Science journalist Chris Mooney recently wrote about "The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck" in Mother Jones magazine. His article covers a study by researchers at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, who asked over a thousand study participants to read the same blog article about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. The comment section that subjects experienced varied from civil discussion to name-calling flame war. The researchers found that witnessing flame wars caused readers' perceptions of nanotechnology risks to become more extreme.
Mooney argues that these findings don't bode well for the public understanding of climate science. He also argues that this...
....is not your father's media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it's like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."Finally, based on his interpretation of the evidence, Mooney advocates that we ignore the comments section.
I agree with Mooney that flame wars are detrimental to rational discourse, and that the George Mason study highlights the pitfalls of what Daniel Kahneman calls "System 1" thinking. Yet I counter that a purely civil discussion about climate change may also be counter-productive. Furthermore, the comments section doesn't mark a huge departure from "your father's media environment". Finally, the George Mason University study demonstrates that there is good reason to pay very close attention to the comments section, even if it is littered with bridges beneath which trolls dwell.
Read more below the fold.
How can civil discourse be counter-productive? Agreeable people tend to groupthink, which is when people make poor decisions for the sake of harmony and conformity. Another possible consequence of over-civility is the middle ground fallacy, which is the false assumption that the middle point between two extremes must be the truth (medio tutissimus ibis, anyone?). A flame war presses emotional buttons that polarize a discussion and inhibit rationality. But an overly civil discourse massages the human tendency to conform, which may also lead us astray. The key is to balance investment in our beliefs with the willingness to abandon invalid arguments and discard false premises.
As for whether or not it is still your father's media environment, of course it isn't. Still, flame wars are anything but new. Trust me. I just spent eleven months in a rural village where people have limited access to electronic media, much less the Internet. People don't have to hide behind anonymous screen names to behave immaturely during a heated debate, quickly drowning out the radio program that prompted the discussion.
Finally, why shouldn't we ignore the comments section? It's not because we're likely to find high quality debate there. We should steel ourselves against the polarizing effects of flame wars, becoming part of the mob to better understand how people form and defend their beliefs. We shouldn't limit ourselves to observing the effects of flame wars from afar, as did the George Mason research team. There's something to be said for allowing yourself to get bated by trolls a few times to experience for yourself how easy it is to be led astray. If you look at my user history at Reddit or the Daily Kos, you'll see I speak from experience. I've learned valuable lessons about the limits of my rationality on those sites. We anthropologists would call this method of inquiry participant observation.
Apart from these three criticisms, I read Mooney's article and the research it covers in light of one of Malarkometer's missions, which is to quantify and correct for the bias and uncertainty inherent in measures of political figures' factuality. Another of my goals is to eventually host a site where both professional fact checkers and non-professionals engage in fact checking and discourse about fact checking while regularly answering questionnaires about political philosophy. The idea is to compare the influence of political philosophy on fact checking performance of professionals versus non-professionals. Based on the George Mason group's findings, I might also want to experiment with varying the levels of comment moderation across the site, and then examine the influence of forum comment vituperativeness on aggregate fact checking performance. And, yes, I might also want to suggest to my future fact checking staff to kindly avoid the comment section while they write their reports!