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The Internet Communications Science Technology

Why Trolls Win With Toxic Comments 298

Hugh Pickens writes "The Web is a place for unlimited exchange of ideas. But according to an NPR report, researchers have found that rude comments on articles can change the way we interpret the news. 'It's a little bit like the Wild West. The trolls are winning,' says Dominique Brossard, co-author of the study on the so-called 'Nasty Effect.' Researchers worked with a science writer to construct a balanced news story on the pros and cons of nanotechnology, a topic chosen so that readers would have to make sense of a complicated issue with low familiarity. They then asked 1,183 subjects to review the blog post from a Canadian newspaper that discussed the water contamination risks of nanosilver particles and the antibacterial benefits. Half saw the story with polite comments, and the other half saw rude comments, like: 'If you don't see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot.' People that were exposed to the polite comments didn't change their views really about the issue covering the story, while the people that did see the rude comments became polarized — they became more against the technology that was covered in the story. Brossard says we need to have an anchor to make sense of complicated issues. 'And it seems that rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues.' Brossard says there's no quick fix for this issue (PDF), and while she thinks it's important to foster conversation through comments sections, every media organization has to figure out where to draw the line when comments get out of control. 'It's possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more — with users shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivating civil debate instead,' writes Brossard. 'Until then, beware the nasty effect.'"
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Why Trolls Win With Toxic Comments

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  • by 3seas ( 184403 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:46PM (#43191297) Homepage Journal

    Does it begin with polarized news or comments that may correct/nullify the polarization of the news?

    Certainly more and more people are realizing the News is polarized already.

  • by b4dc0d3r ( 1268512 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:50PM (#43191319)

    TV ads have used anchoring for decades - "You won't pay $300, or $200, or $150 for this product, but it's yours today for 3 low payments of $29.99".

    The first prices anchor your expectation, and $29 sounds like a great deal. Even those smart enough to mentally say "you mean $90" still come up with a 2-digit number instead of 3 digits, and it seems like a good deal.

    Stores do this too. A slow-selling model will suddenly jump up in price when placed next to the product's big brother, at a higher price. The goal isn't to sell the more expensive product, it is to anchor your price to the smaller version seems like a deal.

    When people have no idea what is going on, they need an anchor. This seems to be true of anything.

    Automatic Master's thesis in any subject in advertising - take something advertisers have known for decades, make your thesis about how that applies to your field, and then do a study.

    Advertisers have the financial incentive to know how people think, and the only problem is they stopped before generalizing into behavior patterns, and just made it about purchasing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:52PM (#43191339)

    If nice comments don't make you question the story (which is what this research determined), then perhaps trolling has a value. Any technology is going to have pros and cons. If nice comments don't change any opinions, then what is the point of them? And if trolls cause a more thorough discussion, then perhaps their damage is overrated.

    Nonetheless, there is a strong value in moderating trolls when they become cliquish. Go read the comments in any jpost article to see an example.

  • Re:F U (Score:4, Interesting)

    by buchner.johannes ( 1139593 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:52PM (#43191343) Homepage Journal

    "This is stupid, and they are all idiots" is simple to understand, you just flag all what you have heard as untrustworthy, and put the people who say that stuff in a mental box. Our brain likes simple structures, and avoids complex ideas, so this wins by default.
    Some issues, even when you understand the fundamental problems, are out of the control of the individual, and thus frustrating.

    Structured discussions like liquidfeedback or moderation by users may help, but it really depends on whether you can build a community and which culture that community would like. It's not merely a technical issue (another example where our engineering-brains like to look for a simple solution, avoiding complicated social studies).

  • Re:Freeze them out. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:55PM (#43191369)

    My favorite method requires a bit more work. I don't know if I've seen it done, but that is the point.

    The method involves letting the person keep posting, but only they can see their posts after being flagged. That way they can keep thinking they are making noise and also not get any attention.

  • by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:59PM (#43191415)

    Obviously, it's only trolling if it's not what the reporter wants you to think, you idiot.

  • by TigerPlish ( 174064 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:04PM (#43191455)

    It's called "bully."

    Don't get what you want? Throw a tantrum or take by force.

    Few people agree with what you say? Be mean to them, belittle them, In public if possible. Bully them until a) they kick your ass or kill you, b) you *do* win them over, or 3) they stop listening to you.

    This particular phenomenon isn't quite new. TV and Religion work much the same way. One blogger or poster or anchor or pastor or priest will say one thing, then an avalanche of people incapable of original, independent thought nod in assent. In order to rile the crowd, they will attack the person and ideas of those who "oppose" them. "Gee, if senator Juan Pingalarga is here in church agreeing with the pastor's bashing of gays, it must be ok! I'll bash gays too!" Tell me this isn't how it works. Tell me this isn't how we get these sickening political comments threads on CNN, etc. Tell me that's not how we get these fantastically bellicose flame wars here about win vs. unix, apple vs. android / samsung etc.

