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Internet users post URLs in online discussions to share information and provide evidence to support their views. Previous studies have examined the types of URLs posted and the context where URLs are posted. Less is known about how users employ URLs in their discussions with others and the implications of URL posting for misinformation and polarization. To fill this gap, this article reports on an in-depth qualitative discourse analysis of threads where users with opposing opinions on an issue also discuss URLs extensively. These threads provide a rare opportunity to understand users’ discursive constructions of URL posting, that is, how users construe the posting of URLs through their language use. Findings show that users’ idealization of URLs and their focus on the URL itself, rather than the source content, explain why they might circulate (mis)information via URL posting and stick to their own URLs and views, thus remaining polarized from those who disagree with them.

URL posting has become omnipresent in online spaces given the technological affordance of hyperlinking (Tyrkko, 2010). Users can easily create a hyperlink and copy and paste it in various online spaces, including social media, blogs, and online discussions. A wide range of sources are shared via URL posting by users, including academic publications, news media, commercial websites, blog posts, social media, and forum posts (Jacobson et al., 2016; O’Connor, 2013; Oh et al., 2008; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2003). Based on analysis of the contexts in which URLs are posted, researchers have concluded that users post URLs in order to share information, support their arguments, or indicate endorsement and connection (O’Connor, 2013; Sams & Park, 2014; Sudau et al., 2014; Wikgren, 2001). However, users might also share URLs, whether biased or unbiased, for affective reasons or take them as ‘hard currency’ to legitimate their comments, and they might not necessarily read the content themselves (Savolainen, 2014; Wikgren, 2003). In such cases, URL posting can contribute to the circulation of misinformation and polarization in online spaces.

There has been growing concern over the circulation of misinformation and polarization via URL posting, given that posting and resharing URLs can amplify information in online spaces (Burnett & Jaeger, 2008; de Maeyer, 2013; Himelboim et al., 2009). Misinformation can be defined as the contradiction of experts’ consensus without clear evidence (Vraga & Bode, 2020). However, both the notion of ‘experts’ and ‘clear evidence’ can be ambiguous and subject to different interpretations. This ambiguity may have polarized views on various recent controversial issues, including vaccination and climate change, especially when users can now locate different experts’ views and evidence on the internet (Schmidt et al., 2018). To account for this aspect of human interpretation, Krishna and Thompson (2021) propose a cognitive dimension to the conceptualization of misinformation − that is, whether an individual accepts the misinformation as accurate and judges the misinformation as useful for their problem solving. According to this view, misinformation should not only be identified based on the information itself, but also on how it is interpreted and/or acted on by individuals. Therefore, to prevent the circulation of misinformation and also polarization via URL posting, it is not only important to detect URLs that link to misinformation, but also to understand how users interpret and act on the URLs posted. However, as far as I am aware, little research has focused on this aspect of URL posting. The present study bridges the gap between the literature on URL posting and misinformation and polarization by conducting a qualitative discourse analysis of online discussion threads where users explicitly discuss the URLs posted.

Discourse analysis is a well-established methodology for revealing how people construct social issues through their language use, such as the media’s negative representation of refugees by using metaphors such as flooding and pouring (Gabrielatos & Baker, 2008). Discourse analysis has also been used to reveal the discourse practices that underlie everyday interactions. For example, internet users develop relationships with each other through discursively ‘normalizing’ their shared problems (Giles & Newbold, 2013). Following these studies, discourse analysis is conducted in the present study to examine how users discursively construct URLs as information and evidence when they employ them in online discussions, as well as how they respond to the URLs posted by others or when the others do not provide URLs.

In the following, the literature on URL posting in online discussions is first reviewed. The data and methods of analysis used in the present study are then introduced. In this study, the term URL is used to refer to a web address, differentiating it from the content of the sources linked to it. The findings show that, although most users are positive towards posted URLs, in times of disagreement, users critique the URLs posted by others, criticize others for not providing URLs, or engage in what I call a link war; that is, posting one URL to refute another URL. Discourse analysis shows that some users seem to idealize the presence of URLs as necessary evidence for supporting one’s stance. In the discussion, I argue that this idealization may underlie the circulation of (mis)information. The singular focus on the URL itself rather than on the relevance of its source content to the discussion topic or on other evidence, such as a personal account, can also lead to a stalemate in users’ discussions, potentially furthering their polarization.

