The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions

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The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:14 pm

The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies
by Ashley A. Anderson [1],*, Dominique Brossard [2], Dietram A. Scheufele [3], Michael A. Xenos [4], Peter Ladwig [5]

NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT

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Article first published online: 19 FEB 2013

Author Information

1. Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University, University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale

2. Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale

3. Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale

4. University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

5. Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale

* Corresspondance to: Email: aander24@gmu.edu

Paper forthcoming in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

All correspondence regarding this manuscript should be addressed to the first author in the Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University, Mail Stop 6A8, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA, 22030 ph: 703-993-8368; e-mail: aander24@gmu.edu.

This material is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation to the UW-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center in Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale (Grant No. SES-DMR-0832760). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Publication History
Article first published online: 19 FEB 2013
Manuscript Accepted: 10 SEP 2012
Manuscript Revised: 6 JUL 2012
Manuscript Received: 10 MAY 2011
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:15 pm

Abstract

Uncivil discourse is a growing concern in American rhetoric, and this trend has expanded beyond traditional media to online sources, such as audience comments. Using an experiment given to a sample representative of the U.S. population, we examine the effects online incivility on perceptions toward a particular issue — namely, an emerging technology, nanotechnology. We found that exposure to uncivil blog comments can polarize risk perceptions of nanotechnology along the lines of religiosity and issue support.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:16 pm

Introduction

Because of its ability to disseminate information and reach large audiences, the Internet and communication technologies that utilize it may provide an excellent forum for interpersonal discussion surrounding issues that may not be widely covered in traditional media. The Internet has the potential to foster discussion and deliberation among far-reaching audiences in spaces such as the comments section of news items and blog posts. However, such discussions are not always rational. Discussions on the Internet can take an uncivil route, with offensive comments or replies impeding the democratic ideal of healthy, heated discussion (Papacharissi, 2004; Shils, 1992).

The question remains as to whether online incivility affects the opinions of “lurkers,” or people who read online discussions without participating in them. Smith and his colleagues (2009) argue that lurkers are in fact participating in deliberation when reading others' comments because a large part of rational discussion consists of reflecting on others' opinions, which may or may not coincide with lurkers' own opinions. In other words, audiences reading uncivil language in blog comments may find the messages hostile and make judgments about the issue based on their own preexisting values rather than on the information at hand. This may develop polarized perceptions on issues among different audience segments that hold different values.

The purpose of this study is to examine how uncivil online interpersonal discussion may contribute to polarization of perceptions about an issue. We examine these dynamics in the context of nanotechnology, which is an interesting case because it is a largely unfamiliar topic that offers a rare chance to examine attitude formation and development. The majority of the public does not have a clear understanding of nanotechnology, and tend to use mental shortcuts — or heuristics, such as value predispositions or knowledge about science — when forming attitudes about it (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009; Lee & Scheufele, 2006; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). Nonetheless, more than 1,300 consumer products containing nanotechnology are currently on the market (Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, 2011). Thus, nanotechnology is representative of advanced technologies that individuals increasingly have to manage and form judgments about in their daily lives. Yet, given that it is an issue of low familiarity, it is likely people invoke cognitive shortcuts when they encounter it in the context of incivility. Thus, the mental shortcut may mitigate the effects of incivility. For instance, high familiarity with an issue may attenuate any effects exposure to incivility might have on forming negative perceptions about an issue. Furthermore, a value-based predisposition, such as religiosity, can provide a vehicle for forming an opinion about a low-familiarity topic (Brossard et al., 2009). Thus, people who draw upon such a predisposition may rely on it more rather than the new information they encounter, and this may temper the effects of incivility.

