Here's why online comment sections must die

Far from being open forums, comments sections filter out thoughtful conversation in favor of hate. Time to end them

Besides inventing clickbait and downgrading many journalists into curators, Silicon Valley has changed our collective relationship to the news itself. This is because online journalism has presided over a peculiar breakdown in the relationship between writer and reader, and especially between editor and reader – exemplified by the concept of the public “comments section,” common to online news sites and social media pages.

Excerpted with permission from “A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy,” by Keith A. Spencer, available now from major booksellers. © 2018 Eyewear Publishing.

In the old days of print media, the only way for readers to talk back was to mail (and later email) comments to editors who would then pick and choose the most relevant or interesting ones (and weed out the racist, sexist, or just plain mean ones). Online comment sections usually remove editors entirely. Now, anyone is free to go on any news site that allows comments and post whatever inflammatory thing they wish – or reply angrily to other comments pseudonymously. One can engage in the same exercise on most social media sites, such as microblogging platforms like Twitter, video-sharing site YouTube, or link aggregator Reddit. British think-tank Demos conducted a study of Twitter in 2014 in which they found “approximately 10,000 uses per day of racist and ethnic slur terms in English.” These online spaces are frequently used to cyber-bully, shame and humiliate others – in netspeak, what we call “trolling.”

Though the concept of comments sections likely began as a naïve experiment in online media, such sections quickly became omnipresent. Many people, myself included, are horrified at online comments on news articles, and particularly at how out-of-tune they can seem with regional cultural values and ideology.

Why do media empires tolerate, even promotesuch comments sections? The unsurprising answer is money. “For nearly its entire existence, Twitter has not just tolerated abuse and hate speech, it’s virtually been optimized to accommodate it,” wrote Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel:

Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority.

In effect, abuse is easy on most online platforms – you just sit down and type. Yet, moderating abuse is the hard — and expensive — part. Talk is cheap, commenting is so effortless, abuse so simple because it’s also profitable. The more that people feel they are engaged with a media outlet, the more likely they will return, their precious eyeballs lingering on an ad or pop-up that nets a few more pennies of revenue to the host.

Many of the largest forums, news sites, and social media platforms ignore the deleterious effects that an unmoderated, pseudonymous commentariat has upon its users’ emotions. As a result, those who are most frequently victimized – even scared off of these spaces entirely – tend to be women, people of color, and gender minorities. In short, victims of online trolling are also those most likely to be oppressed in everyday society.

If you spend a fair bit of time online, you have probably been harassed online in ways that no one has ever harassed you in the real world. In my previous day job as editor-in-chief of an online Bay Area culture magazine, I dealt constantly with moderating and deleting harassing and abusive comments directed at our writers. (My general rule as an editor is that, if you would not say it to the writer’s face, it doesn’t deserve to be online.) For years, I was shocked at the negative and cruel behavior of the online masses, but over time, I came to understand that, through the written veil of online pseudo-anonymity, people are apt to be much more spiteful, hateful, and cruel than they would be if they were communicating face-to-face. Over an Internet connection, you generally cannot see your interlocutor, and they can’t see you; there is a corresponding dehumanization. It’s hard to empathize with someone invisible: rather than a feeling person with a family and loved ones, online, a faceless individual becomes an inanimate punching bag of ideologies. While most people would never spout racist slander in the workplace, online, away from prying eyes and with no other people around to stop it, many commenters feel empowered to say whatever they want.

Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority.

In effect, abuse is easy on most online platforms – you just sit down and type. Yet, moderating abuse is the hard — and expensive — part. Talk is cheap, commenting is so effortless, abuse so simple because it’s also profitable. The more that people feel they are engaged with a media outlet, the more likely they will return, their precious eyeballs lingering on an ad or pop-up that nets a few more pennies of revenue to the host.

Many of the largest forums, news sites, and social media platforms ignore the deleterious effects that an unmoderated, pseudonymous commentariat has upon its users’ emotions. As a result, those who are most frequently victimized – even scared off of these spaces entirely – tend to be women, people of color, and gender minorities. In short, victims of online trolling are also those most likely to be oppressed in everyday society.

If you spend a fair bit of time online, you have probably been harassed online in ways that no one has ever harassed you in the real world. In my previous day job as editor-in-chief of an online Bay Area culture magazine, I dealt constantly with moderating and deleting harassing and abusive comments directed at our writers. (My general rule as an editor is that, if you would not say it to the writer’s face, it doesn’t deserve to be online.) For years, I was shocked at the negative and cruel behavior of the online masses, but over time, I came to understand that, through the written veil of online pseudo-anonymity, people are apt to be much more spiteful, hateful, and cruel than they would be if they were communicating face-to-face. Over an Internet connection, you generally cannot see your interlocutor, and they can’t see you; there is a corresponding dehumanization. It’s hard to empathize with someone invisible: rather than a feeling person with a family and loved ones, online, a faceless individual becomes an inanimate punching bag of ideologies. While most people would never spout racist slander in the workplace, online, away from prying eyes and with no other people around to stop it, many commenters feel empowered to say whatever they want.

 

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Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.