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13 September 2016

Why do people comment on articles without reading them first?

What are the psychological motivations of online ultracrepidarians? 

By Amelia Tait

On April Fools’ Day two years ago, the US media organisation NPR posted a news story to their Facebook page. “Why doesn’t anyone read anymore?” the headline asked, and commenters were quick to baulk at the accusation, claiming that they read all the time. The problem is they didn’t – and they inadvertently proved that they didn’t – as the article was a fake. Anyone who actually clicked on the link was led to a paragraph that read:

“We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’”

If you work in the media – or have ever written and shared a blog post – you’re probably familiar with this phenomenon. It’s apparent not because uninformed commenters expose themselves in their comments (although they often do), but because Facebook’s “Insights” tool allows business Pages to see the proportion of commenters vs. clicks on any given post. But although much has been written about why 59 per cent of links shared on social media were never actually clicked by the sharer, little academic thought has been spared for the comment section.

It almost makes sense, after all, to share an article you haven’t yet read. Social media is very immediate, and being the fastest and the first can often be beneficial if you’re seeking a reaction (and who isn’t?). But adding a comment – or worse, starting an argument – seems far more illogical. Isn’t it like purposefully reliving those debilitating moments in Year 11 English when you had to sermonise on A Tale of Two Cities without actually having read it?

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“My initial thoughts are that as the internet developed, and certainly as it became more interactive, the focus has become much more on using the internet to communicate with one another, rather than just as a source for information,” says Dr Joanne Meredith, a media psychologist and lecturer at the University of Salford.

“People tend to use news articles not so much for information but as a way to interact with other people. It’s the ability to be able to have those kinds of debates with others who may agree or disagree with your own viewpoint that is the draw of online articles, rather than being able to read some supposed expert comment.”

Meredith explains that the internet has also broken down the distinction between “lay people” and “experts”. “Often people in comments are as knowledgeable as the people writing the articles, so for others reading it may well be that they go to the comments as they know that’s where the ‘expert’ discussion of the topic will exist,” she says.

But beyond the Brexit backlash against experts, the phenomenon also has a lot to do with how the internet removes our inhibitions. One of the founders of cyberpsychology, Dr John Suler, calls this the “online disinhibition effect”, which can basically be summarised as: people do things online that they’d never do in the real world. This is partly because the risks associated with such behaviour are decreased online, as an individual can easily delete their words at the first sign of backlash. What’s more, the risk of humiliation is often far outweighed by the rewards of posting an opinion online.

“Many people are looking for validation and seek reassurance that they are not alone in their belief,” says Dr Emma Short, a lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire who teaches about how technology affects human communication. “The rewards of recognition may be greater than the accumulation of more information that might challenge a strongly held belief.”

Short explains that an urge for immediate social validation may explain why commenting is the first response to the stimulus of a post, rather than clicking and reading the story. “The expression of outrage or the posting of a sensational and novel link is often extensively rewarded in social media networks, with comments, retweets or likes,” she says. “The person posting is acknowledged by large numbers, often extending well beyond their own personal networks, and this can be experienced as enormously validating. We experience an immediate sense of a broadening of social influence and the sensation of participating in the fast moving current of a social trend.”

But we can’t just blame the internet. The essayist William Hazlitt first came up with the word “ultracrepidarian” in 1819, to describe people who gave opinions on matters outside of their own knowledge. In 1999, psychologists at Cornell University discovered the “Dunning-Kruger effect”, a cognitive bias suffered by low-ability individuals who mistakenly believe they are more intelligent than they really are. Why would commenters worry about being exposed as foolish when they don’t believe they’re foolish at all?

It seems then, we’ve got to the bottom of the issue (and the article – thanks). The real answer to the question, of course, will be posted some time in the future. Why do people comment on articles without reading them first? Because you write puerile nonsense like this. One comment. Two-hundred Likes. 

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