In this study, we utilize an online experiment given to a sample representative of the U.S. population to examine whether people are influenced by online incivility in blog comments when forming risk perceptions of a presumably unfamiliar topic — nanotechnology. We also examine whether online incivility has polarizing effects on risk perceptions when individuals rely on various predispositions when forming these perceptions, including issue familiarity, issue support, and religiosity.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:16 pm

The Formation of Risk Perceptions

Most current definitions of risk share the underlying notion that natural or human activities have the potential to bring about an adverse state of reality (NRC, 1983). Although the concept of “risk” has been explicated differently by a number of academic disciplines, the sociological, cultural, and psychological perspectives of risk are all important in the context of this study because they have all integrated communication into their approaches. Taken together, these perspectives suggest that social, political, and environmental factors, in addition to individual factors such as cognition levels, can contribute to variation in risk perceptions (Kasperson et al., 1988). Thus, while communication messages from media certainly play a role in how people perceive risk, various predispositions also play a role (e.g., Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, & Cohen, 2009; Renn, Burns, Kasperson, Kasperson, & Slovic, 1992). In this study, we examine how audience predispositions interact with exposure to a particular type of communication, uncivil audience comments in a newspaper blog post, in the formation of risk perceptions about an emerging technology.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:17 pm

The Effects of Incivility

The definition of incivility has been debated by various scholars (see, Papacharissi, 2004), but for the purposes of this study it will be defined as a manner of offensive discussion that impedes the democratic ideal of deliberation (Papacharissi, 2004; Shils, 1992). In this sense, incivility online can range from unrelated, rude critiques and name-calling (Jamieson, 1997) to outrageous claims and incensed discussion, which is also known as flaming (Papacharissi, 2004). However, concerns over incivility extend beyond online communication.

Over the past 50  years, incivility has been on the rise in the American political arena as well as in its coverage in mass media. (Mutz & Reeves, 2005). Not only has Congressional debate become increasingly uncivil (Uslaner, 1993), such incivility is made strikingly apparent to the American public via television and the Internet. When considering current popularity of political pundits and cable news-entertainment programming, it not surprising that past studies have found that debate coverage on television highlighting political conflict is on the rise (Funk, 2001; McGraw, Willey, & Anderson, 1999; Robinson & Appel, 1979). Even print media have followed television's example of showcasing political incivility in order to remain competitive (Sigelman & Bullock, 1991). Incivility and conflict in media is not limited to the U.S. Congress, however. Many science issues have been politicized and framed as controversies by mainstream media (Nisbet & Mooney, 2007; Nisbet & Scheufele, 2007). Incivility and a focus on political conflict may be promoting political polarization in the United States, since it has become a mainstay in mass media coverage (Prior, 2007; Wilson, 2006).

This oversaturation of incivility in media has several profound effects on the public. Television coverage of uncivil Congressional debate is significantly related to dissatisfaction with the Senate (Elving, 1994); journalist commentaries and narratives that emphasize political incivility are also associated with negative attitudes towards politicians (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Patterson, 1993). Mutz and Reeves (2005) found that although political incivility on television promotes interest, it lowers political trust. It has been suggested that these negative attitudes associated with incivility exist because media portrayals of uncivil conversation violate social norms that expect a certain level of polite behavior, and television exacerbates these negative feelings because depictions of real people and close-up shots mimic the intimacy of face-to-face interactions (Mutz, 2007). These studies highlight effects of incivility by political actors, but lay individuals can also instigate incivility in discussions on news websites and blogs.

Social reprimands such as nonverbal communication and isolation can curb incivility in face-to-face discussion, but the Internet may foster uncivil discussion because of its lack of offline, in-person consequences (Dutton, 1996; Hill & Hughes, 1998; Papacharissi, 2002). While incivility on the Internet may produce robust and diverse viewpoints, the heated, volatile expression can also fall short of the democratic ideal of rational and reasoned deliberation.

Although online incivility has the potential to increase cognitive recall of oppositional opinions, empirical evidence has shown that individuals respond negatively to online incivility directed at them or their views (Phillips & Smith, 2004). Other research suggests that incivility is linked to negative affective responses, such as hatred or humiliation, in those who utilize online deliberation (King, 2001). Furthermore, research demonstrates individuals' judgments of a blogger's comments are influenced by the author's tone (Hwang, Borah, Namkoong, & Veenstra, 2008; Price, Nir, & Cappella, 2006), and uncivil expression decreases perceptions of source and message credibility (Ng & Detenber, 2005). Finally — and most provocatively — when incivility targets an individual's ideological beliefs, it may influence the formation of negative attitudes about the issue at hand (Hwang, et al., 2008).