URLs are one source of information that users refer to in online discussions. Other sources include personal opinions or experience and print media (Oh et al., 2008; Savolainen, 2014; Wikgren, 2001). Not every user posts URLs, and users’ reliance on different types of sources varies across different online discussions and individuals. In one study of Yahoo! Answers, users relied mostly on personal opinions, although online sources were used second-most frequently (Oh et al., 2008). Similarly, personal opinions written in forum posts or social media that were linked to by URLs were also cited frequently in investment forums examined by O’Connor (2013) and medical forums examined by Sudau et al. (2014). In contrast, in some Usenet health groups, web citations of scientific authorities were the most used sources (Wikgren, 2001, 2003), while in some political discussions, users introduced URLs linked to news media and content, mostly in line with their political ideology (Himelboim et al., 2009; Jacobson et al., 2016; Sams & Park, 2014).

In many online discussions, most of the comments containing URLs are very brief, for example, no more than two sentences, or they simply comprise a quote from the URLs, with little to nothing posted of the users’ own remarks on the URLs (Himelboim et al., 2009; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2003). Most of the time, other users do not respond to or question the URLs, except in a few cases where users criticize the credibility of the sources (O’Connor, 2013; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2001, 2003). In one study of political discussions in Usenet newsgroups, URLs posted seem to generate discussions and replies among users, although the discussions generated were not analysed by the authors (Himelboim et al., 2009). Overall, previous studies show that URLs are one of the sources that users refer to in online discussions. However, little has been revealed regarding how users refer to or discuss the URLs posted, probably because users seldom engage in extensive discussions about the posted URLs or write in any length about the URLs they post (Himelboim et al., 2009; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2003).

Differences in individual preferences for information sources can create a tension among users (Polletta et al., 2009; Savolainen, 2014; Wikgren, 2001). Polletta et al. (2009) speculate that there are two contrasting views users might have towards online resources. On one hand, the availability of a large number of online resources might make them the go-to sources for some users, while this easy availability might be perceived by some as not trustworthy. The latter may dismiss sources linked to URLs as less authentic than personal accounts, for example. On the other hand, users with a particular ideology tend to stick to the URLs that support their stance, and they may appeal to URLs as representing a factual basis or authority for their claims (Jacobson et al., 2016; Sams & Park, 2014; Savolainen, 2014; Wikgren, 2001). All these different attitudes towards URLs raise the question of how users who employ different types of internet sources and other sources, such as personal knowledge or experience, engage with each other and co-construct the value of URL posting in their discussions.

To explore URL posting and its potential implications for misinformation and polarization, I conduct discourse analysis of discussion threads in which users discuss URLs at length while employing URLs to support their arguments. The analysis aims to reveal their attitudes towards the posted URLs and their conceptualization of URL posting by examining their language use.

The online discussions examined in this study took place on a massive open online course (MOOCs) platform, FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.com). The platform offers courses from various disciplines, including business, creative arts, healthcare, history, IT, and nature. On this platform, a course typically runs for two to eight weeks, and each week consists of several learning pages. On each learning page, there is a commenting space below the learning content (video, audio, or articles) where users may post their comments, similar to comments underneath YouTube videos or news website articles. Users are allowed to post comments up to two weeks after a course ends, and instructors also participate in the discussions. The discussion on the MOOC allows interactions among users, which has been hailed as beneficial for socio-constructive learning (Ferguson et al., 2015; Gasevic et al., 2014). In FutureLearn, when users post a URL in the commenting space, it is automatically hyperlinked. Moreover, on a few courses, users are encouraged to search for information online and share what they find in the online discussions, and instructors also share information linked to URLs in the discussions.

I collected 221,823 comments (from 32,334 threads) contributed by 23,495 users and 104 facilitators from the discussions of 12 courses that ran between 2014 and 2017 (see Table 1 and Chua [2020] for details). These courses were sampled conveniently through MOOC course leaders whom I knew through my academic network. Nonetheless, courses of different lengths, representing different disciplines, and offered by different universities were sampled to ensure that the corpus was not skewed towards any of these variables. A total of 11,367 URLs occurred in 8974 comments in the corpus. Nonetheless, 89% of the users did not include any URL. Among those users who posted URLs, the number of URLs ranges from 1 to 97. This variation is consistent with what has been found in previous studies of online discussions, in that URLs are one of many sources that users refer to in online discussions, and some users rely heavily on URLs in their postings, while the majority do not (Oh et al., 2008; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2001).

Table 1. Courses included in the sample and when each course was run

To explore users’ discursive constructions of URLs, I focused on threads in which users explicitly discuss the posted URLs at length. A total of 6,547 threads were retrieved from the corpus by searching for threads containing at least one occurrence of a URL or the word link(s), which was found to be used by users to refer to URL(s). To have a general understanding of this large number of threads, I conducted a preliminary analysis by using corpus methods, including collocation analysis and concordance reading. It was found that users are generally positive towards the URLs posted, as indicated by “Thank you for the link” and “A great link,” but they seldom discuss the URLs at length, as the average length of the threads is only 4.5 comments. For more detailed analysis, see Chua (2020).

