In Internet Commenters We Trust (Over Scientists)

January 30, 2015

8:00 pm

Despite the many years through which our species has evolved into our current, overall smarter selves, it seems that we may not actually be as smart as we think; indeed, some of use may even be convinced that the popular notion from the scientific community on the issue of human evolution is itself a complete farce – a story tale – rather than founded on actual evidence. According to a recently released study from the Pew Research Center, there’s a wide disconnect in opinions on science-related issues between scientists and the American public. What’s even more unsettling, though, is that we may be more influenced by Internet commenters than we believe.

In another recent study published in the Journal of Advertising, researchers found that Internet commenters are actually instrumental in shaping our responses and personal beliefs. Titled “Reexamining Health Messages in the Digital Age: A Fresh Look at Source Credibility Effects,” the study looked at how online commenters influenced consumer responses to vaccination PSAs. They managed to do this by conducting two separate experiments.

In the first, people were shown made-up PSAs from  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocating for vaccination and an opposing one from the anti-vaccination group National Vaccine Information Center. They then read for and against comments from anonymous Internet commenters. Based on the the data, scientists found that people were influenced by both the PSAs and the random Internet commenters.

In another experiment, the same people were exposed to the same PSAs, but were given the identities of Internet commenters: one was a English literature student, one a lobbyist for the health care industry, and one a medical doctor. In the end, despite the credibility of the organizations behind the PSAs, the people in the study were found to be more influenced by the Internet commenter that the participants found to be the most credible – in this case, the medical doctor.

Pew: Public Opinion Versus Scientists

(via Pew)

And we can see the possible effects of this when we look at the recently released data from Pew. While 86 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) agree that childhood vaccines such as the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine should be required, a much lower 68 percent of the public agree with this sentiment. If you’ve been following up with recent debates in society, many people across the Internet have taken sides on this issue over MMR – and, surely, many have been swayed by anti-vaxxers putting forth the dangers of MMR and its ties to autism. Isolated from this issue of Internet commenters, the study from Pew is even more interesting, though, because it looks into popular claims regarding our belief in scientists and science as a field in general – that we don’t have as much faith in science as we thought we did.

Personally, I don’t find any of these findings regarding Internet commenters surprising since, really, we’re influenced by anything with which  we interact. But, I mean, just to be safe, I’m going to blind myself.

(H/T Slate)

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things.

Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in ‘Doctor Who’, Murakami, ‘The Mindy Project’, and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a “writer”. Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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