A recent study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in the USA, has studied the impact of insulting comments about an article on readers’ capacity to understand the article’s content accurately. It has concluded that an abusive or offensive comment not only changes a reader’s response to what s/he’s read, it also changes her/his recollection and perception of it.


In the study, researchers asked people to read a blog post that explained a new technology product’s advantages and risks – and then read comments on that post (purportedly from other readers). Half of the participants were given reader comments that included verbal abuse. The other half of the sample read comments to the article that were similar in content, length, and intensity, but were civil in tone.


The researchers found that merely reading the abusive comments could distort the reader’s understanding of the original article. They reported: “Uncivil comments not only polarized (sic) readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the new story itself…. Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the purported technology was much greater than they’d previously thought.”


The study’s authors concluded: “It’s not the content of the comments that matters. It’s the tone” – echoing the sentiments of a calypso, first recorded in 1939 by Jimmy Lunceford, Harry James and Ella Fitzgerald, which was called, ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’.


Comment: This suggests that, with increasing emphasis being placed on social media – especially via blogs and tweets which encourage a reader response – our collective capacity to understand accurately what we are reading and viewing may be not as objective as we would like to think it is.


In any case, we need to accept that the choice of medium through which we receive our information is not value-neutral. Regardless of whether we agree with Marshall McLuhan’s famous assertion that “the medium is the message,” different media frame, translate, distort and constrain the content of their message in different ways.


Reading a news article in a paper is different from reading it online, seeing it on television, listening to it on radio, scanning the headline via Twitter, or hearing of it from a friend. In each case, we understand, process, analyse, remember and integrate such information differently. So, if we are to read intelligently and understand correctly, we need to also take account of the context and the medium.