Tone of online comments influences readers

A couple of years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper. While looking at the online version of my article, I noticed a notoriously combative commenter was the first to respond. This commenter resorted to making remarks that personally attacked me instead of offering thoughtful criticism. Additionally, the commenter shut down any further conversation that could have happened by labeling my article as “another typical knee-jerk reaction” to the issue.

That comment was the very first reader comment I had ever received in my life, and it made me feel terrible. In fact, a quick read-through of the online comments responding to any news article is a very reliable method of making you lose faith in humanity. But how much do these negative comments matter?

Quite a bit, it seems. According to a recent study discussed in a March 2 New York Times article titled “This Story Stinks,” the tone of reader comments can distort and influence how other readers understand the content of the article. Especially when the comments are uncivil and rude, even the most objective readers were swayed to very polar opinions about the content.

One way to tackle this effect is to shut down reader comments altogether, as some sites have done. While I do value the option for reader input and enjoy a good debate, my frustration with the lack of critical thinking in comment-making tempts me to agree with this outlandish solution.

For one, I have noticed that the commentary is often very unconstructive. Unlike most conversations that happen face-to-face, reader comments almost always turn hostile and rude for no real reason and leave no room for conversation. If pseudonyms are used, we seem to think that we can say anything we want because there are basically no consequences.

One of my least favorite characteristics in human beings is the inability to listen or pay attention to others in a discussion, and this shows up a lot in online comments. There is a convenient option to post what we have to say and never look at a response. The offline equivalent of this is insulting someone’s viewpoint and then plugging your ears and walking away when someone tries to respond or defend themselves.

The recent study also confirms a fear of mine about the influence of these aggressive commenters: They have persuasive power. It turns out that uncivil comments can actually change a reader’s interpretation of the story. It is unnerving to realize that the comments that attract our attention are the overly-dramatic and hateful ones and not the thoughtful ones. This also means that it seemingly doesn’t matter how well-written the original article is; people are forming their opinions based on what the commenters are saying.

This leads to another concern of mine: The rude, attention-grabbing comments may also be grossly misinformed about the issue. Since tone influences us more than the content of a comment, this could lead to misinformation and misunderstanding, especially in the realm of science articles. Interestingly, the topic chosen for the article that participants read in the study was emerging technology. This topic does not trigger immediate reactions driven by our values, unlike controversial hot topics like gay rights or abortion. It seems that when complex issues are presented that go beyond our gut reactions, we are eager to look to commenters with the “loudest” voice to make sense of the issue. However, this voice might not always be the best informed.

I think what this reader comment problem really boils down to is that everyone is waiting for their chance to spew forth the gospel of “Me, Myself and I,” and we forget that we can also listen and learn from other people. I think reader comments will continue to be dominated by a slur of impolite and thoughtless chatter until our online culture can learn to value constructive conversations that involve paying attention to what others have to say. In the meantime, maybe we all should take a break from the comments section for a while.

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