Our brains, tweets and the InternetBBC News reported on Sept. 25 that the American science magazine Popular Science had shut down the comments section of its online articles. The magazine was first published in 1872 and is read widely in 45 countries, and the decision of the magazine created a stir. Popular Science’s Web site ran an article by its editor, Suzanne LaBarre, “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments.” The magazine had wanted to foster lively, intellectual discussion, she said, but the comment section was overwhelmed by spam and vicious comments.
A University of Wisconsin professor, Dominique Brossard, conducted a survey of 1,100 people and concluded that uncivil comments on news articles polarize readers and may change their interpretation of the article. LaBarre cited the study and explained that Popular Science had made the hard decision to close the comment function to avoid allowing readers to be swayed by comments.
The social impact of online comments is an old controversy, existing since the invention of the Internet. The power of democracy comes from an unlimited sharing of unbiased and undistorted information and allowing people to reach reasonable agreements through logical discussion. The anonymous comment culture and social networks enable frank expressions of opinion and liberal amounts of criticism of the establishment, and we all agree that online comments contribute to the development of democracy.
But there is a shadow. For the last 20 years, we have suffered attacks by trolls. They make inconsiderate and vicious comments to attack the socially vulnerable, and their spew of emotion has hurt feelings and defamed others. In the tight contest of pros and cons, we are still trying to find a balance.
Other cases also make us skeptical about the fundamentals of online comments. One came from studies of behavioral economics.
“What will a man choose, between economic benefit and fairness?” is a classic question in microeconomics. In an ultimatum game that offers a choice that is unfair but offers economic gain, 80 percent of players prioritize fairness over economic benefit. They’d rather be respected than making a small sum. When a man is faced with an unfair situation, a part of his brain reacts with anger, and so he would be willing to give up economic benefit and reject unfairness. From a neurological point of view, justice begins at the insular cortex.
Interestingly, research has shown that the resistance to an unfair offer decreases if the anger it causes is released in other ways, such as writing comments online. A University of Arizona professor, Alan Sanfey, and his team found that when people are given a chance to express their feelings before being offered a choice that is unfair but yields economic gain, fewer people stood up against unfairness. Because they had already vented their anger, they felt less obliged to put their feelings into action.
The study casts fundamental doubt on whether online comments and social networking can make a positive contribution to society. We often see that Twitter and Facebook are filled with criticism about corruption, unethical conduct and abuses of power, but not much happens in real life. Perhaps people consider that they have fulfilled their role as a social entity by sending a cynical tweet or clicking “Like” on Facebook.
Any online comments by an agent of the National Intelligence Service also make us feel skeptical about the culture of the Internet. Since the comments may distort the judgment of readers of the news, a government agency’s manipulation of public opinion through online comments is a serious threat to democracy. Now the Internet and social networks became a battleground of trolls and government agencies distorting the judgment of the people and public opinion.
We need to contemplate how to create a healthy commenting system, how to protect our valuable Internet resources from the influence of powerful authorities, and what we need to do to make public opinion created through online comments reflective of real society. We have much more to worry about than Popular Science does.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of biology and brain engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
By Jeong Jae-seung