Junk the online junkies, save the innocents
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.