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nasty effect

The nasty effect is the negative cognitive and emotive influence vitriolic comments have on those who read an online article. The concept of the nasty effect has intuitive appeal, though the scientific evidence for it seems to be a single article that appeared online last February in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. The article by Anderson et al. is titled "The 'Nasty Effect:' Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies." The authors claim that exposure to uncivil blog comments polarized "risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support." Whether further scientific studies support the nasty effect, some of us who have been reading online blogs and articles for the past twenty years or so suspect that incivility invites more incivility and makes it easier for lazy readers to jump on the bandwagon of anti-this or that without doing any significant study or research. The incivility is sometimes obvious, as when abusive language is used by deniers of evolution or global warming; the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, wi-fi, and cell phones; the Holocaust and the Apollo moon landing; or the causal connection between smoking and cancer, HIV and AIDS, or al-Qaeda and 9/11. Sometimes the incivility is less obvious, as when unsupported accusations of fraud, cheating, stifling opposing views, conspiracies, or association with Big Pharma, Islam, or some group the denier thinks is hated enough that the mere linking of a view with the hated group will arouse sympathy for the denier's position. But it may not be just the incivility of the comments that affects perception. The sheer quantity of views opposing scientifically supported views and the confident, passionate way these opposing views are stated may also be major determinants of how an article is perceived. The overall effect of these nattering nabobs of negativism is to diminish the trust in science. Also contributing to the continuing growth of distrust in science is negativity bias and the false impression that the majority of scientists are divided on an issue.

Two of the authors of the nasty effect article wrote a promotional piece published in The New York Times. In "This Story Stinks," Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele claim that the tone of reader comments "can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place." In their study, half the sample were exposed to civil comments and half to rude comments. "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself."

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.

More and more of us use online sources to get our information about technology, science, and important social issues. Many of these online sources provide reader comments sections. If the nasty effect is as pernicious as this study indicates, then something may have to be done about those reader comments sections. In fact, some online sites have had their fill of incivility and have cut off reader comments altogether (e.g., Popular Science). My local daily newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, recently changed their online comments rules to require that commenters go through a social media outlet like Facebook. I predict this will not work for reasons obvious to anyone who's had to deal with Dennis Markuze (aka Dave Mabus) and his multiple Facebook accounts that he used to post his insane trash talk about atheism, Nostradamus, and a host of other topics that inflame his demented brain. The reason the Bee changed its policy was to curb "rude and mean-spirited comments." The reason the Bee wants to curb rude and mean comments isn't clear, but it seems that one reason is that such comments have a chilling effect: they repulse thoughtful, civil people, thereby denying others of some potentially important comments. Another reason is that they waste people's time. Nothing annoys me more than comments from my readers who waste my time telling me how stupid or wrong I am about something, yet fail to provide any counterarguments or evidence on their behalf. In short, they give me nothing to think about.

Popular Science, on the other hand, cut off reader comments because when trolls and spambots overwhelm lively, intellectual debate, they diminish PopSci's ability to spread the word of science far and wide. A "fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story," writes Suzanne LaBarre, the author of the online post by PopSci explaining why it was cutting off reader comments. The evidence of this power by trolls? The study by Anderson et al. and another study that found that "firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers' perception of science."

I have to say that a single scientific article such as the one on snark's effect on the perception of an article on nanotechnology is hardly sufficient to build a grand theory upon. Still, the article will resonate with many of us who lament the demise in respect and trust in science over the past few decades. We may disagree about the causes, but there can be little protest to calling ours an Age of Denial, as Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, does. Frank has seen the systematic process of manufacturing doubt by deniers and contrarians about everything from the hazards of smoking cigarettes to the evolution of species to the effect our lifestyle is having on climate change. "Today," writes Frank, "it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact." We might add that today it is politically effective and socially acceptable to deny any fact, especially if you do it in an uncivil way. Ted Cruz is no aberration: he is the poster boy for the Age of Denial.

There is a reason that political ads are more commonly negative than positive, i.e., they tar the opposition with high crimes and misdemeanors rather than sing the praises of the accomplishments of whoever the ad supports. There is a reason political campaign managers and consultants continue to favor creating doubt and muddying up an issue to clarifying. There is a reason prosecuting attorneys with little evidence against the accused speak loudly and in great detail about the horrible crime that was committed, rather than try to prove the accused committed the crime. These tactics work. Perhaps they work because of the nasty effect. Maybe they work in part because of negativity bias. In the case of online trolls and fanatical ranters, the nasty effect may do more than affect perception. It may turn thoughtful, civil people away from the reader comment forums. In the long run, the most pernicious effect of the nasty effect might be this loss of thoughtful commentary, rather than the increase in seeing the downside of something by people influenced by the uncivil comments of strangers.

I have been posting articles on The Skeptic's Dictionary website for about twenty years. I've never had a reader comments forum, though I have posted thousands of reader comments over the years. All comments are sent directly to me by email and I alone decide whether to answer them publicly or privately or not at all. Many of the comments I've posted were selected because they offered thoughtful commentary on issues. If I disagree with the comments, I state why and provide the best counterarguments I can come up with. Not too many trolls bother to write me; they know I'll just dump their rants into the trash icon. I'm not here to provide a bully pulpit to loud-mouthed bullies looking for a place to spread their disbelief in science or belief in some bizarre idea.

I was led to my decision by my early experiences with so-called science forums, which seemed to be overly populated with vulgar, uninformed, inarticulate people with few social skills. Looking at the reader comments on various skeptical sites over the years has not provided me with any reason to change my policy. I will admit though, that except for the case of the mentally ill Dennis Markuze and a few trolls trying to sell their magic diet programs, The Skeptic's Dictionary Facebook page has attracted mostly civil, humorous, and intelligent commentary even from those who disagree with some of the articles I've posted. I had a similar positive experience with reader comments during the year or so I wrote the blog Unnatural Acts.

See also the backfire effect, contrarian/denialist, manufactroversy, motivated reasoning, and pseudosymmetry.

Essays. Belief Armor, Evaluating Personal Experience, Why Do People Believe in the Palpably Untrue?, and Defending Falsehoods.

further reading

books and articles

Anderson, Ashley et al. 2013. The ‘‘Nasty Effect:’’ Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Hoofnagle, Chris Jay. (2007). The Denialists' Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts. SSRN.

Michaels, David. 2008. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford University Press.

Mooney, Chris. (2005). The Republican War on Science. Basic Books.


"Blinded by Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality," by Chris Mooney

"Beware 'Sound Science.' It's Doublespeak for Trouble," by Chris Mooney

"Junk Science and Environmental Policy: Obscuring Public Debate with Misleading Discourse," by Charles N. Herrick and Dale Jamieson.

Denialism Blog

The 'Nasty Effect': How Comments Color Comprehension by NPR Staff

Last updated 20-Oct-2013

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