Updated 15 October 2020

You may 'like' an article online, but are you reading it? Here's what scientists found out

The option of upvoting and downvoting internet content can distract the reader from interacting with the content of the material.

  • In many cases readers are able to evaluate texts on the internet by 'upvoting' or 'downvoting'
  • A study has indicated that readers may become more focused on their opinions than on the text
  • Being required to explain their reactions might force readers to look at the material more carefully

Researchers from Ohio State University investigated the effects of the options of upvoting and downvoting on online users, specifically with regard to controversial topics.

According to the authors of the study, "allowing users to express their reactions to content by voting or commenting" caused readers to read less. The study also went on to unveil how our opinions may be reinforced  through the way we interact with controversial online content we agree with.

What the experiment entailed

The experiment involved 235 university students taking part in an online study. The students were asked their opinions on controversial topics, after which they were directed to four websites. The study describes these websites as being “each of identical design, but presenting article leads on separate topics”. 

The content on the websites dealt with four controversial topics: abortion, benefits, gun control, and affirmative action/race relations. Participants could click on these article leads and engage with the content.

On two of the websites, participants were given the option of upvoting or downvoting (liking or disliking) content. On the other two websites there were banners  stating “voting currently disabled for this topic”. The attitudes of users toward these topics when the option of voting was present were compared to when this option was absent. The attitudes of the users prior to the experiment were also taken into account to see how they would react when presented with views that are similar to their own. 

The results of the study

The study confirmed that when there was the option of upvoting and downvoting, the participants spent less time reading the content when the contents were consistent with their existing attitudes.

The researchers concluded that this voting feature can be distracting by removing the readers attention from the contents. The study revealed that  “... rather than increase engagement with website content, SI [voting feature] may have distracted from it, particularly with attitude-consistent content.”

The patterns of the study show that people tend to be more interested in expressing how they feel about controversial topics than interacting with and reading content on these topics.

The researchers emphasised that users should interact more with the text instead of merely liking and disliking content, and give reasons for why they like or dislike what they read. 

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