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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

There Is No Divine Right to Comment on the Internet

Posted By on Tue, Oct 15, 2013 at 12:47 PM


The Onion lately has taken to occasionally just telling the truth, more or less, and those articles are usually every bit as good as any other Onion story.

On Monday, there was one titled "Tea Party Congressman Listens To Constituent Who Wears Thomas Jefferson Costume Everywhere."

It began:

At a town hall meeting Monday sponsored by Tea Party affiliate FreedomWorks, sources confirmed that Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) seriously listened and responded to several points raised by a constituent wearing a Thomas Jefferson costume complete with brass-buttoned waistcoat, velveteen breeches, and tricorn hat.

That didn't actually happen, at least at that time and place, but given the insanity going on in Washington, it easily could have, and probably has at least once, maybe involving a different congressional nut and a different guy in a ridiculous getup.

Another Onion story, also from Monday, bore this headline: "News Website Refers To Users' Ceaseless Exchange Of Racial Slurs As 'Discussion'"

This one sticks out because lately, the apologias for comments sections have been pouring forth, including from the insensibly relativist "all people deserve a voice" crowd. But The Onion, by baldly depicting reality better than most real news outlets (or media pundits) do, shines a harsh light on the notion that comments sections are somehow sacrosanct:

While inviting its readers to "make [their] voice heard," the website of a major national news outlet recently described the rampant onslaught of racial slurs that appears below each of its articles as a "discussion," sources confirmed Wednesday. "Join the discussion by sounding off in our comments section," read a box of text on the homepage, referring to a part of the site in which people engage in racist invective while typing out long, barely coherent screeds on everything from voter ID laws to the anniversary of the March on Washington to President Obama's ancestry. "Let us know what you think." Reports indicated that the news website also refers to its legions of race-baiting, homophobic commenters as its "community."

That's the article in its entirety. It's followed by a whole bunch of horrible and witless comments that The Onion made up, but which could just as easily have been lifted from SFGate or many other newspaper sites. (I especially like the repeated use of "dribble" to mean "drivel" by different fake users.) What part of that couldn't actually be true? In fact, it is true, every word of it, and could have been written to apply to any number of news sites.

That's how comments sections are, especially, but not exclusively, on bigger, mass-market-oriented sites. But if a publisher decides that it's just not worth it to police a comments section, or perhaps decides that it's simply wrong to be the de facto publisher of a lot of mindless invective and false information, out come the hand-wringing relativists. Will Oremus at Slate (a site that often defends awfulness just for the sake of it, or just for the hits) notes that on the site he works for, "most commenters have learned to ignore the most inane and irrational commenters: 'Don't feed the trolls' is a common refrain."

It would be easier, of course, to avoid feeding the trolls if you weren't in a restaurant that happily gave trolls a table by the window -- or, if they misbehave, by the kitchen. And if the refrain of "don't feed the trolls" is "common" -- doesn't that indicate you have a problem?

But let's take on a more serious argument. Ken Fisher, the editor of possibly the best technology site on the Internet, Ars Technica, on Monday criticized Popular Science for killing its comments section. His headline: "For shame: Trolls defeat Scientific American, Popular Science." (His criticism of Scientific American had to do with that publication's controversial removal of a blog post -- it's not relevant to comments sections, and I agree with that part of what he wrote.)

The "for shame" wasn't directed at the trolls, but at Popular Science, because it decided to take away the trolls' playground. It's true that, as Fisher pointed out, the post by PopSci's blog editor explaining the decision contained some specious reasoning (having to do with the effect of idiotic commenters on the scientific enterprise). But the basic reason was perfectly valid: assholes were ruining the site, often by writing disinformation (and anti-scientific) nonsense, often about climate change.

Science sites seem particularly vulnerable to "climate skeptics," otherwise known at witless, finger-dragging reality-haters. These people aren't actually "skeptical" -- they don't, for instance, call into question this or that detail of how bad this or that aspect of climate change might be at this or that time or this or that location. No, they're people who either believe beyond all reason that climate change isn't actually happening, or that it's not caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. Must a publication devoted to truth really decide between giving them a platform and expending all kinds of time and energy on managing them?

Fisher, refreshingly, doesn't make the "everybody deserves a voice" argument. Rather, he asserts that, by killing its comments section, PopSci "has let the trolls win and has punished its readership as a result."

Well, not really. PopSci's readers can still read the stuff PopSci publishes, which is supposed to be the whole point -- presenting well-researched, fact-driven material to the public. Commenting, assuming it works, is an extra, and far from a necessity. Lots of people read blogger Andrew Sullivan and The Atlantic's James Fallows, neither of whom allow comments under their work.

If comments are a problem, pulling the plug is one perfectly valid response. If you're having a party and it's overrun by crashers who are breaking your stuff and putting cigarettes out on your carpet, the best solution might be to just throw everybody out rather than take the time and effort necessary to determine who is at fault and to what degree. Fisher thinks publications that are having such problems need to fix them, or as he puts it, "put in the work" to make the comments valuable. He advises publishers to "Give your readers tools to help police the community and face up to the reality that it's a messy business. Isn't that why you got into it in the first place?"

Well, no. It isn't. A well-managed comments section relatively (or entirely) free of trolls and idiots would be great, but it also might be too much work to achieve for some publishers, and it might detract from their core business -- publishing sane, factual information.

Part of the problem here might be that Fisher's site happens to have particularly good commenters (relatively speaking, anyway). I'm not precisely sure why this is, but at least part of it is that it's neither a mainstream news site nor a site that regularly takes on issues, like climate change, that very many radical conservatives care much about. And let's face it -- radical conservatives make up a big proportion of asshole commenters. Also, Ars's readership is both unusually loyal and smart. Good for Ars for putting in the work to get there -- but not everybody has that luxury.

In the early days of the popular Internet (mid-'90s), there was a lot of talk about the "dialectic" and how the Internet was going to "democratize our discourse" and whatnot. Even at the time, as a veteran of receiving insane letters to the editor and phone calls from enraged newspaper readers, I was highly skeptical. And yet I had some hope. I don't have much anymore. Giving everyone "a voice" is generally a bad idea -- some voices simply aren't worth listening to. And some are outright harmful. Reader input can indeed be highly valuable, but not when the price for it is that we must give a lot of emotionally broken people a place to go nuts.

Removing comments sections isn't the only course of action: publishers have choices. Ars made the choice that is right for that site. But if other publishers choose to just do away with their comments sections so they can concentrate on their main business, who can blame them?

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Dan Mitchell


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