Information floods every corner of our modern Internet. We're all in a hurry, and interpreting the tidal wave before us requires snap judgments to process information quickly.
Yahoo! News commenters frequently admit to only skimming articles before reading the attached comments. This reading approach signals whether the information presented in the article is worthy of further consideration without expending significant mental effort. Pages of strongly-worded comments imply the information is important.
But is this actually the case?
Do comments associated with news articles, social media, and online reviews accurately indicate information worth? Not always, according to a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
Online comments are a mental shortcut
In an interview with NPR, communication researchers say people use mental shortcuts to process information. We need an anchor to make sense of what we read. Comments serve as that anchor point.
The study shows "rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues." Negative comments are very polarizing, leading to a strong opinion on a topic. Neutral and positive comments don't often cause the reader to change an opinion.
Our mental flow works like this:
- We process certain information based on the content of online comments.
- We think an issue is important when online comments have a strong, negative tone.
- Our time-starved reality inhibits our ability to form a unique opinion of our own.
- Therefore, we sway in favor of the strongest voices in order to save mental energy.
- This leads to cognitive bias wherein our judgement becomes illogical.
Create a new anchor
Shady politicians and unscrupulous businesses have long understood this process. A common, highly unethical practice is to flood a competing political or business opponent with negative online comments in order to create an opportunity for "a better alternative".
For these reasons organizations such as the Word of Mouth Marketing Association recommend you have a comment policy on websites you maintain. Control the message, control perception.
Appropriate participation on websites you don't control is equally important. While fans of your brand may defend your reputation, don't depend on it. Monitor your brand sentiment within the Internet wilderness and join the conversation to provide a counterpoint when needed.
While you cannot always predict which anchor a reader will use to interpret your message, you can improve your odds through active moderating and participation.
Does negative commentary impact your opinions?