We all know trolls have a penchant for derailing comment threads. Who among us hasn’t witnessed an intelligent discourse devolve into name-calling, errantly accusing cesspools of time-sucking drivel? That may sound harsh, but there’s clear science to back up the detrimental effects of this particular brand of human nastiness.
There’s a new study that corroborates the very “soul-killing, society-destroying effects” of vile Internet comments. According to George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, online rudeness and gross, negative comments have the power to influence the opinion of otherwise objective readers. The researchers staged a phony news blog and posted a fake story on a fictional tech called Nanosilver. The article, which included both positive potential and negative risks, was put in front of participants in one of two ways: One version had supportive or polite comments, and the other was rife with trolls blasting obscenities and attacks at other commenters.
The result should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time on the Web (in other words, everyone). The participants weren’t overly affected by civil comments, maintaining whatever their original opinion was of the new, “breakthrough” technology. But the group exposed to the uncivil comments were more divided, more likely to change their perceptions and prone to focusing on the negative aspects of Nanosilver.
In other words, the rudeness was infectious and influential. Of course, one study does not indisputably prove this, but we’ve all seen this “nasty effect” for ourselves, so it’s not exactly hard to believe.
What’s worse is that, apart from the outliers or trolls, this effect could be hindering an entire generation of people from thinking for themselves. Writer Meghan Daum’s op-ed in the L.A. Times struck me as sad, mostly because it has a ring of truth:
“When I talk to students or young writers about the importance of being unafraid to take controversial positions, I’m struck by the degree to which they can’t entertain a thought, much less commit one to paper, without imagining the cacophony of snark they’ll get in response.”
Have you ever been silenced due to a fear of online bashing, whether as a writer or commenter? As tech fans, do you find it hard to form an opinion on a product, feature, company or something else until you’ve looked at other reader reactions? Ironically, we’ll ask you to weigh in below in the comments section, but do try to keep it civil. We don’t need to add even more proof to the pudding.
(If Internet trolling gets you down, don’t despair. The Web can also provide some inspired, feel-good resources too, for a pick-me-up.)