will shape how we perceive the news rather than dismissing it altogether. It is important to note that while they do not eradicate the comments section completely, they do attempt to prevent the types of uncivil and rude comments that Brossard and Scheufele warn about from ever appearing on their sites.

The issue of online comments and their effect on society is not a passing issue, nor is it one that can be swept under the rug and left to worry about at a later time. It is affecting us now and will continue to affect how we perceive the news that is reported. While I do not know the best solution, if there really is one, I do know that online news sites, including our very own Slate, need to take it seriously.

But the solution does not rest solely on the shoulders of online magazines, newspaper, etc. If it did,then it wouldn’t be nearly so complicated. The reality is that they are tailoring to readers’ wants and so therefore readers must take part in the responsibility.  If we want to continue to participate in online comments we must consider what we we post, become more aware of what they are reading, and look at things objectively. If comments are influencing us to change our point of view, we need to dig deeper and ask ourselves the important question: why?   Is it because of a well-rounded idea or because of raging rhetoric? I would hope because of a good remark and engaging discussion, although it has been proven otherwise.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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