To conduct discourse analysis of the relevant threads amid the large number of threads found, I followed a saturation point procedure (Brookes & Baker, 2017) by reading the threads with the highest number of the two search terms in each course until no new patterns emerged. This is based on the assumption that threads containing a lot of URLs or mentions of link(s) might be threads in which URLs became a topic of discussions. Among the 208 threads I analyzed in depth, URL posting in most of them is mainly for information sharing, and users do not discuss the URLs extensively; rather, users tend to post and leave, seldom engaging in sustained discussions (Chua, 2020; Herring, 2013). Nonetheless, there are at least 15 threads where users discuss at length the URLs posted or URLs in general, providing a window into their conceptualization of URLs.

In this paper, I focus on threads where users with opposing views on a controversial issue also engage in extensive discussion about URL posting, in order to investigate the potential implications of URL posting for polarization and misinformation. Specifically, I analyse how users discursively construct URLs as either information sources, evidence, or expert knowledge. This focus was informed by the cognitive dimension of misinformation as suggested by Krishna and Thompson (2021), specifically in terms of how users judge the URLs posted and employ the URLs as evidence in their discussions with others. Furthermore, users’ responses to each other within a thread were taken into account to understand how the users employ URLs in their interaction, how they respond to URLs posted by others, and how they respond to those who do not provide URLs. This interactional analysis led to the identification of two contrasting conceptualizations of URL posting by users (i.e., URL as “real” vs. as biased secondary evidence), which are illustrated by two selected threads in the analysis that follows. Additionally, an interactional pattern, which I call a link war, is also identified and illustrated in the third thread. Of particular relevance to the potential implications of URL posting for polarization is that these three threads involve users disagreeing on a controversial issue, and one or both of the disagreeing parties employs URLs to support their claim and refute others. However, the involvement of URLs in their disagreement seems to further their polarization, rather than facilitating their discussion.

In this section, I explore two threads in which users’ conceptualization of the need for URLs in online discussions – that is the discursive constructions of URL posting – becomes apparent when the users who post URLs ask their “opponents” who do not provide URLs to do so. The presence of URLs, in users’ words, is construed as a “real” “back-up” for one’s argument. However, the users who do not post URLs criticize URLs as secondary sources and support their views with their own interpretations and experience. These two threads not only show the contrasting discursive construction of URLs, but also the tension between different types of evidencing practices – URLs vs. personal accounts.

The first thread was started by a question about the habitable zone in Mars (not shown here) and subsequently drifted to a contentious issue on global warming. This analysis focuses on the discussion among users on the provision of URLs between replies 13 to 16 following their disagreement over global warming, as shown in excerpt 1.

Excerpt 1 (Thread 1)

Reply 12
User m1-366
I would draw your attention to many of my other posts in which I have said that temperatures were actually higher than they are now. The jury is out because the claims of the IPCC and other groups with similar agendas are not borne out in fact. For example, even the Met Office states that there has been no warming over the last 15 years or so, despite the rise in CO2. I personally used to believe the propaganda, until I began to look deeper into the subject, did a lot of courses in subjects such as meteorology and solar science and saw (as have done a great many highly esteemed scientists) that there are many anomalies among the claims of the GW proponents. Claims about melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and increases in hurricane activity, etc, are often simply not true. You don't have to be a genius to figure it out - you only have to look at the data compiled by NOAA, and the like. The info is right there for those who care to take an objective look at it.

Reply 13
User m1-1088
[m1-366], please provide some names of those highly esteemed scientists.

Reply 14
User m1-366
Why don't you go and look them up for yourself? Like I said, the info is out there for those who truly want to seek it. If all you're going to do is simply go into attack mode, then it probably won't do you much good and you'd be better off sticking with received opinions and what the media feeds you!

Reply 15
User m1-1088
[m1-366], it seems to me you're the one who is in attack mode and are making statements you won't back up. I actually have also spent a lot of time and effort investigating the climate change/ global warming question and have come to the opposite conclusion to you. Like you, I am quite highly qualified in relevant areas. Unlike you, I'm willing to give a link to enable others to start investigating:
http://www.ipcc.ch
Alternatively, these make interesting reading:
http://energyblog.nationalgeographic.com/2010/12/21/climate-change-myth/
http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/?source=NavEnvGlobal
Anyway, I think that you have initiated a severe deviation from the topics of this Moons course, and I do not wish to take up any more of the time and space that is supposed to be for relevant discussion. My apologies to the Course staff and students for getting drawn in to this; I just don't like hijackers going unchallenged.

