As the internet offers us an infinite and uninhibited forum of expression, it is no surprise that some will use this tool to spread prejudice. Scrolling through the comments on articles or videos nowadays, you must always get through the rantings of internet trolls spouting ignorant remarks before you can find something substantial. But could it be possible that another’s racist comments will affect our own opinions?

In a study published in the journal Human Communication Research, a team of New Zealand researchers from the University of Cantebury found that exposure to online prejudice makes you more inclined to adopt that prejudice. What’s more, once you’ve internalized the comments of others, you’re more likely to spread that prejudice in your own comments.

Researchers Mark Hsueh, Kumar Yogeeswaran, and Sanna Malinen ventured to see how online prejudice could potentially affect our opinions by surveying a pool of 137 adults aged 18 to 50. Participants were unaware of the true nature of the experiment, and were asked to read an online article about an education commission proposal that wanted to increase the number of scholarships given to East Asian students. The article also reported that the scholarship proposal was currently being put on hold because the international students being targeted were caught cheating on tests.

Once the article was read, participants were asked to comment on the article with their opinion of the situation. However, in order to comment on the article, participants needed to scroll past a long list of other comments first. Researchers separated participants, showing some prejudice comments against East Asian individuals, while others scrolled through comments supporting the Asian students and their right to the scholarship. All comments were authentic, taken from the actual news article but streamlined within the study.

After posting their comments, researchers asked participants to take a reaction-time test, which measures an individual’s unconscious feelings toward a specific racial group, in this case Asians. Once this was complete, participants also filled out a questionnaire that was designed to reveal more conscious prejudice toward Asians.

Based on the results of both tests, researchers found that those exposed to the prejudiced comments had an increase in prejudice toward Asians themselves. Researchers also discovered that these individuals were more likely to leave prejudiced comments, while the same results were not seen for the other group.

“In such an era, it is important to understand how other people’s online comments can influence our own feelings and behavior toward others,” Yogeeswaran said in a recent press release. “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.”

Yogeeswaran also noted that there is another side to this coin. “Anti-prejudiced comments and anti-prejudiced online environments can both be influential in changing an individual’s own level of bias. Our research offers insight into some of the pros and cons on the participatory Internet and shed light on how our online comments can carry over to the influence of others.”

Several new studies have explored the alternative to prejudice breeding more prejudice, finding that political canvassing efforts can sway someone’s opinion of a group of people. For instance, a team of LGBTQ individuals from the University of California under doctoral candidate Michael LaCour spoke to strongly homophobic individuals for 20 minutes about gay marriage. Their efforts were met with a 15-point reduction in prejudice toward the LGBTQ community by these people, and the subsequent support of same-sex couples that lasted up to nine months after the discussion.

Similarly, the study found that when women who had undergone abortions talked to individuals supporting pro-life efforts, they found a 10 percent increase in that group supporting legalized abortion. Their talks also helped increase support for reproductive health clinics, jumping from 39 percent to 49.8 percent.

Even virtual reality is now being used to help racist individuals empathize better with the plights of those they are prejudice against. In a Spanish and British study, researchers used a computer program to place white individuals in the body of someone with darker skin, helping these people to connect better emotionally with another individual.

It’s no secret that our opinions are widely influenced by those around us. As human beings, we crave a sense of community, and this feeling of belonging is often fostered by having similar viewpoints. Whether adopting another’s opinion is conscious or not, there is solid proof that most of our ideas are not our own. This can fall into dangerous territory when the voices we expose ourselves to speak mostly about prejudice. However, as other studies have proved, this connection we have with each other can be used to facilitate an acceptance of other individuals, as long as we choose our words wisely.

Source: Hsueh M, Yogeeswaran K, Malinen S. “Leave Your Comment Below”: Can Biased Online Comments Influence Our Own Prejudicial Attitudes and Behaviors? Human Communication Research. 2015.

Source: Maister L, Slater M, Sanchez-Vivez M, Tsakiris M. Changing bodies changes minds: owning another body affects social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2014.