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The science: Why trolling is bad for our understanding of complex issues


You might have read today's fantastic piece from Robert Fisk on the poisonous effects had by trolling on online conversation. If you're still not convinced that, as Fisk puts it, "this is not what the internet is for", here's an article from Mother Jones to consider, with some scientific muscle to back it up.

The George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (phew) carried out a survey of 1,184 Americans in an attempt to find out what impact abusive and vituperative comments had on the public's reaction to an online article.

They used a balanced piece on nanotechnology (already an industry worth $91 billion in the US) as a test. When comments below exhibited a high level of rage (along the lines of "the author is a dork, anybody who doesn't see the benefits of nanotechnology is a dork") then readers' reaction tended to polarise. If they were originally sceptical of nanotechnology, they became more so; if they believed in its benefits, that view also hardened. In effect, reading insults stops people thinking and encourages them to react emotionally - a damaging sign if you want to boost understanding.

Chris Mooney, the Mother Jones writer who picked up this story, quotes an interesting line from the study's co-author, Dietram Scheufele. Reading a news article online today, says Scheufele, is like standing "in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it."

What do you think? Have insulting comments changed the way you react to a piece?