Reply 16
User m1-366
Just a short reply to this, as I too wish not to divert the discussion topic. In my defence, it must be said that it wasn't me who began mentioning the dreaded GW. Because I was merely responding to an existing discussion, and am not here to champion any particular viewpoint, it's not up to me to provide links and references beyond those I've already cited. It seems that people have already made up their minds on the matter anyway, whatever the science says.

A contrast is evident in these two users’ arguments and their way of evidencing claims. User m1-366 writes in relatively long comments against the anthropogenic effect on global warming in reply 4 (not shown here) and reply 12. They mention established institutes, including the Met Office (The Meteorological Office in the UK), and the NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US), and criticize IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But they do not provide any URLs linked to these organizations or articles mentioning these organizations. Nonetheless, they declare that they have “already cited” the references and “the info is out there for those who truly want to seek it.” In contrast, user m1-1088 has “come to the opposite conclusion to” m1-366, although they never make any explicit argument, besides posting three URLs in reply 15, one of which is the website of IPCC which m1-366 criticized earlier. They do not write in length how the source linked to the URLs is related to their argument. This difference in their discourse underlies their different reliance on URLs in the online discussion.

These two users construe URLs differently, as manifested in their responses to each other. User m1-1088 seems to assume that links are essential in comments. This is evidenced in their accusation in reply 15 that m1-366 is “making statements you won't back up,” while differentiating themselves from m1-366 by suggesting that, “[u]nlike you, I'm willing to give a link to enable others to start investigating.” The accusation, the emphasis on “link,” and the provision of URLs construe URLs as essential to back up one’s stance. However, m1-1088 does not ask another user who writes at length in support of the anthropogenic effect on global warming in reply 5 (not shown here) for URLs, perhaps because they hold the same stance, suggesting that URLs are only needed when users disagree. Similar requests for URLs are also found in other threads not presented here, for example, “can you back that up with some links?”

In contrast, user m1-366 does not explicitly mention URLs and seems to construe easy-to-access URLs as secondary sources – that is, as potentially biased interpretations of the primary evidence – and therefore not objective. This is evidenced in their repeated claims that one can search for information and make judgments oneself: “you only have to look at the data compiled by NOAA, and the like. The info is right there for those who care to take an objective look at it” and “Why don't you go and look them up for yourself? Like I said, the info is out there for those who truly want to seek it.” These replies show user m1-336’s emphasis on an individual’s own agency in distilling information. This might explain why m1-366 does not post URLs but cites the institution. The interactions between these two disagreeing users highlight differences in their conceptualization of the role of URLs in evidencing users’ stances: writing up their own interpretations vs. posting URLs.

The second thread further illustrates one user’s idealization of URLs – their conceptualisation of URLs as the ideal or only form of evidence – and contrasts this with their interlocutor’s reliance on their personal situated experience as evidence. This thread contains 41 replies involving these two users, ah1-12 and ah1-993, each contributing 17 replies and disagreeing with each other on the efficacy of homeopathy. Note that, although both users address each other, due to the length of the exchange, I present their postings individually rather than in the form of a conversation.

The idealization of URLs as necessary evidence in online discussions is observed in replies by user ah1-993, who is against homeopathy, as shown in Excerpt 2.

Excerpt 2 (Contributions by user ah 1-993 in thread 2)

Reply 22: [……] instead of informing us all about HOW homeopathy works or actually providing links to some of these wonderful studies that prove it works, your argument seems to consist of telling me I don't know what I am talking about or sending me away to spend hours (days?) reading 93 pages of references. No links, here, on the forums, as I have done, to back up what you say. Sadly, your argument comes across as all bluster and is not convincing.

Reply 24: [……] So you see, it isn't just my opinion. Not only that, but we have provided links and all this evidence is immediately available to anyone who reads this thread. I hope that has helped other students.

Reply 29: The problem is [ah1-12] - while I and others have been presenting actual, real, available links to evidence that backs up what we say, you have not. [……]

In the three replies in Excerpt 2, ah1-993 repeatedly mentions that they “have provided links,” whereas ah1-12 has not. In these replies, links are conceptualized as “actual, real, available evidence” to “back up” what one says. In other words, presenting URLs is necessary in online discussions such that other users can easily access them, in contrast to “pages of references” that are not posted in the discussion. User ah1-993 construes URL posting as the norm of evidencing in online discussions when disagreement occurs, and they suggest that not displaying URLs could be frowned upon. Furthermore, the criticism of ah1-12 for not displaying URLs (“No links, here, on the forums, as I have done”) suggests that displaying URLs is a way to legitimize one’s knowledge and arguments, and it construes URLs as a currency for winning an argument (Wikgren, 2003). All these explicit mentions of the need for URLs point to the idealization of URLs by user ah1-993.

