Don't read the comments! Online communities shape risk perception

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2013-01-08

For online science news, having a flaming-hot comments section may not be a good thing.

In today’s media landscape, people are turning to blogs and other online-only media as their primary sources of information on science, and relying less on online versions of traditional news outlets. This transition to consuming science online may be a double-edged sword, according to a pair of professors from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their Perspectives article in the journal Science highlights the opportunities and unintended consequences that this shift to the web may present, and may force scientists and social scientists to rethink how the science community and the public interface online.

Almost half of Americans rely on nontraditional online sources, and only 12 percent get their science news from online versions of traditional print newspapers and magazines. This trend isn’t just for science news though—sixty percent of Americans turn to the Internet as their primary source of information on general scientific questions. All this time online has an encouraging effect on people’s views about science; time spent online not only has been linked to more positive attitudes towards science, but frequent Web users are more likely to support basic scientific research, even if they see no immediate benefits to society.

But the Internet-driven quest for science information provides some reasons for concern as well. Nine out of ten Internet users rely on search engines to find information on scientific information, but the selection and prioritization of content by search engine algorithms and audience metrics may prove problematic, as they can narrow our options for information. For example, Google’s autocomplete suggestions feature provides the most popular searches, which users often select, making those searches even more likely to appear as suggestions.

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