Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why trolls are so effective in the debate

Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at, we're shutting them off.

It wasn't a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.

That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests. In one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard, 1,183 Americans read a fake blog post on nanotechnology and revealed in survey questions how they felt about the subject (are they wary of the benefits or supportive?). Then, through a randomly assigned condition, they read either epithet- and insult-laden comments ("If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you're an idiot" ) or civil comments.

The results, as Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.

Another, similarly designed study found that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science.

If you carry out those results to their logical end--commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded--you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the "off" switch.
Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story.

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other: through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email, and more. We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you'll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don't do it for us. Do it for science.

Suzanne LaBarre is the online content director of Popular Science. Email suzanne.labarre at popsci dot com.


  1. The internet is an utterly inadequate replacement for the neighborhood bar, the barbershop, the after-church coffee "hour". Plato's dialogs were alleged to take place in wine-filled bull sessions; in Galileo's "Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche, intorno à due nuove scienze", Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati need no chemical assistance. In none of these classics do we find anonymity-fueled bombast.

    When I was a little boy I heard politics and the war discussed in the barbershop once in a while. Mosly I just listened. Opinions were just as strong as when baseball or football were the subject. Generally, when somebody was way off, group pressure established a modicum of civility and reason. Most of the time, it seemed. Everybody knew everybody else (in a small, remote town in western Michigan). Later, when I was a teenager in the Old South, nobody would speak in favor of civil rights activities. I did not dare; with my accent I was suspect enough. But I noticed how valid the "Big Lie" hypothesis could be.

    On race matters, progress has been made since my youth in the 1940's. Even so, comments went wild over a recent TV commercial showing a biracial family.

    By the way, all of us from Michigan's Lower Peninsula are "trolls" because we are from below the (Straits of Mackinac) bridge. Those of us from the Upper Peninsula (the UP) are "Yoopers".

  2. Very difficult to say whether this new comments (or no comments) policy adopted by Popular Science will be a good thing or a bad one "overall" and how it will play out in terms of various types of consequences in the broader interactive system of "scientific information, public understanding, and policy making" with its many participants and stakeholders. (themselves quite varied and different) I can think of many reasons and scenarios why it's a good idea but also of some why it may be a bad one. If it is even possible to do it, the editors probably should do an impact assessment of the policy in two years time and decide whether to continue it, discontinue it, or modify it. And if an impact assessment is too difficult to do properly, then how can they now assume one kind of impact over another one?