Reading other people’s prejudiced comments online can increase a person’s own prejudice, and even raise the chances that the reader will leave prejudiced comments themselves, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Comment sections on social media sites continue to be a hotbed for cruel words and racist opinions. For the study, the researchers set out to investigate how these harsh words influence the opinions and comments of others. They found that both prejudiced environments as well as anti-prejudiced, accepting environments tend to have a strong influence on the reader.
“In such an era, it is important to understand how other people’s online comments can influence our own feelings and behavior toward others. Although it is unclear how long lasting such effects may be, it appears that other people’s bigoted comments can influence even our more implicit unconscious prejudice toward a group,” said researcher Kumar Yogeeswaran.
“However, on the flip side, anti-prejudiced comments can have a more beneficial impact in reducing racial bias. These findings suggest that a prejudiced and anti-prejudiced online environment can both be influential in changing an individuals’ own level of bias. Our research offers insight into some of the pros and cons of the participatory Internet and shed light on how our online comments can carry over to influence others.”
For the study, the researchers surveyed 137 adult participants (aged 18-50) they had recruited under the guise of a different experiment. The subjects were asked to read an online article that described a proposal being considered by the education commission.
The proposal was to increase the number of small scholarships to support international students, specifically students from East Asia. However, due to recent claims that some Asian students were caught cheating in their studies, the proposal’s future was uncertain.
The readers were then invited to offer their own feedback to the proposed policy. However, in order to post their own comments, they had to scroll past what they believed were other people’s comments.
Participants were exposed randomly to either a dozen fairly prejudiced comments about Asian students or a dozen anti-prejudiced comments defending Asian students and cautioning against generalizing negative feelings toward all Asians. These comments were copied directly from real comments posted in response to the news stories described earlier. Participants then posted their own comments.
The subjects also took a reaction-time task that measures people’s implicit or unconscious feelings toward Asians as a group. They also completed some questionnaires measuring more conscious or explicit negative feelings toward Asians overall.
The findings showed that participants who were exposed to prejudiced comments posted by other users showed an increase in their own levels of prejudice toward Asians by both reaction-time tools and in their written questionnaire responses. These individuals were also more likely to post prejudiced comments about Asians themselves relative to when they had been exposed to anti-prejudiced comments.
The findings are published in the journal Human Communication Research.