Online “trolls” make readers sour toward science

Author:  Katie Campbell
Institution:  University of Florida
Date:  March, 2013

Online “trolls,” have long perfected the art of provoking fellow readers with their over-the-top, annoying and illogical comments, but as harmless as they may often seem, these online hecklers are negatively impacting the way other readers are viewing science and technology.

 That’s what University of Wisconsin-Madison science communication researcher Dominique Brossard found when she announced the results of a study showing the tone of blog comments can affect readers’ perception of risk.

 The study particularly focused on nanotechnology, but the overall theme was to understand how a reader’s perception on a science or technology related article could be influenced. The so-called “risk” associated with - or believed to be associated with - such a topic could be defined as the amount of harm a given experiment or study could have. Such risk could be real or imagined, physical or mental; it depends on how the reader views the topic.

 “Blogs have been a part of the new media landscape for quite some time now,” Brossard said, “but our study is the first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science.”

 The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, surveyed about 2,000 Americans on their perspective on nanotechnology. Blog comments on scientific articles were manipulated to  sway readers’ perception of the topic. Depending on a reader’s predisposition toward the topic, name calling and other factors seemed to influence opinions.

 Examples of online comments included the following:

 “Wonder how much taxpayer cash went into this ‘deep’ study?”

 “I think you can take all these studies by pointy headed scientists, 99 percent of whom are socialists and communists, and stick them where the sun don’t shine.”

 “This article is 100 percent propaganda crapola.”

 Brossard said highly religious readers proved more likely to associate risk with nanotechnology when exposed to these rude comments compared to less religious readers.

 Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the lead author of the upcoming study in press at the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, explained Brossard’s observation: “When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgment.”

But it’s not just the “trolls” – who use online identities to provoke other readers with their opinions – and their negative tones that are affecting perspectives.

 Brossard explained simple disagreement could be enough to alter the perception of other readers who may not be familiar with a topic. She said such disagreements add another layer to the issue, influencing the conversation over an article one way or another.

 UW-Madison professor Dietram Scheufele, another of the study’s co-authors, noted the Internet has become a central resource for people to gather more information and discuss topics like science and technology.

 This trend points to the importance of studies concerning online media and the general environment in which information regarding science is disseminated. Blogs, shared comments and uncertainty over complicated scientific matters are not new.

 According to the release, “The trolls are winning.”

But that doesn’t mean science can’t make its comeback.

This science feature article was written under the guidance of JYI Science Writing Mentor Robert Aboukhalil.