What the comments you write online reveal about you

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Anna North

What do the comments we leave say about us - about our beliefs, our biases and how we act when the ordinary rules don't ...

What do the comments we leave say about us - about our beliefs, our biases and how we act when the ordinary rules don't apply? Photo: Stocksy

When we comment on news stories, most of us hope to say something about the topic at hand - even (or maybe especially) if we think the author got it all wrong. But what do the comments we leave say about us - about our beliefs, our biases and how we act when the ordinary rules don't apply? And how do our comments affect the beliefs of others?

Some researchers are taking up these questions. One is Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, a psychology professor at Skidmore College. In a recent study, she and her co-authors, Aneta K. Molenda and Charlotte R. Cramer, analyzed comments from three sources (The New York Times, the Discover magazine science blog and a Facebook group for science buffs) about a previous study of hers that found evidence of gender bias in science. They found some encouraging signs: Positive comments were more common than negative ones. However, they write, comments arguing that gender bias was justified because of biological differences between men and women were common - distressing, they argue, "because biological explanations for gender differences have been linked to heightened endorsement of gender stereotypes."

They also made an attempt to identify the genders of commenters, through a combination of factors like user names or profile pictures. Commenters they identified as male were more likely to post negative comments than were those they identified as female; they were also much less likely to post comments acknowledging that gender bias exists.

In an Atlantic article about the research, Olga Khazan points out that "what commenters say online isn't necessarily what they would say in a meeting at the office." She references online forums' much-discussed capacity for "disinhibition": "People feel more free to let loose their brain bile when they don't have to do it in person." Still, she writes:

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"If there is truth in wine, perhaps there's some in Internet comments, too. Maybe 'I don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die' isn't really something the commenter would say out loud to a woman. But it might be something he actually thinks - and when it comes to the hidden biases women face, that's all that matters."

Can comments tell us about commenters' true natures? Maybe not, says Sara Kiesler, a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon. "People do change their behavior in different situations," she noted, "and so we can't always make attributions about their personality unless we see their behavior across time and across different situations." A cruel commenter, that is, may not be a cruel person.

And something about commenting itself may shape behavior, Kiesler said. "It could be that the situation itself is so compelling that you're inducing the people that are there to behave in a certain way."

Dominique Brossard, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied commenting, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about sexism from Moss-Racusin's study. She noted that the authors looked at comments from only three sources, and were able to assign gender to only about half the comments.

Still, she said, "looking at comments can be quite enlightening." In a 2013 study, she and her team found that impolite comments on an article about nanotechnology could make readers see the technology as more risky than they had before. "Rude comments tend to polarize readers," she said. And "even people that said that they don't read comments could be affected." Even if we don't pay close attention to comments, we may catch a word here or there, and we can "use these as filters to actually make sense of the story."

"We use mental shortcuts to make sense of complicated issues," she explained, "and those comments can give you those shortcuts, unfortunately."

In a more recent study, Ioannis Kareklas, Darrel D. Muehling and T.J. Weber, all of Washington State University, found that the comments on a public service announcement about vaccination affected readers' attitudes as strongly as the announcement itself. When commenters were identified as doctors with expertise on the subject, their comments were more influential than the announcement.

Online readers may put a lot of stock in comments because they view commenters "as kind of similar to themselves," said Weber - "they're reading the same thing, commenting on the same thing." And, he added, many readers, especially those who are less Internet savvy, assume commenters "know something about the subject, because otherwise they wouldn't be commenting on it." The mere act of commenting, then, can confer an unearned aura of credibility.

That news may be especially disturbing to those already skeptical of comments' overall quality. Kareklas and his team were inspired by Popular Science's decision to get rid of the comments sections on its website; other publications, like Pacific Standard, have done the same. And Tauriq Moosa memorably wrote in The Guardian that the comments section "sits there like an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol."

But others see comments in a more neutral light. Brossard said that in many comments sections, "social norms are not really established," and people behave accordingly. "Does it mean that it brings out the best in us or the worst in us? I wouldn't say that." Rather, it may bring out whatever it is that social mores ordinarily restrain.

That might not always be a bad thing. "Dissent is more likely to be expressed when it can be done anonymously and people are not afraid," said Kiesler. Anonymous comments "might be more honest" than when everyone knows who we are. Moss-Racusin said, "Internet comments may be a very freeing space, for better or for worse."

Kareklas doesn't see his research as an argument for eliminating comments. "We also believe in freedom of speech," he said. "We don't think that comments should be taken down altogether, but rather that that content should be managed."

And as they get more attention, some commenters might become more self-aware. When media outlets covered Brossard's 2013 study, she took a look at the comments. One reader, she recalled, indicated that "now I'm going to think twice because I realize that what I'm saying, the way I react, and my words potentially can affect other people."

"There is research showing that people underestimate who's going to see what they say" in comments sections, said Kiesler. "Unless they've been burned in the past, they are just not as aware that they're being observed."

But if research on comments continues, maybe that will change. Maybe commenters will become more conscious of one another and more bound by social norms - for better and, perhaps, for worse.

New York Times