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23Jan 2013

Are abusive blog comments altering readers' perceptions of news on the web?

On Jan. 4, I posted on an article in Science by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin in which they prepared a balanced news report about nanotechnology and showed it to two groups of readers. One group saw civil comments; the other saw uncivil comments and name-calling. "Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story," they wrote.

The story did not get much pickup initially, but it has since ricocheted around the web, generating a lot of discussion that Gary Schwitzer has collected in a post at HealthNewsReview. He links to posts by familiar science bloggers such as Chris Mooney, John Hawks, Razib Khan, and the authors of RetractionWatch. Follow the links and you will get a good idea of what's being said on the web. And what's being said isn't good.

In many cases, comments are proving to be a distraction or a distortion, undermining what's being said in the posts to which they are addressed. Civil comments are still being welcomed, but some bloggers are getting tougher about eliminating uncivil comments--and many are uncomfortable with it. "We are huge fans of Retraction Watch commenters," wrote Ivan Oransky , one of the founders of RetractionWatch. "They broaden our posts, send us tips, and correct us when we get things wrong. Without them, the site would be a shadow of itself. However, we have recently found ourselves — this update is from January 2013 — having to edit ad hominem attacks out of comments, unapprove other comments, and contact some commenters to remind them of what’s appropriate...We will not tolerate these sorts of attacks, and will simply edit or delete comments that contain them."

Lively debates help us to understand what we're reading and to sharpen our own views. Those debates could, however, become a casualty of the vituperative comments that too many readers insist on making.

-Paul Raeburn

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