In contrast, ah1-12 comments that URLs can be linked to biased sources, and they suggest that other users should seek information themselves, similar to user m1-366 in the first thread. In addition, they emphasize their personal experience, as evidenced in their responses to ah1-993 shown in Excerpt 3.

Excerpt 3 (Contributions by user ah 1-12 in thread 2)

Reply 16: [……] I have seen and keep seeing the results of homeopathy and all the other non-conventional techniques I practice. Can you say the same? [……]

Reply 19: [……] I see that you are talking theory based on what others unilaterally say without proper checking. So much for scientific, university level approach! [……]

Reply 27: What is fascinating is that the CLINICAL results, the reality of the consulting room, of the facts on the terrain are of no importance either to you, [……]

Reply 36: I had a quick look at my last 12 months practice. Most of the "serious condition" patients I saw came AFTER they had been treated conventionally and it failed […...] Whether this is really due to homeopathy or not is indeed difficult to assess, and yet there is an accumulation of those patients over all my years of practice. [……]

A negative conceptualization of URLs is evidenced in ah1-12’s comments toward ah1-993, whom they regard as “talking theory based on what others unilaterally say without proper checking.” Furthermore, ah1-12 describes ah1-993 as placing no importance on “the reality of the consulting room” and emphasizes their own first-hand information and situated experience (“I have seen and keep seeing the results of homeopathy,” “I had a quick look at my last 12 months practice”). These comments suggest that ah1-12 may consider URLs as secondary to their real-life experience. The absolute dismissal of URLs by ah1-12, coupled with idealization of URLs by ah1-993, creates a situation where both not only stick to their respective stances on homeopathy but also their own evidence. The result is that there is no negotiation but rather personal challenges aimed at each other.

These two threads illustrate users’ differing construal of URL posting. They show that when users have opposite opinions on a highly contentious issue, their disagreement can extend to their evidencing practices, such as URL posting vs. personal accounts and experience. A user posting URLs may idealize URLs as important evidence, whereas a user who does not post URLs claims that others must make their own decision rather than relying on “media” or “what others say.” That is, while some users find URLs important for supporting one’s stance, to some others, URLs linked to online sources are less authentic. Regardless of participants’ stance towards URLs, it seems that online conversations that focus solely on how a stance is evidenced, i.e., whether there is a URL backing it up, may lead to users disengaging from the issues at stake and the content of the argument itself, thus leading to further polarization between them.

Users’ idealization of URLs can create tensions when users who disagree with each other both present URLs. I call this situation a link war, where disagreeing users each present URLs to support their stance and discredit the others’ posted URLs. Link wars also highlight the tensions that can arise when different web sources, including those containing misinformation, are referenced by users. In a link war, the point of contention becomes whose URLs are more credible, rather than the source content linked to the URLs or users’ own arguments. One link war is observed in a thread shown in excerpts 4 and 5, which consists of 26 replies. The link war starts when user ah1-639 and ah1-993 disagree on the effect of glyphosate, a herbicide. The disagreement develops into a link war and a discussion of the credentials of experts mentioned in the source linked to the URLs posted by both users. The link war starts in reply 12 when ah1-993 expresses disagreement (“I wouldn't have a problem with glyphosate”) and asks ah1-639 for URLs (“happy to be proved wrong if you can link to the studies”).

Excerpt 4 (Thread 3)

Reply 12
User ah1-993
I wouldn't have a problem with glyphosate as it is a much safer herbicide than many we have used over the last few decades. I'm not sure that there is any good evidence that its use is linked to autoimmune disease (happy to be proved wrong if you can link to the studies).

Reply 13
User ah1-639
Here's a start; plenty more out there if you search:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945755/
https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=641406900036750;res=IELNZC
http://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/15833
http://www.hoajonline.com/autism/2054-992X/3/1
http://notoxicliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Glyphosate-pathways-modern-diseases.pdf
http://farmwars.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Glyphosate_pathways-to-modern-diseases-V-Amino-acid-analogue-of-glycine-in-diverse-proteins_FNL_Published.pdf

Reply 14
User ah1-993
It isn't so much about searching and linking every mention of glyphosate [ah1-639], but about gathering credible evidence.
Three of your links are to articles by Seneff, a notorious anti-GM activist. She has a degree in electrical engineering. Her co-author, Samsel is a research scientist interested in pollution. They have no biological or medical expertise, they did no research themselves - it's all speculation.
You might be interested in the response from medics
https://www.biofortified.org/2015/01/medical-doctors-weigh-in-on-glyphosate-claims/
The 3rd link claims that glyphosate use has risen over the last 25 years and so has autism, diabetes and coeliac disease, so we should stop using glyphosate. It doesn't show that glyphosate causes these conditions. After all, consuming organic food has also risen over the last 25 years, so if this was a valid argument we should also stop eating organic food because it correlates with an increase in autism, diabetes and coeliac disease.
Your 2nd, 4th and 5th links are about polycystic ovary syndrome (again a hypothesis not a cause), autism and cancer - these are not autoimmune diseases.

