Why you shouldn't read the comments

Negative comments skew understanding of science articles.

A new study has worked out the effect online comments have on readers - and it's surprisingly large.

The study hails from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and concentrates on layman reports of science stories (appearing in regular newspapers and magazines). It found that content in the reports were very easily undermined by the comments below - even when it was a simply a matter of tone.

Authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele asked 2,000 people to read a news report about nanotechnology. Half of them saw it with balanced comments underneath, and half saw it with vitriolic, name-calling, angry comments underneath.

"Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story," wrote the researchers.

"In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself."

Knowing about science didn't seem to make a difference, either - informed readers were just as easily swayed. The researchers warned of the dangers of setting science reporting in an online context, where other people's perceptions are immediately available to us.

Conclusion: don't comment, don't read the comments, don't allow comments. Save the science!

 

Comments can radically change your perception of an article. Photograph: Getty Images
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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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