January 16, 2013

Negative Comments Suck More Than We Realize

Remember when we were kids and our parents taught us that if we could not say anything nice, we should not say anything at all? Whatever happened to that especially when it comes to comments on news stories, blogs, and even reviews dealing with science? The time of being kind to each other and providing constructive criticism has devolved into name-calling and unnecessary expletives.

Mother Jones recently reported on the “comment trolls,” particularly pertaining to science stories and blogs. In the article, Mother Jones discussed the findings of a recent study from George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications as well as several other institutions. The study surveyed 1,183 Americans to understand how the negative consequences of abusive online comments added to news stories, blogs, and other online sources contributed to the public understanding of science. Basically, people looked at comments that were positive, neutral, and negative and responded to them.

The effect of negative comments pertaining language like “If you don’t believe, you’re an idiot” was not good. They added to the polarization of already complicated scientific issues. When exposed to the name-calling, participants moved more toward their already perceived notions. They were less likely to even consider the new information. Obviously, attacking people’s emotional buttons made them feel even more strongly about their preexisting beliefs, no matter how under-informed they were about the topic.

The question remaining: why do we do this? Why do we “double down” on our preexisting notions and beliefs (even if we do not really know what it is we believe or even why we believe it in some cases) when confronted with negative and abusive comments from complete strangers who really have nothing to do with the information in the stories, blogs, and texts? Well, as Mother Jones said, people feel first and then think second: “Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.”

These comment trolls attack all sorts of science: junk theories, climate change, creationism versus evolution, vaccines, and so much more. They add their negative comments in support of their positions (often unfounded and unsupported), and these comments affect the readers searching for information on very complicated science. They spread their misinformation and sometimes lack of information via attacks. And when they do have a solid position with good research and support, their negativity and abusive comments overshadow any good information, which is a shame.

If we want to educate ourselves and others, we must do so in a respectful and positive way. We may not always agree with what we read or learn, and that’s okay, but it is not okay to post negative, aggressive, and abusive comments just because we don’t like or we don’t agree with what someone else writes. Furthermore, when we disagree, we should want to open up a positive and influential discussion. This research shows that does not happen when posters use name-calling in their comments.

Perhaps, the best choice is to not read the comments posted by general readers until we have done the research and learned all we can about the science discussed in the article, blog, story, or review. Ideally, though, people would just remember that childhood lesson of being kind when we talk to each other.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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