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Are No Internet Comments the Best Internet Comments?

A comment experiment with anti-smoking PSAs offers surprising results.
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(Photo: scyther5/Shutterstock

(Photo: scyther5/Shutterstock

The negative impact of deranged Internet comment trolls on reader opinion has already been documented. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that readers exposed to invective in comment sections at the end of a fictitious article about nanotechnology were more likely to develop "polarized" interpretations of its content. That finding was one reason why Popular Science, which argued that the negative effect was particularly pronounced when it came to scientific discourse, shut down its comment sections. (Other publications, including Pacific Standard, have done the same.)

Now, a new study from the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communicationhas measured the more general impact of comments on a different kind of online content: anti-smoking Public Service Announcements. And the results are quite counter-intuitive.

The researchers asked 592 adult smokers to evaluate the effectiveness of a series of videos on a "YouTube-like" platform with varying conditions, some with a majority of positive (anti-smoking, pro-ad), civil comments, others with a majority of negative (pro-smoking, anti-ad) and uncivil ("swear words," "personal attacks," "insulting" language, or "extremist references") comments, some mixed equally, and some with no comments at all.

Unsurprisingly, PSAs with negative, uncivil comments received the lowest effectiveness ratings. But the PSAs with the very highest effectiveness ratings were not the ones with a bevy of positive, civil comments. The PSAs rated as most effective did not have any comments at all. "The most surprising finding from the study is that positive comments failed to improve PSA evaluation over the no-comment exposure to ads," the researchers wrote. "Quite opposite to the hypothesis, even positive comments significantly decreased smokers' perceived effectiveness if the ad was strong."

Why didn't positive comments beat out the no-comment condition? According to the authors, positive comments distracted viewers from the overall experience and message of the video. Indeed, viewers of PSAs with no comments actually remembered the content more accurately. "The detrimental effect of comments ... seems to suggest anti-smoking PSAs would be better off without comments, especially if the PSAs are strong or if the target audience is somewhat ready to quit smoking," the authors concluded.

The researchers also note that "it is no longer possible" to evaluate the effects of online content without considering the comments that flow afterward. Though these findings are clearly not generalizable, perhaps we'd all be better off with a little less distraction.