Reply 15
User ah1-639
Thanks for your response, [ah1-993]. However, your one posted link is from two doctors who spend a large portion of their time debunking anything that does not agree with their world view. I am not interested in an argument so I will agree to disagree with your opinions on this subject. I hope that you will too.

[Reply 16 is omitted because it is not relevant to the current analysis]

Reply 17
User ah1-993
Hi [ah1-639], I'm not looking for an argument either, just accurate information, but debunking anything that does not agree with her world view is exactly what Seneff does! My link carefully explains why Seneff has misrepresented the work of other scientists. It does quote the two doctors you mention, but is actually written by Karl Haro von Mogel, a plant geneticist, for Biology Fortified, a website that aims to inform the public about biotechnology and other issues in food and agriculture through science-based resources.

[Two paragraphs of this reply are omitted because they are not relevant to the current analysis]

Between replies 13 and 14 in excerpt 4, and between replies 18 and 20 in excerpt 5 below, each poster comes back with URLs which they use to argue against the URLs posted by the other poster. In reply 13, ah1-639 lists six URLs in response to ah1-993’s request for URLs. These links are critiqued by ah1-993 one by one in reply 14 (“Three of your links are to articles by Seneff, a notorious anti-GM activist,” “The 3rd link … doesn't show that glyphosate causes these conditions,” “Your 2nd, 4th and 5th links … are not … [about] autoimmune diseases”). More importantly, ah1-993 also posts a URL with the comment, “You might be interested in the response from medics https://www.biofortified.org/....” This URL contains criticism of the authors of some of the articles linked to by ah1-639. Therefore, the URL posted by ah1-993 can be interpreted as a direct rebuttal to the URLs posted by ah1-639. In fact, ah1-933’s critique in reply 14 is mostly repetition of the source content of this URL. Similar exchanges between these two users continue in the thread, as shown in excerpt 5.

Excerpt 5 (Thread 3)

Reply 18
User ah1-639
I remain unconvinced. First, the bulk of the research done on herbicides and pesticides is industry funded which means that commercial interests are at stake. Second, in viewing the writings of the authors you cite above (Dr Steven Novella & Dr David Gorski aka Orac) I note that they spend an inordinate amount of time defending Monsanto. Why, I wonder? Third, new information re: the safety of glyphosate is out, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/business/monsanto-roundup-safety-lawsuit.html?emc=edit_nn_20170315&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=79137994&te=1&_r=0
[One paragraph of this reply is omitted because it is not relevant to the current analysis] Skeptics are easy to find, locating those who will stand up to corporate greed is sadly, a much more difficult task.

Reply 19
User ah1-993
[The first paragraph of this reply is omitted because it is not relevant to the current analysis]
I don't use pesticides and herbicides in my own garden, but I'm comfortable using glyphosate because I know about the many independently funded studies that have failed to show adverse health effects. And I trust scientists and researchers who are skilled at evaluating the evidence more than I trust journalists with an agenda.
As practicing medical doctors it would be odd if Novella and Gorski had a particular reason to defend Monsanto (can you give examples?) other than calling out pseudoscience when it occurs, especially since glyphosate is now off patent and produced by many manufacturers and companies worldwide.

Reply 20
User ah1-993
Dr Novella has discussed the NY Times article.
He concludes
'I am simply searching through PubMed to find reviews of the safety of glyphosate, and this is what I find. You can do the same, it's a user-friendly searchable database. There is a remarkable consistency to the reviews - they all agree that the evidence does not support an association between glyphosate exposure and any adverse health outcome...' http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/does-glyphosate-cause-cancer/
[6 more replies omitted]

In reply 18, ah1-639 remains “unconvinced” and lists three points to rebut what has been mentioned by ah1-993, including a URL (“Third, new information re: the safety of glyphosate is out, see: https://www.nytimes.com/...”). The user seems to put forward the URL as evidence for a counterargument, since they refer it as “new information” but do not elaborate on what the information is about. Interestingly, ah1-993 posts a URL that “has discussed the NY Times article” in reply 20, another instance in which a URL is used to directly rebut another URL. Similarly, this user also does not elaborate on the source linked to the posted URL except to quote it verbatim.

