Strange things can happen to us when we are behind a computer screen. Etiquette that we normally observe “in real life” can often fly out the window when we are protected by the anonymity of cyberspace. This, of course, isn’t true for everyone but stories about cyber bullying appear in the news with increasing frequency.
Just a few days ago, for example, a twelve-year old girl reportedly committed suicide after being bullied online by a dozen other girls. Sadly, this is not just an isolated incident. However, stories like this tend to highlight the dangers of directed, deliberate attacks by online “trolls” on adolescents who, presumably, lack the emotional maturity to ignore it.
As adults, we are able to let this stuff roll off our backs, right?
Not so fast.
New research is showing that online interactions have more of an effect than we might think — so much so that some online comments can actually shift how we perceive risk.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin and George Mason University recently conducted an experimental study on the effects of reader comments on a news story. Participants in the study were asked to read an article about nanotechnology, an emerging technology that remains relatively unknown by the general population. Next, participants were asked to read online comments by other readers. Half of the sample was exposed to comments that were civil in nature, the other half read rude comments such as, “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results are startling. Not only did the uncivil comments polarize opinions on the topic of nanotechnology, they also changed the readers’ interpretations of the article itself.
According to a New York Times Op-Ed, written by two of the authors of the study, “Simply including an ad hominem attack in the reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they previously thought.”
This study is part of a growing body of research that points to the influential power of unknown web-users. For example, this recently published article in Science (or read the summary at Forbes.com) suggests that the tone of the first reader comment following an article can influence the tone of the discourse that follows, i.e. a negative first comment leads to negative discussion and vice versa.
Since mediated discourse online is relatively new and unchartered territory, some websites, such as gawker.com, closely monitor reader comments and block users who can’t play nicely. However, for the rest of us, it will likely take some time before social norms are established. Until that happens, the best we can do is be aware of influence of online bullies.