These findings all suggest that incivility on the Internet can have negative influences on individuals. If reading online incivility can incite negative feelings of hatred, negative attitudes towards a topic, and a reduction of source credibility, it is likely that it may also incite negative risk perceptions on a topic of emerging technology. Therefore, we pose the following hypothesis:

H1: Exposure to incivility in online comments of a newspaper blog post on the issue of nanotechnology will be positively related to risk perceptions of nanotechnology.


However, people draw upon various predispositions when they process media messages, and it is likely these are an important part of how uncivil audience comments influence risk perceptions.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:17 pm

The Effects of Predispositions

People rely on shortcuts in information processing to make social judgments about complex policy issues (Popkin, 1991). In the context of an unfamiliar emerging technology, such as the issue of interest in this study, people will rely on cognitive shortcuts, otherwise known as heuristics, in order to form judgments (Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). Mental shortcuts may be employed when encountering uncivil online discussion because hostile language may cause individuals to be less receptive to new information. In this study, we examine whether issue familiarity, issue support, and religiosity, three common heuristics that influence perceptions about nanotechnology, make a difference in how individuals form judgments in the context of uncivil audience comments. In other words, will incivility further accentuate differences among individuals that rely on different mental shortcuts when making judgments about debate in an online setting?
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:18 pm

Issue Familiarity

For the issue of nanotechnology, a positive association exists between self-assessed knowledge and lower perceptions of risk, but exposing low-informed individuals to information about the technology does not automatically elicit support (Kahan, et al., 2007; Peter D. Hart Associates, 2007). Past scholarship has used measurements of self-perceived familiarity with nanotechnology interchangeably with factual knowledge about nanotechnology (see, Kahan et al., 2009; Satterfield, Kandlikar, Beaudrie, Conti, & Harthorn, 2009), but recent research suggests these two operationalizations of knowledge do not measure the same construct (Ladwig, Dalrymple, Scheufele, Brossard, & Corley, 2012). Issue familiarity was used in this study because it acts a heuristic that may mirror levels of confidence with the issue. High factual knowledge, on the other hand, does not necessarily reflect confidence with the issue. Furthermore, individuals who report knowing a lot about nanotechnology may already hold positive views because of other heuristic factors such as an interest in technology and deference to scientists. Therefore, we assume that a perceived familiarity with nanotechnology will mitigate any negative effects of exposure to incivility. We pose the following hypothesis:

H2: Compared to those with high levels of perceived familiarity of nanotechnology who are exposed to civil comments, those with high levels of perceived familiarity who are exposed to uncivil comments will have lower risk perceptions.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:18 pm

Issue Support

Several studies have shown a negative relationship between support for nanotechnology and risk perceptions (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Corley, 2011; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). In the context of exposure to hostile communication in uncivil comments, preexisting support for the issue likely attenuates any negative effects of incivility. Therefore, we pose the following hypothesis:

H3: Compared to those who are highly supportive of nanotechnology and exposed to civil comments, those who are highly supportive of nanotechnology and exposed to uncivil comments will have lower risk perceptions.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:19 pm

Religiosity

Past research indicates that religiosity influences beliefs about technologies (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Brossard, et al., 2009; Cacciatore et al., 2011; Nisbet & Nisbet, 2005). Highly religious individuals may have higher risk perceptions of nanotechnology if they perceive the science is “playing God” or is disturbing natural order (Sjöberg, 2004; Sjöberg & Winroth, 1986). Thus, uncivil language may encourage those who are highly religious to focus more on that relationship between religiosity and risk perceptions. We therefore pose the following hypothesis:

H4: Compared to highly religious people exposed to civil comments, highly religious people exposed to uncivil comments will have higher risk perceptions.
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Re: The "Nasty Effect:" Online Incivility and Risk Perceptio

Postby admin » Tue Dec 03, 2013 6:19 pm

Methods

Study Context


Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field of science conducted at the nanoscale. To provide perspective of its scale, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and a single sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick (National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2011). Because of size-to-volume ratios, materials behave differently at the nanoscale, and nanotechnology exploits these properties in order to create new products. For example, nanotechnology can be applied to improve drug delivery systems or to create waterproof and antibacterial garments (National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2011). Materials behave in different ways at the nanoscale, which allows for new applications, but also introduces potential risks and benefits, many of which are yet unknown.
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