Online communication biases upon the public perception of science

4 minute read

Last week’s issue of Science included a perspective piece by my UW colleagues Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, from Life Science Communication Brossard:Scheufele:2013. They focus on the impact of technology and internet communication on the public understanding of science.

People find information online today very differently from the way people used to find information, whether from the traditional printed press or in libraries. Information in broad, authoritative works such as encyclopedias, textbooks or indexes involved highly selective editing by humans, moderated by expert opinion. A reader looking in any printed encyclopedia would be likely to see the same basic facts and be directed to the same essential references.

Now, computer algorithms do much of this job by tracking what people choose to look at after they have searched for a topic or keyword. This changes the process of information discovery, and as Brossard and Scheufele discuss, may introduce feedbacks into the process with unpredictable effects:

[T]here are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find. As a result, someone's initial question about a scientific topic, the search results offered by a search engine, and the algorithms that a search provider uses to tailor retrieved content to a search may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral in which search queries and the resulting Web traffic drive algorithms and vice versa (7). This raises an interesting paradox when it comes to relatively new scientific topics, such as nanotechnology, that are still unfamiliar to many people: Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices?

I encounter this problem here with my weblog. It is very difficult to design an effective presentation strategy for topic-specific searches on a website. It is also hard to maintain internal search capacity on a site the size of this one, with content that comprises both original text and bibliographic references. As you can tell by the fact that I frequently deactivate internal searching altogether, this has been a pain for me to develop and maintain.

The more newsworthy part of this essay is a reference to the effects of online comments after articles about science and technology topics. Brossard and Scheufele refer to a recent conference that covered this topic, and the results of a study in which subjects were exposed to the same story but with different types of comment sections:

Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story. Exposure to uncivil comments (which included name calling and other noncontent-specific expressions of incivility) polarized the views among proponents and opponents of the technology with respect to its potential risks. In other words, just the tone of the comments following balanced science stories in Web 2.0 environments can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.

Anyone who reads comments sections following news articles surely will have noticed the rotten wealth of trolls and other idiots who inhabit such forums. I thought about Brossard and Scheufele’s piece again today when I read a post by Dan Conover at Xark: “Why I shut down comments”. The post reflects on how blog communities have changed since the early days of blogging in 2005. This timeframe has coincided with the growth of social media of other types, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have given many people a closed community for sharing comments and perspectives with like-minded folks. Conover observes that the trolls and spam are more persistent, causing a rapid degradation of the value of comment sections of many blogs.

This isn’t of course universal. Many blogs continue to have rich and varied comment sections with their posts, and some (like mine) never had any comments at all. What I find more interesting is this passage:

I believed then, as I believe now, that the ability to comment and share across horizontal, informal networks is the killer app for the 21st century.
Which sounds nice.
Unfortunately, newspaper and other traditional-media websites, for all their hand-wringing concerns about libel and civility circa 2005, are typically the worst offenders when it comes to building quality comment cultures. We've taught users bad habits and turned comment sections into troll ghettos.

Comments on professional news websites are almost always useless, misguided, or malevolent. Combine this with Brossard and Scheufele’s claim that the tone of comment sections affects readers’ comprehension of science and technology stories, and I propose a hypothesis: Professional news websites may be the worst way to communicate science, because their comment policies undercut science comprehension.