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Let's Not Feed The Trolls — But Let's Not Starve Online Comments, Either

This article is more than 6 years old.

It’s been a bad few weeks for trolls. In September, The Huffington Post announced that it would no longer allow anonymous comments, YouTube just overhauled its comment structure and now requires a Google+ account in order to weigh in, and Popular Science has shut down comments altogether.

Internet bigots may not be particularly creative, but they are certainly prolific.

Operators of well-trafficked websites have good reason to try something -- anything -- to overhaul commenting. Even with capable moderators and sophisticated filters, comment sections often remain replete with spamvertising and vitriolic ad hominem attacks. Internet bigots may not be particularly creative, but they are certainly prolific. They may be sexist, racist, and homophobic, but their work ethic is exemplary.

Democratic theorists love the idea of lively public discourse about pressing issues of the day, but most bloggers, vloggers, and conventional journalists are familiar with the sting that comes from having carefully crafted work about issues they find significant received with derision, sexual harassment, racist jeering, or threats of violence in the comments section. Calling someone a f#@king f@g$ot is not much of a conversation starter.

Of course, in most cases it isn’t apprehension about public dialogue, civility, or human decency that drives the charge for cleaner comments. All that fury left unfettered makes for an inhospitable advertising environment. No one wants to pitch their wares next to an anti-Semitic rant. Moderating and filtering take resources and failure to win the battle threatens the economic base of advertising-driven sites.  And if advertiser defection weren’t enough, liability issues may be on the horizon as well.

Whatever the rationale, there seems to be a trend toward expunging the venom by making it more difficult (although not impossible) to conceal your identity, a strategy that comes with collateral damage. After all, not everyone who speaks behind the veil of anonymity uses privacy to intimidate, demean, or marginalize. Many turn to the Internet when they cannot turn to those in their midst for information and support on topics they experience as too embarrassing or too risky to discuss freely. As the spaces for these anonymous exchanges begin to erode, we lose one of the great gifts of web 2.0, the opportunity to find commonality and community — the chance to participate.

The trolls’ last laugh may not be that they have begun to force large sites to circle the wagons, but rather that they are so perennially gifted at distracting us from substantive conversations. While we spin our wheels talking about whether these new policies and practices will work, we risk missing questions of far greater importance: What does it mean that the comments are so incredibly ugly to begin with? Why does the abuse so regularly take the form of identity-based insults against marginalized groups? What can we learn by mapping the landscape of rage and ridicule? Sanitizing comments makes them difficult to examine, as sociologists Matthew Hughey and Jessie Daniels recently explained.

The trolls’ last laugh may not be that they have begun to force large sites to circle the wagons, but rather that they are so perennially gifted at distracting us from substantive conversations.

These questions seem too big to ignore, and yet it seems as though the resilient and relentless attacks are something that we tacitly accept as inevitable. We might roll our eyes at the remarks, but they don’t stop us in our tracks. Only infrequently does anyone ask about the big picture. Celebrity baby bumps, fantasty football, and Prince Harry’s love life garner more focused reflection.

Research out last week shows that non-anonymous comments are, in fact, more civil than anonymous comments, so if bolstering civility in the interest of ad revenue is the goal, it seems the HuffPo/YouTube approach may be on the right track.

But we may need a little more time to marinate in the muck.


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Editor's Note: What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.

This program aired on October 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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