I have a confession to make: I almost never read the comments section of my own political articles. Before you get too upset, allow me to defend myself, however weakly.
I used to read the comments section of my articles. Quite eagerly. When I first started writing political articles almost four years ago, I quite faithfully attended to every one of the comments on every one of my articles as my professional duty. I responded to nearly every one, firmly convinced that all that was lacking in the engine of discourse was a civil meeting of minds.
This lasted about a month. It was probably the most depressing month of my life. Semi-occasionally, I still read and respond to comments, but as a general rule and for my own peace of mind, I abandon my orphan articles at the doors of the blogosphere with a silent prayer that their new foster parents won’t abuse them too often.
How did this happen? How did I go from such youthful zeal and optimism to such resigned cynicism? I’ll tell you.
Nearly all of my attempts to further real dialogue were completely engulfed in the seemingly inevitable one-sided, ALL CAPS, non sequitur flame wars that ensued. I cannot tell you how many times I have read some version of the illiterate phrase “Your stupid” in a comments thread. Every time, I try to resist the urge to reply, “No. I believe that stupid is yours.”
But ad hominem attacks have been the very least of the obstacles to real dialogue. The main holdup seems to be that almost no one actually reads, listens, or processes anything anyone else says. Numerous examples of this are scattered like the corpses of Antietam on the uncivil battlefield of my blogging career. But I’ll mention a particularly poignant and representative example. I wrote an article on “drone blowback” theory back in 2013 (part of a series on drone warfare), and based on the comments, it appears I had unwittingly drenched this particular article in troll pheromones. This was its first paragraph:
The word “blowback” usually riles people up. Whenever you mention that our failed international policies might be negatively impacting our domestic security, people like to call you “anti-American” or “unpatriotic.” Some people seem to think that using diplomacy rather than force to get our way in the world is akin to the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. Most “conservatives” prefer Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy. Minus the “speaking softly” part, of course. That sounds like foreign policy for sissies or something.
A commenter (Randy K.) responded thusly:
Are you truly, honestly, THAT devoid of ANY historical knowledge of what Islam is? Ever hear of Neville Chamberlain? Yeah. He espoused the same kind of cowardly, hat-in-hand approach to murdering bullies that you do. Worked out GREAT for him! Not.
Mind you: my proleptic reference to Neville Chamberlain was not added after Randy K. commented, and it was not buried deep in the article either. It was sitting there in the very first paragraph the whole time. So I imagine that Randy read the headline, and perhaps the first few words of the article, then furiously scrolled down to the comments section to unload his withering critique.
If he didn’t even read the article he was commenting on, what hope did I have that Randy would read my response, especially when, in the article itself, I had already addressed (and even predicted) everything he said? In other words, a response from me would likely do nothing more than feed a troll. (I responded anyway, by the way. I’m young and foolish, what can I say?)
The comments section was clearly not a space for discourse. It was nothing more than a place for people to vent volcanically within their safe cyber-domes of anonymity.
On the critically endangered occasion that I have had a reasonable interchange with a reasonable person in a comments thread, I have felt like a parched pilgrim in the center of the Sahara bringing a palm’s worth of water to my mouth. Nearly all of the time, trying to engage even a small portion of the comments section is like being in a room full of children who are all screaming their own streams of consciousness simultaneously.
It once seemed to me that the only solution to this was simple: leave the room in despair. Doing this lifted my spirits considerably, but it probably didn’t make the world a better place. Perhaps in my cynicism, I succumbed to the pessimistic belief that redeeming the comments section was merely tilting at windmills.
Then, just yesterday, the whole topic was brought to my attention again by a pleasantly (if perhaps naïvely) rose-colored article by Anil Dash on how site administrators could, if they wanted to, civilize and redeem the comments section:
How do we fix it? Simple: Hold platforms accountable. Whether it’s a big news publisher or a large social network, if we’re sharing information or ideas on a platform and are immediately overrun by abuse that threatens to silence smart conversation or the potential for meaningful connections to be made, put the burden on the platform. Instead of “Never read the comments”, we can simply say the name of the publisher, owner or CEO of the site in question, and then mention that they don’t want to invest in solving abuse on their site. If we’re being charitable, we can say they simply haven’t invested enough in preventing abuse.
That sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want a more civil space for discourse online, right? But it really isn’t simple, no offense to Anil Dash. Especially in the realm of politics, things get heated pretty fast. And for good reason. Political consequences have a significant impact on people’s lives. For instance, compared to a political thread, it’s relatively easy to find a little bit of polite back and forth on a professional forum for software troubleshooting, as frustrating as unresolved bugs can sometimes be. There’s not much more than personal annoyance at stake there, though. But politics? That’s a pre-brewed contention storm of epic proportions.
The other issue is that content platforms are actually profiting from a highly entangling, troll-maintained, bloated, angry comments section. Engagements are good for online content creators, even if those engagements are entirely unsavory. For a platform to silence the abuse would take more than just allocating more resources to moderate comment threads. It would also mean taking a hit in terms of revenue from traffic and engagements. Good luck trying to get content platforms to sign onto that: spend more money in order to make less. That’s simply not going to happen.
And Dash’s solution also has some possible unintended consequences. The approach seems a bit arbitrary (i.e., by what standard do you determine abuse?) and vaguely Orwellian. What if, in an effort to foster polite dialogue, site administrators throttle dissenting opinions? Though it might remove some abuse and vitriol from the comments section, it might also homogenize online conversations to the point of uselessness.
The grand dream of the comments section is that it could be a place where people who strongly disagree could meet together and actually nurture mutual understanding and respect. Wouldn’t that be awesome? What if the internet actually lived up to its promise that diverse communities all over the world could be connected together in harmony without bruising anyone’s individual voice? Is that a pipe dream?
The dream is certainly not yet the reality. Instead, the internet promotes a greater fragmentation of splinter communities as smaller and more selective groups of people seek an exclusive online space hermetically sealed off from all possible sources of offense to their delicate ideological constitutions.
The only way to actually redeem the comments section is for online conversation to be self-regulated. It’s the only way to ensure that freedom of expression, robust interchange, and productive discourse have soil to grow in. But it is precisely because of this freedom that the comments section has become overgrown with toxic weeds. I get that.
But I cannot believe the solution is to force administrators to censor commenters and thus curtail the free interchange of ideas. On the other hand, I honestly have no solution. Though Anil Dash’s article encouraged me to think about the problem again, I don’t think he has yet arrived at the solution either. There may not even be a systemic solution.
Perhaps this solution, like so many cultural transformations, must begin in individual hearts and minds. Perhaps you have some ideas on the matter. Let me know in the comments section.