    Tell me this isn't why America's rapidly slipping into irrelevance -- the smart and quiet ones constantly out-mouthed by the dumb and loud.

    This starts at home and school, and the only way to buck it is to teach the little ones right, not trusting their education largely to TV or the Internet.

  • Re:Freeze them out. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by preaction ( 1526109 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:09PM (#43191505)

    It's called "hellbanning", and it's done in more places than you might think. You can even have the hellbanned trolls see the other hellbanned troll posts, giving them all a nice padded room to go nuts with Nerf.

  • Re:F U (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:18PM (#43191545) Journal

    Ah, trolling. :)

    Back in the days of USENET, it was (once) an art form. It served the purpose of getting a good giggle at the expense of blind ideologues (of any subject), and to force the lurking observers to mentally dig deeper - to more thoroughly examine their beliefs and what they thought they knew. It was an excellent way to explore concepts outside of orthodoxy, and challenged the status quo. At its highest expression, a good troll will spark further research into a subject (if only to win an argument), and served the noble purpose of everyone learning something new in the end.

    Now? Bah - in most cases, it's become pedestrian at best, and often shows the low intelligence of the troll.

    Interestingly enough, it is nowadays employed by corporate and political entities via mechanical turk - like astroturfing, but in reverse. For instance, take politics: Lurker sees a bucket of misspelled repugnant garbage posted in opposition to a particular viewpoint, and thinks that it represents nearly everyone else who opposes said viewpoint. Suddenly, that 'team' is tainted, swaying the lurker towards the troll's real viewpoint. It's an effective way to create discord in the ranks of those whom you want to diminish, and is employed quite often. It also provides "proof" that The Other Side is a bunch of racists/pedophiles/whatever, thus their motives are evil, wrong, etc.

    Dishonest as hell, but hard to see through from the casual lurker's eye. And, well, TFA proves that a lot of it works.

    So what was once a sport that some of us did long ago for a bit of intellectual fun [], has now become either the epitome of lame-assed prose, or has become serious cash-money business to further (or retard) a cause.

  • by jfengel ( 409917 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:28PM (#43191581) Homepage Journal

    For many news sites, comments are one of their key value-adds. For news beyond the local level, they're generally not doing original reporting, but merely aggregating news from other places. Including, um, Slashdot.

    (In fact, on Slashdot I find the comments often more revealing than the articles, since they can generally de-spin the puffery that is required to turn marginal news into something that feeds the maw of a 24x7 news cycle.)

    News sites would often like to seem themselves as the town hall/water cooler/public forum of the 21st century. It attracts returning eyeballs, giving the page multiple views from the same reader who tunes back in to the ongoing conversation. I think they'd like to present themselves as having a broader perspective on the news, rather than as mere conduits for it.

    Unfortunately, that means running a community, and that turns out to be a non-trivial job. It certainly won't run itself; they need to actively curate it. (Translation: it's not the free money you were hoping for.) The social sites generally do a better job of it, since it's what they specialize in.

    There may still be a niche for them, in areas where they actually have expertise, such as local news or niche news (like Slashdot). It helps to have citizen curators doing the job for free, though the smaller the niche, the harder it is to get critical mass.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:38PM (#43191653)

    It certainly is not because of the nasty tactics of Microsoft Corporation that they are "trolled" and "flamed". No, can't be. A corporation of gentlemen who would never, ever do anything unethical.

    You know what ? There is a lot of smell in the state of denmark and the west is exactly so powerful and advanced because deep-down we all trace our roots to the Germanic warriors of the forests of Europe, who knew no system of servants and slaves. They spoke out the plain truth irrespective of the politicos on site. They were and many still are, brutally honest.
    If we know a fact, we say it. That exactly is the kernel of scientific and general progress.
    Windows is a major security and economic risk to the West because our hard-earned trade and Technology secrets can be ex-filtrated by means of MS, Adobe, Oracle software. THAT is the real reason many people blast them. We might lose this fight to the "flexibility" of the business- and money-men, the current eco-politicial system might burn down to ruins, who knows. But at least we already know what went wrong, and how to fix it when we rebuild a new system from the ruins.

    Now tell me what the polite scheming of Asia has achieved. Slavery, oppression and all sorts of crap.

  • Re:One bad apple... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by russotto ( 537200 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @01:39PM (#43191657) Journal

    Pretty much, most people are of the hurd mentality and if you go against the hurd, then you wind up being burnt at the stake or shunned.

    Linux is still doing quite well against the Hurd. So is BSD. Heck, I think the Colecovision might still have more users.

    Experience is a good thing if what you're doing is like the things you've had experience with, it gets the job done faster, but if there's any novelty to it, you run the risk of doing it wrong.

