'Trolls' affecting public perception of technology

15 February 2013
By Edward Gent
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Comments from internet "trolls" have been shown to influence perceptions of technology and science

Internet “trolls” can adversely affect public opinion about technology and science, according to a new study.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of Life Sciences Communication Professor Dominique Brossard reported the results of a study showing the effect of trolls – people who post inflammatory comments or blog posts on the Internet, often simply to get a reaction.

The research found that in the realm of online science news, the diatribes, screeds and rants that are now a staple of our news diet, are taking a toll on the public perception of science and technology, according to a study by researchers at the university.

The study, now in press at the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, showed how the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risk posed by nanotechnology.

It sampled a representative cross section of 2,338 Americans in an online experiment, where the civility of blog comments was manipulated. For example, introducing name-calling into commentary tacked onto an otherwise balanced newspaper blog post, the study showed, could elicit either lower or higher perceptions of risk, depending on one's predisposition to the science of nanotechnology.

"It seems we don't really have a clear social norm about what is expected online," said Prof Brossard, contrasting online forums with public meetings where prescribed decorum helps keep discussion civil. "In the case of blog postings, it's the Wild West."

For rapidly developing nanotechnology, a technology already built into more than 1,300 consumer products, exposure to uncivil online comments is one of several variables that can directly influence the perception of risk associated with it.

"When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgment," explained Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the lead author of the upcoming study in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.

Highly religious readers, the study revealed, were more likely to see nanotechnology as risky when exposed to rude comments compared to less religious readers, Prof Brossard noted.

She said: "Blogs have been a part of the new media landscape for quite some time now, but our study is the first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science."

While the tone of blog comments can have an impact, simple disagreement in posts can also sway perception.

"Overt disagreement adds another layer. It influences the conversation," said Prof Brossard.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Life Sciences Communication Professor Dietram Scheufele, another of the study's co-authors, notes that the Web is a primary destination for people looking for detailed information and discussion on aspects of science and technology.

He said: "Studies of online media are becoming increasingly important, but understanding the online information environment is particularly important for issues of science and technology."

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