Have you ever encountered a reader comment under an online news story that made you think about the article from a new perspective, that engaged you, added information or a fresh outlook to the story, and lived up to the Internet’s promise of becoming the ultimate forum for debate and discussion?
Neither have I. Or if I have, it’s been buried in the sea of angry rants and toxic verbal sludge we’ve come to expect from the Internet.
“Don’t read the comments” has become popular advice.
The removal of comments sections, or restricting them, is a growing trend among online news sites. Popular Science dropped its online comment section in 2013. The Chicago Sun-Times suspended its reader comment sections in 2014, then resumed them under a limited number of articles.
Stephen Pritchard, the reader’s editor for the weekly newspaper the Observer, affiliated with The Guardian, recently wrote, in an article on changes to The Observer’s comment policies:
But more concerning is the ever-rising level of abuse, trolling and “astroturfing” (propaganda posting – an artificial version of a grassroots campaign) currently polluting what are often illuminating and stimulating discussions.
The Observer has decided to suspend the comment sections on articles about race, Islam, and immigration unless the editorial staff has enough moderators on hand to handle the flow of racist abuse and trolling that accompanies articles on these topics.
A twitter user tweeting under the name @DMReporter (whose profile states that the account has no affiliation with the Daily Mail) highlights toxic comments in the popular UK tabloid The Daily Mail. @DMReporter tweeted copies of the following comments from an article that referred to the drowning death of children attempting to immigrate to Europe.
Sorry, but we are wise to this propaganda now.
I’m sorry, but I don’t care anymore, they should be stopped before they set off.
… I am immune to these deaths & drownings, cold & immune.
How do any of these three comments add to the discussion of immigration? Promote human understanding? Move the marketplace of ideas forward? Is this what the more avid promotors of uninhibited speech on the internet have in mind?
The New York Times probably has the least obnoxious comments section of any high profile news site. How do they do it? They pre-moderate each comment, and don’t allow posting under anonymous ids. People are less likely to post abusive one-liners and racist or misogynistic rants under their own names, and those who do are filtered out by the Times moderators. This approach works, but not all online news organizations can afford the battery of moderators it must take to keep the Times reader comments under control.
I would like to think that there is a space for intelligent, civil, and compassionate online feedback and discussion. But the comments sections under online articles don’t seem to be living up to that promise.