Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Don't read the comments! Online communities shape risk perception

In today’s media landscape, people are turning to blogs and other online-only media as their primary sources of information on science, and relying less on online versions of traditional news outlets. This transition to consuming science online may be a double-edged sword, according to a pair of professors from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their Perspectives article in the journal Sciencehighlights the opportunities and unintended consequences that this shift to the web may present, and may force scientists and social scientists to rethink how the science community and the public interface online.

Almost half of Americans rely on nontraditional online sources, and only 12 percent get their science news from online versions of traditional print newspapers and magazines. This trend isn’t just for science news though—sixty percent of Americans turn to the Internet as their primary source of information on general scientific questions. All this time online has an encouraging effect on people’s views about science; time spent online not only has been linked to more positive attitudes towards science, but frequent Web users are more likely to support basic scientific research, even if they see no immediate benefits to society.
But the Internet-driven quest for science information provides some reasons for concern as well. Nine out of ten Internet users rely on search engines to find information on scientific information, but the selection and prioritization of content by search engine algorithms and audience metrics may prove problematic, as they can narrow our options for information. For example, Google’s autocomplete suggestions feature provides the most popular searches, which users often select, making those searches even more likely to appear as suggestions.
This presents an ever-shrinking selection of science news and information. The authors write, “Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices?”
Even when scientific information is found, the Internet can alter the ways in which it's interpreted. Social media, for example, can allow anyone to influence how scientific information is presented. The news we are exposed to is often presented with cues as to how popular, important, or accurate a given story may be. The framing of a story on Twitter or Facebook may also add information—or misinformation—beyond what the original author intended.
And then, there are comments. They can also add information and misinformation to the content of a story, but some research is suggesting their tone influences how we perceive things. A recent study presented participants with a single balanced news item covering nanotechnology, along with one of two sets of comments following the story. Readers' interpretation of the risks associated with nanotechnology differed depending on the tone of the comments; readers exposed to uncivil comments were more likely to attribute potential risks to nanotechnology.
Social scientists are online, attempting to understand the nature of science journalism in today’s digital, hyper-connected world. The authors write, “Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.”


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