Friday, February 20, 2015

If Only Online Comments Were Just Mindless Entertainment

By now it's no surprise that people don't base their opinions of public health recommendations only on health information alone. That would be boring. Very boring. We have known for a long time that prior beliefs, friends' beliefs, mood, etc. influence judgments.

But now we also have to consider the effects of the online comments sections. A growing body of research has shown online comments matter. A few years ago a now oft-cited study found negative comments can heavily influence perceptions of health or science-related articles. Now comes word that the credibility of the comment, the poster's perceived authority or expertise matters too.

According to a new study out of Washington State University, if a source is deemed credible, say a health expert, their comments influence perceptions of health information. And if you're not totally tuning out the current media frenzy over vaccines (yes, I said that after complaining for 14 years that the media was not providing enough nuanced, accurate coverage of the issue!) - the team of researchers tested if "perceived source credibility" influenced readers' reactions to pro- and anti-vaccine messages.

So did commenters who appeared to have some measure of expertise sway anyone? You bet. People were more persuaded by a highly credible commenter, here, a medical doctor, than the actual content of the PSA. This is good news if perceived experts comment with some degree of accuracy. But if Dr. So and So posts inaccurate or flat out wrong remarks, well, not so good.

The New York Times had a piece worth reading about online comments, including a blip about the study above, this past week. They didn't quite get the headline right though: What Your Online Comments Say About You. It's more a matter of What Others Think About You From Your  Comments.

The Danger of Reading the Comments. Slate didn't quite get the headline right in their article. Comments aren't all dangerous. If a credible, informed person makes a nuanced, accurate remark then  reading the comments can be beneficial. Especially if the health article contains incorrect information and a credible source debunks it. Debunking is still a good thing!

Now go forth and post accurate, nuanced comments. Speaking of online comments....

Eula Biss, author of On Immunity and Dr. Jerome Groopman, Harvard M.D. and New Yorker staff writer are talking about vaccines and measles right now on the Brian Lehrer Show at NPR. The Stories We Tell Ourselves. Haven't heard the whole interview yet.

But check out the comment section.

The most recent comment, the one right below the podcast right now (Consuelo, NYC). It's a long-winded argument against vaccination. The first several comments, in fact, are all anti-vaccination. My favorite part, though it that the posters are bashing Brian for only presenting one side of the issue - and not including someone who opposes vaccination.

So rich.

How many times over the years I have sat and listened to more than a few NPR interviews with Brian or other hosts talking to supposed experts who questioned vaccines or promoted a link between vaccines and autism!! Just so rich.

It is still a crap shoot of credibility, misinformation and absurdity in the NPR comments section. If only we could sit back and view it as mindless entertainment.

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