Junk the online junkies, save the in­no­cents

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Arecent piece of news has high­lighted the cruel side of online vi­o­lence. Qiqi, a high school stu­dent in Lufeng city of Guang­dong prov­ince, com­mit­ted sui­cide be­cause she could not bear the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing called a thief. The tragedy has its seed in a CCTV footage of Qiqi that a store owner posted online, ac­cus­ing her of steal­ing goods from the store. The video trig­gered a flood of online at­tacks on the girl, which didn’t stop even af­ter her death, with some heart­less ne­ti­zens say­ing, “she de­served it”.

Online vi­o­lence usu­ally brings out the baser, illogical side of at­tack­ers and forces tar­geted vic­tims to com­mit des­per­ate acts.

I used to write a reg­u­lar web col­umn for China Daily a cou­ple of years ago, and one of the great­est sat­is­fac­tions of the job was get­ting feed­back from read­ers. But the feed­back also com­prised com­ments that were of­ten just per­sonal at­tacks against me. Read­ers may as­sume that in­sult­ing com­ments is a harm­less act, but ev­i­dence sug­gests that there is a big down­side to mean­spir­ited re­marks.

Ac­cord­ing to two Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son re­searchers, Do­minique Brossard and Di­etram A. Scheufele, read­ers vis­it­ing news­pa­per and mag­a­zine web­sites for sci­ence news, may be in­flu­enced as much by the com­ments at the end of the re­port as by the re­port it­self. In the course of their re­search, Brossard and Scheufele found that the tone of the online com­ments sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered the pub­lic’s view about the tech­nol­ogy. Ac­cord­ing to the two re­searchers: “Sim­ply in­clud­ing an ad hominem at­tack in a read­ers’ com­ment was enough to make study par­tic­i­pants think the down­side of the re­ported tech­nol­ogy was greater than they’d pre­vi­ously thought.”

In Septem­ber, Suzanne LaBarre, online ed­i­tor at Pop­u­lar Sci­ence, an­nounced that the pub­li­ca­tion had de­cided to shut off online com­ments, be­cause “com­ments can be bad for sci­ence”. LaBarre sug­gests that, “a frac­tious mi­nor­ity wields enough power to skew a reader’s per­cep­tion of a story

And be­cause com­ments sec­tions tend to be a grotesque re­flec­tion of the me­dia cul­ture sur­round­ing them, the cyn­i­cal work of un­der­min­ing bedrock sci­en­tific doc­trine is now be­ing done be­neath our own sto­ries, within a web­site de­voted to cham­pi­oning sci­ence.”

Echo­ing LaBarre, James Fal­lows, ex­plained why he did not al­low com­ments on his col­umns on The At­lantic’s web­site: “Un­less a com­ment stream is ac­tively mod­er­ated, it in­evitably is ru­ined by bul­lies, hot­heads and trolls.”

And Naomi Oreskes, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory of sci­ence at Har­vard Univer­sity, says: “The In­ter­net has be­come a fo­rum for the spread of dis­in­for­ma­tion.”

While we may think we can brush aside in­for­ma­tion that we rec­og­nize is with­out merit, un­like a com­puter we aren’t able to delete it and those less than choice tid­bits color our anal­y­ses. Our store of in­for­ma­tion is also sub­ject to sub­jec­tive ma­nip­u­la­tion.

In a clas­sic 1970s ex­per­i­ment, psy­chol­o­gist El­iz­a­beth Lof­tus found that sub­jects who wit­nessed a sim­u­lated car ac­ci­dent and were asked how fast they thought the cars were go­ing when they “smashed” into each other gave higher speeds than those who were asked how fast the cars were go­ing when they “hit” each other (66 kilo­me­ters per hour com­pared to 55 km/h). The “smashed” sub­jects were also more likely to re­port hav­ing seen bro­ken glass at the scene, though there was none.

Just chang­ing one word pro­duced dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of the same event. Fur­ther, psy­chol­o­gists have shown that they can al­ter peo­ple’s be­liefs about their own life his­to­ries.

Re­gret­tably, com­pa­nies have be­gun to rec­og­nize that they can dis­tort pub­lic opin­ion by us­ing phony online com­ments to mar­ket prod­ucts. In Oc­to­ber, Sam­sung was fined about $340,000 by Tai­wan’s Fair Trade Com­mis­sion for re­port­edly ask­ing third­party mar­ket­ing com­pa­nies Peng Thai and Dolly Com­pany to write fo­rum posts that praised its de­vices and trashed its com­peti­tors. Peng Thai and Dolly were fined $102,153 and $1,703 for the same of­fense.

The In­ter­net has be­come a world­wide pub­lic fo­rum. Now we must find ways to make this fo­rum both civil and hon­est. Un­til we do so, there is al­ways the fear that young­sters like Qiqi could be­come vic­tims of online junkies. If sci­en­tists and re­searchers with their tomes of knowl­edge can­not ig­nore the im­pact of online com­ments, how can a poor teenage girl or boy ward off its dark, cold claws? The au­thor is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor of law in the Ts­inghua Univer­sity/Tem­ple Univer­sity LLM pro­gram.

LI FENG / CHINA DAILY

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