    There's always risk of doing it wrong. But if I had a dollar for every time someone told me "This time, things will be different" and they weren't, I'd be wealthy. You know who believes that things will be different when every damn time in the past they haven't been? Charlie Brown, that's who. He never managed to kick that football.

  • Re:Freeze them out. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @02:11PM (#43191835) Homepage

    This is true. But also, there is the problem of determining what/who is a troll.

    The real destroyers of the discussion aren't usually strictly speaking trolls, they're people with an extreme black-and-white point of view who'll attack anyone with a dissenting opinion with the intensity of a pit bull with rabies. They're often met by their equal and opposite and together they'll churn out 100 posts drowning out any discussion by anyone with the slightest hint of seeing both sides of the argument.

    For example on our largest newspaper's discussion pages on any page related to immigration or that could possibly framed in reference to immigration (employment = immigrants stealing our work etc.) we'd have the ex-leader of a white supremacist party ranting and raving, all within freedom of speech but what's the point of trying to have a discussion with him? I think they got 200 votes at the election so they represent some 0.00...% of the population, but he sure can take up a lot of online space. And their opposites are those who want to open all borders, let all cultures and people blend and afterwards we'll all sing kumbayah and be one big happy family, nothing could possibly go wrong with importing dark age attitudes and Sharia law or completely extinguishing our national identity.

    Or on any article about our version of the CPS there's a guy who clearly is on a crusade against them, half the time he claims they're mad with power and just like to crush families, twist lies and abuse their power, the other half he's trying to make them part of a feminist conspiracy that will always side with the mother no matter what. No points for guessing what his experience with them is, though he never mentions that only uses a lot of pseudoscience and worthless studies that claim the same as him. I could on, but for every subject there seems to be a few people with an ax to grind who just won't shut up. It's practically the online variety of filibustering.

  • by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @02:17PM (#43191883)
    Not that slashdot is an island of perfection it has a pretty good BS filter, one of the best troll filters, and potentially one of the best off-topic filters. So if there is an article on black holes and someone starts ranting about 911 conspiracies they end up with a -1 pretty damn quick. If someone posts their slightly strange theory on black holes they may or may not survive but probably won't get a 5 and if someone goes half off-topic but against the grain of slashdotters and says blackholes are just a theory and the bible has a better answer they too will get badly spanked.

    Where self moderating groups like slashdot and reddit can go wrong is when you violate a cultural taboo. Saying valid good things about Microsoft or valid bad things about Linux will get you a karmic black eye and on reddit not being racist will get you in trouble in many sub sections. Yet reddit is pretty good at sorting out fact from fiction (compared to many news organizations' comments sections).

    The quality of many news organizations' comments moderation is best shown by the number of spam/completely bonkers comments that they let survive.

    On a side note I am not happy with the number of organizations using Discus (I have hosts blocked them). I had an experience with one of their people and man o man do they seem to gather data.
  • Re:F U (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @02:34PM (#43191973) Journal

    Sadly, I have to agree with most of your post.

    There are still a few points of light here and there in the darkness, but instead of being common, it's now a somewhat rare gem. I miss the days when the big boys in IT would pop in and take a turn or four at a given subject. It allowed you to learn shit that no man page, howto, or FAQ would ever tell you. Seriously, it allowed you to see inside their decision-making and vision, which helped this sysadmin learn more about writing good code than most typical codemonkeys today could ever hope to know about the craft.

    Good luck in your search for some sort of actual geek site these days, though. The nanosecond it generates anything worth having, you can count on the corporations, ideologues, and the ignorant to come swooping in and work their respective angles, shitting all over the place in the process.

    I've no more tears to weep for humanity though; it is what it is. It's like being one of the old guys sitting around the crumbling ruins of an era gone by, reminiscing about the old days of prospect, excitement and wonder.

  • by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @02:53PM (#43192117) Journal

    I've seen people banned simply because they held an unpopular viewpoint for which the moderators couldn't come up with a rational counterargument and didn't want to deal with the cognitive dissonance. Banning has become a shortcut abused by those in power to silence inconvenient truths, with no formal mechanism in place to appeal the bans.

    Worse, there's no easy way to know which message forums engage in this overhanded behavior, because said message forums typically delete any messages exposing it. This creates information asymmetry which restricts the flow of alternate viewpoints. As a result, we all lose.

    Boards like Slashdot and Reddit are better, because they (usually) don't delete posts without leaving a trace, but it still comes down to moderators downmodding simply because they don't agree. Maybe mod actions need to be individually justified, with those justifications open for debate and subject to cancellation, but that gets complicated real quick, and by the time it has gone through the process, the conversation has already moved on.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @03:24PM (#43192283)

    There's nothing that makes me think about the plight of the LGBT community more than seeing the loonies from the Westboro Baptist Church screeching about them. Same with neo-Nazi groups, anti-immigrant activists and others.

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.