(J. D. Heyes) The Internet is open and (largely) free, an excellent forum for the exchange of opinions and ideas. Only, in recent years, it has also become a cesspool of incivility, where nameless, faceless people use the safety of anonymity to spew vitriolic, hateful comments they would otherwise never say to someone’s face.
In fact, there are people who exist to do just that, and they are appropriately called Internet “trolls.” They have become such a problem – and will continue to present problems – that one large website has now shut off the interactive “comments” section of its stories.
The Internet Troll: Spreading hate and discontent or adding to the debate?
In an explanation to readers, editors at Popular Science recently explained the online magazine’s decision to close off comment sections:
Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.
It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.
The editors went on to explain that, by far, most commenters are civil, thought-provoking and respectful. And they said that Popular Science was far from the only Internet publication experiencing these problems. But when the trolls began affecting the quality delivery of the news product, it became necessary to shut them – and, unfortunately, everyone else – down.
In fact, as PopSci editors noted, it doesn’t even take a lot of trolls to affect a reader’s perception of a story:
[E]ven a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests.
Citing a study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison prof. Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a phony blog post on nanotechnology, then revealed in survey questions what they thought about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or do they support them, for example). Then, via a randomly assigned condition, they read epithet – and insulting comments (such as, “if you don’t see the benefits of nanotechnology, you’re an idiot”) or civil comments.
The results of the study were published by The New York Times:
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.
How do you reconcile cutting off debate with free speech?
Mother Jones magazine went a step further: It attempted to find out who some of its Internet trolls actually were. And they caught up with one of the most prolific of them, Hoyt Connell, who routinely blasted MJ online for its liberal coverage of the environment and climate change:
We first encountered Hoyt, or as we know him, @hoytc55, several months ago on our Twitter page, taking us to task for our climate coverage. And the screed hasn’t stopped since: In April alone, Hoyt mentioned us on Twitter some 126 times, almost as much as our top nine other followers combined. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: track him down, meet him face to face…and ask a few questions of our own. So we did.
The magazine put its interview of Connell online here.
Trolls are here to stay, but they have a mission. Connell says stories posted online as truth and fact – which are not true or factual – should be answered, lest readers come away with the impression that what they’ve just read is the final word on the matter.
But when such “trolling” becomes a liability to the truth, it can, as research has shown, be destructive.
How you reconcile that problem in a society that embraces free speech and expression is going to be difficult. But for Popular Science, the answer was simple: Cut off debate.
Article first read on Natural News