The link war is not only about using one’s URLs to rebut another’s URLs, but also about discrediting sources linked to the URLs posted by the other. The users mainly base the credibility of the sources on the ethos of the authors or experts mentioned in the source, rather than the source content. In reply 14 shown in excerpt 4, ah1-993 critiques the author of the sources linked to the three URLs posted by ah1-639 as “a notorious anti-GM activist” who “has a degree in electrical engineering,” “no biological or medical expertise,” and who “did no research themselves,” while introducing their own URL as “response from medics.” Similarly, in reply 15, ah1-639 critiques the experts mentioned in the source linked to the URL posted by ah1-993, “two doctors who spend a large portion of their time debunking anything that does not agree with their world view.” Similar criticisms are repeated in replies 17 and 18 (“debunking anything that does not agree with her world view is exactly what Seneff does!” “they spend an inordinate amount of time defending Monsanto”). This critique suggests that these users evaluate the sources linked to by the URLs mainly based on the expertise credentials of the authors or experts, while disagreeing on who the expert is.

Besides discrediting each other’s URLs by critiquing the experts or authors in the source, the users also defend their own URLs on the same basis. User ah1-993 highlights the credentials of the author and the aims of the website (“written by …, a plant geneticist, for … a website that aims to inform the public about biotechnology and other issues in food and agriculture through science-based resources”) and defends the experts mentioned in the source linked to the URLs they themselves posted (“As practicing medical doctors it would be odd if Novella and Gorski had a particular reason to defend Monsanto”). Similarly, user ah1- 639 defends the authors of the sources linked to by their URLs in reply 18 (“locating those who will stand up to corporate greed is sadly, a much more difficult task”). The defence of the authors or experts further provide evidence that these two users base the credibility of a URL as evidence on the credentials of experts or authors rather than on the source content. This focus on the authors or experts mentioned in the source content is an indication of appealing to authority (Savolainen, 2014) and suggests that posting URLs is a way of presenting authority.

By paying more attention to the authority and credibility of the source, the posters in the third thread also tend to engage less with the information and the source content. This is evidenced by the fact that both users seldom elaborate on the sources linked to in the posted URLs, such that every URL is minimally introduced (“You might be interested in the response from medics” in reply 14, “new information re: the safety of glyphosate is out” in reply 18, “Dr Novella has discussed the NY Times article” in reply 20), mainly by highlighting the authority and the legitimacy of the sources (“medic,” “new information,” “Dr Novella”). Highlighting the experts and presenting URLs to rebut others’ URLs can be a rhetorical strategy to legitimate an argument (Wikgren, 2003) and suggests that users have equated the URLs, rather than the source content itself, with expert knowledge or evidence. Furthermore, as shown in excerpt 4, the request by ah1-993, “happy to be proved wrong if you can link to the studies,” conceptualizes URLs as proof to legitimise one’s claim, similar to the users in threads 1 and 2 who ask those who disagree with them to provide URLs.

The disagreement between the two users seems to be irreconcilable, as indicated by user ah1-639’s “agree to disagree” comment in reply 15 (and in reply 24, which is not shown here). This points to a possible problem with over-reliance on URLs as evidence and idealization of URLs, especially when both disagreeing parties pay attention to their own URLs and to the experts mentioned in the source instead of to the relevance of the source content linked to the URLs. Scientific evidence or expert knowledge, as well as misinformation, can be in conflict at times, so it is not surprising that disagreeing users are able to present URLs supporting opposing views (Vraga & Bode, 2020). However, given that users construe their own URLs as representing expert knowledge, it might be hard for users posting URLs to be open to the URLs with different views, and thus a link war might not easily be resolved. As in this thread, users remain polarized, given that the focus on the presence of URLs and the authors or experts mirrors the situation of “he said, she said.”

This study has shed light on the discursive construction of URLs among users by analyzing the rare occasions where users discuss URLs extensively and explicitly. Particularly, to investigate the implications of URLs in polarization and misinformation, I analyzed threads involving users with opposing views on a controversial issue. The analysis shows that there are users who completely dismiss URLs and those who idealize URLs. The latter focus on the need for URLs in online discussions, conceptualising the URLs as unchallengeable and requiring others who have different opinions to display URLs. Among these users, they might only trust their own URLs and criticize others’ URLs. Their singular focus on the presence of URLs is also evident from threads where they do not ask those who share the same view as themselves to present URLs, but only those who disagree with them, as well as from the fact that in threads where users only focus on the URLs posted, replies containing no URLs were often not taken up in the conversations. Additionally, it has been observed that users tend to focus on the credentials of the authors or experts linked to the URLs posted, rather than the source content, and they seldom elaborate on the source content. This observation suggests that users might have idealized the presence of the URL itself, rather than the information.

