With so much content available, for instance, do we naturally become more extreme and isolated in our perspectives as it is so much easier to find people that think just like us? Yes, said a study from the Max Plank institute earlier this year.
Most of these studies have focused very much on the news articles themselves, but how influential are the comments sections attached to each piece?
A recent study from academics in New Zealand highlights how what appears in the comments section can have a big impact on our own thoughts.
How prejudice spreads
The researchers asked participants to read an online news story about a proposal being put forth by the education commission that would increase the number of scholarships available to international students, with a particular focus on Asian students.
The article said, however, that because a number of Asian students had been caught cheating in exams, the proposal was likely to be scrapped.
Upon reading the article, each participant was asked to provide their feedback on the proposed policy. In order to do so however, they first had to scroll past the comments of other people in order to get to the submission box.
These existing comments were actual comments made on a news story about the policy from online.
In addition to posting up their comment, each participant was also tracked for their reaction time to try and measure their unconscious feeling towards Asians. In addition, they completed a questionnaire that was designed to measure more conscious prejudices against Asians.
The results revealed that participants who were first exposed to prejudiced comments on the news article were more likely to be prejudiced themselves, both in the unconscious and conscious tests. Perhaps not surprisingly, these folks were also more likely to leave a prejudiced comment on the news article.
“In such an era, it is important to understand how other people’s online comments can influence our own feelings and behavior toward others. Although it is unclear how long lasting such effects may be, it appears that other people’s bigoted comments can influence even our more implicit unconscious prejudice toward a group,” the authors say. “However, on the flip side, anti-prejudiced comments can have a more beneficial impact in reducing racial bias. These findings suggest that a prejudiced and anti-prejudiced online environment can both be influential in changing an individuals’ own level of bias. Our research offers insight into some of the pros and cons of the participatory Internet and shed light on how our online comments can carry over to influence others.”
The results are interesting because most studies of online media suggests that the volume of choice available allow us to self-select content that fits our worldview.
In other words, it isn’t the content that changes us so much as us finally being able to choose content that fits our outlook. This study reminds us of the influence the content we consume has, even if that content isn’t part of the official narrative intended by the author.