They call it "the nasty effect."
Strong-worded comments can change a readers understanding of an article, especially when it comes to science reporting. Writing in today's New York Times, a group of researchers found that readers who read the same news story about a new technology, but were exposed to different sets of comments, one set fair, one set nasty, had completely different responses to the story:
The results were both surprising and disturbing. 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.
Commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a story without recourse or the need to back it up, it turns out, has had an ill effect on what we consider to be factual or fair:
Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges - and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.
Some sites have "devised rules to promote civility or have actively moderated reader comments." Paul Krugman even turned comments off after his article on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Other sites have tinkered with commenting systems, trying to find the right balance between relevant discussion and a proper amount of skepticism (hello down there!).
Still, the researchers ask us to beware "the nasty effect" when it comes to news consumption. God knows what ideas some poor souls would emerge with after a full exploration of a Gawker comments thread.