These findings may explain why URL posting can potentially contribute to the circulation of misinformation. Users’ idealization of URLs as representing expert knowledge or hard currency may lead them to stick to their own URLs and believe in whatever information is linked to the URLs or persons they deem to be experts (Savolainen, 2014; Wikgren, 2003). This strong belief in and idealization of URLs may lead them to more willingly share URLs in online spaces, thus potentially perpetuating the circulation of (mis)information. In the link war, although users critique and discuss the credentials of the URLs posted by each other, their discussion did not lead to assessment of misinformation. Additionally, the fact that users seldom elaborate on the source content linked to the URLs limits opportunity for others to challenge their understanding of the information or correct their belief in any misinformation in case the source is inaccurate.

Differing practices of employing URLs or personal accounts for evidencing may further polarize disagreeing users. Those who construe the URLs as real and concrete evidence and have already come across links that support their stances are unlikely to take up others’ URLs, personal experiences or interpretations, thus resulting in polarization. In contrast, those who completely dismiss the URLs posted and conceptualize them as biased or inauthentic are more likely to believe in their situational experience, personal understanding, and interpretation (Bellander & Landqvist, 2020; Epstein et al., 2014; Shanahan, 2010). Although both types of evidence have their value in online discussions, this division in evidencing may aggravate polarization among users if they hold a strong view about either type of evidence or do not recognize this difference underlying their evidencing practices. In the threads examined in this article, there is no indication that users acknowledge differences in their evidencing practices or specify the conditions under which a certain source of evidence is relevant. Instead, they criticise each other’s evidencing practices, be they URL posting or personal accounts, rather than looking into the content. Therefore, their disagreements over contentious issues are further amplified by their differences as regards employing URLs or personal account as evidence.

Admittedly, the current study is based on the minority of threads in which users explicitly and extensively discuss URLs. This limitation is due in part to the nature of online discussions, where users seldom engage in sustained discussion in general (Chua, 2020; Herring, 2013), as well as the fact that the online discussions under examination are on topics not related to URLs themselves. Furthermore, the implications of URL posting for misinformation are only based on threads that touch slightly on misinformation, for example, glyphosate, global warming, and homeopathy. To further examine the discursive constructions of URL posting and its implications for polarization and the spread of misinformation, more discussion threads could be collected from other public platforms, especially those addressing controversial issues and where URLs linked to misinformation are often shared. Additionally, given that extensive discussions of URLs are likely to be incidental since most online discussions are on a more specific topic, it would be useful to triangulate online discussion data with surveys or interviews with internet users regarding their perception and use of URLs.

Previous studies of URL posting have mainly focused on detecting what kinds of URLs are posted and the context where they are posted (O’Connor, 2013; Sams & Park, 2014; Sudau et al., 2014; Wikgren, 2001). The present study fills a gap in the literature on URL posting by analysing users’ discursive constructions of URLs. Although the findings should be considered preliminary given the limited number of relevant discussions threads available, several implications can be identified. Firstly, the conceptualization of URLs as expert evidence may help users gather reliable information efficiently if there is a clear consensus regarding who the experts are (Vraga & Bode, 2020). At the same time, caution with regard to URLs can prevent users from too easily buying into all the information linked to a URL. However, this study shows that some users seem to have categorically idealized URLs or dismissed URLs, which could lead them to choose one source of information over the other without attempting to engage or integrate different information, such as the information linked to the URLs or the evidence of personal accounts. Moreover, although the credentials of the source authors are one way of evaluating URLs posted in online discussions, the findings of this study suggest that a singular focus on URLs and their credentials does not best facilitate online discussions, judgment of misinformation, or prevention of polarization. Thus, users may need to be reminded of the value of different types of sources and evidence, as well as the possibility of conflicting online sources that require them to examine the source content and its relevance. For example, users could be nudged by online platforms to elaborate more on their URLs if their posts contain little or no text of their own, as has been observed to often be the case in this and other studies (Himelboim et al., 2009; Polletta et al., 2009; Wikgren, 2003).

Finally, the finding that some users consider URLs as inherently unhelpful suggests that employing URLs from established authorities or experts is not the best way to persuade those users, especially when they value their own judgment and personal experience or are sceptical of authorities. Repeatedly inundating their personal account with URLs could instead backfire, since they do not embrace this evidencing practice. Instead, users or communication specialists could use story-telling or elaborate their arguments without posting URLs or referencing authorities to convince such users. Similarly, as the link war example suggests, presenting credible URLs might not be convincing to users who post URLs that link to misinformation; again, this could backfire and further polarize users. This underscores the difficulty of overcoming misinformation in online discussions and may require engaging users in depth to dissect the (mis)information linked to by the URLs. Further research should explore link wars involving credible URLs and URLs linked to misinformation to unravel why some users only trust the latter URLs.

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Shi Min Chua [smc878@open.ac.uk] is an Affiliated Researcher in Applied Linguistics at The Open University. Her current research interests include language practices in online communication. She has expertise in quantitative analysis, corpus analysis, and discourse analysis.

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