A key passage from the column by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele:
In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”
We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.
Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.
Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.
Offering a calm, noncensorious alternative to the article is commenter "Danny P":
It'd be a mistake to walk away from this piece thinking its best to avoid "nasty" comments. Throwing in ad hominems and rude attacks is not all that different from curse words; using them doesn't actually mean the user has nothing valuable to say.
Walt Whitman: "many of the slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words... Many of these bad words are fine." Neitzsche was not above hurling a few good insults... some... a lot of insults at the people he disagreed with.
Hidden in a paragraph beginning "You idiot," might be some very worthwhile contributions. Avoiding such comments means missing out. It's probably a better strategy as a reader to become someone that doesn't get reactionary and dismissive just because strangers are speaking with hostility or salty language. Dismiss them for the right reason; that their contribution lacked insight or meaningful addition to the subject.