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Farewell, internet commenters

Popular Science has decided to close the comment section on its website. This will eliminate a known source of misinterpretation and divert resources toward producing better content.

By: Ian Campbell

Internet trolls will have to work a little harder to inflame readers of science. Image courtesy of Patrick, Wikimedia Commons

Internet trolls will have to work a little harder to inflame readers of science.
Image courtesy of Patrick, Wikimedia Commons

Internet trolls now have one fewer bridge to reside under. In a surprise move, Popular Science announced on Tuesday that it was removing the comments section from most articles on its website. Citing more than just the burden of moderating unhelpful posts, the post by online content director Suzanne LaBarre noted that scientific research on reader perceptions has shown that strongly-worded commenters can shape readers’ interpretation of articles they have just read.

On one hand, isn’t interpretation the whole point of online comments? By providing a forum to highlight dissenting viewpoints and alternate interpretations of complex scientific topics, engaged readers and scientific experts can, theoretically, use these free-form comments sections to debate and discuss the topic at hand. Certainly, most research worth reporting has implications that are anything but one-dimensional or unanimously positive.

Additionally, without a means to disagree with the author, it’s much easier for over-hyped science to proliferate un-checked. One hopes that journalists will have consulted scientific experts in order to vet the validity of the story, but hype nonetheless slips through occasionally.

Unfortunately, although one might fantasize that all comments will be from readers pointing out clever alternative interpretations and posting links to other studies that complement or contradict the current findings, a non-trivial number of comments on mass-market scientific websites don’t add anything positive to the conversation. Even worse, comment sections provide a sounding board for a vocal minority to spread misinformation or repeat fringe or unproven science. The first piece of advice I was given as a journalist was not to read the comments on my articles (though of course I did, to my own dismay).

This was particularly apparent earlier this year in articles in The Oregonian, the newspaper where I used to work. Portland recently voted not to fluoridate their public water supply—the fourth time they have rejected the addition. Leading up to the vote, every article that mentioned the issue was flooded with comments from angry anti-fluoridation folks explaining the manifold reasons why fluoridation was a bad idea for Portland. While the issue of fluoridation is not one to be taken lightly, many of the comments I read contained flawed logic and oversimplified or misinterpreted statements regarding the biochemistry at hand. Though one would hope that scientific fallacies would be vetted, opinions were shaped and votes were cast. Portland continues to be fluoride free, and I can’t help but suspect those internet comments played a large role in that fact.

Similar counterproductive effects of commenters are apparent in many articles discussing genetically-modified organisms, a rapidly-changing frontier of science. While GMOs can describe a large array of organisms modified in a number of disparate ways for a number of disparate reasons with a number of disparate consequences, as a recent New York Times piece pointed out, comments on articles about GMOs frequently turn into a rant against Monsanto. Monsanto doesn’t even have to be mentioned in the article for their controversial business practices to come up, regardless of relevance to the GMO at hand.

Several approaches to maintain a high quality of article comments have been implemented around the web. Some sites require people to use their real names in hope of making people think twice before posting knee-jerk reactions. Others allow people to comment, but require readers to manually click a button to show the comments, effectively allowing readers to “opt in” to the madness. Some, like the New York Times and Ars Technica, allow editorial staff to feature certain noteworthy comments and allow readers to skip the rest.

In my own experience, more specialized scientific websites seem to have higher quality comments than general interest scientific sites. Readers who have actively sought out the niche topic are more invested in the quality of the conversation and the communities are often less tolerant of low-quality or inflammatory posts. On websites like this one, comment volumes are low and almost always high-quality, which makes them very easy to manage.

Regardless, Popular Science is, as its name states, a general interest website with a very large audience. In my opinion, they made the right decision by cutting off this outlet for misinformation and negativity, even at the expense of plenty of high-quality comments. Resources are tight in science journalism these days. I would much rather have salaries directed toward paying more science journalists than paying someone to vet comments or for journalists to have to waste their own time dredging through comments on their own articles.

After all, if you can’t find intelligent commentary in a place like Popular Science, no website is safe.

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3 comments on “Farewell, internet commenters

  1. Pingback: Do You Remember Your First Online Moment? For Some, That Moment Is Today | Figure One

  2. Ryan Hooper
    October 25, 2013

    Well reasoned write-up, Ian, thanks for highlighting this issue. It does seem that publishers got more than they bargained for with allowing such comments adjacent to what they hope is high quality journalism in their articles, which typically has a certain minimum level of accountability built-in (e.g. subscribers may cease their subscriptions if the quality of the publication declines). But commenters are beholden to no such mechanisms of accountability, unless the publisher introduces some mechanisms for such, as you pointed out. Clearly things of this nature were not an issue prior to the internet. If someone wanted to use a respected publication as a springboard to distribute their ideas that are not supported by the existing publishers (for whatever reason) in past eras, they really had no recourse but to try to establish a respected publication of their own.

  3. Pingback: Welcome, internet commenters | Figure One

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This entry was posted on September 26, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , , , .
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