Comment Sections: A Blessing or a Curse?

What was once the Internet’s most attractive feature has become the most repulsive thing about it.

From derogatory slurs to unfounded “facts”, the comment sections on news websites have become, as Christie Blatchford likes to put it, “a refuge for the vicious and illiterate.” While the latter may not be the most accurate term to describe the anonymous individual who leaves poorly constructed and minimally thought out commentary beneath news items online, “uninformed” and “ignorant” are usually not far off.

Since the advent of Web 2.0 in the early to mid-2000s, the Internet has been characterized by the concepts of information sharing and user interaction. Twitter provides a soapbox to anyone who wants one and Facebook’s popularity stems from its ability to connect people who crave a virtual social life. These are precisely the same desires of people who leave comments on news websites: they want to be listened to. Don’t we all?

The problem isn’t the increasingly interactive nature of the Internet; this is what our generation will be remembered for, and this is a good thing. It’s that people take to these forums to anonymously banter and insult. Giving a soapbox to anyone who wants one has its drawbacks, too.  

“[This] certainly contributes to the notion that we are all journalists and all opinions are equal,” says Blatchford. “But I think that’s a fraudulent egalitarianism that permeates the world now. I used to occasionally look at comments, but they were just mean-spirited judgments and starkly different from the emails that I got from people. I’m sure there are lovely people out there, but I’m not going to wade through the filth to find them.”

And why should she? Blatchford’s often right-leaning and contentious opinions in The Globe and Mail have inspired anonymous Internet commenters to leave her some pretty nasty remarks, including some about her appearance. It’s easy to be a bully when no one can see who you are.

Eye Weekly‘s assistant online editor, Rob Duffy, says he reads comments left beneath his stories with a smile on his face. “If [commenters] are respectful in disagreeing with what I’ve said, then I’m open to hearing them out. At the end of the day, it’s my story. I’m the journalist and I’ll say whatever I want. And if there are ridiculous potshots at me, then I’ll have a good laugh.”

Journalist’s feelings aside, these potshots are not only directed at the writer or publication, but often at the subject matter of the news. Racist, classist and sexist remarks dominate the spaces intended to foster discussion and communication with fellow readers.

So do we ban people from trying to communicate with others, thereby defeating the entire purpose of the Internet? Make would-be commentators take a crash course on politics and etiquette before letting them speak? Well, no. But many online editors, such as Duffy, believe we should make it mandatory for users to register before they can comment so that they are accountable for what they say.

“It would probably create a better discussion if people had some sort of responsibility for what they were saying,” he says. “Anonymous comments are almost taking an easy way out. It would benefit the goal of having a reasonable discussion, but that’s a responsibility people sometimes don’t want to take.”

As for Blatchford:  “I care about freedom of speech and issues related to that, but I don’t care about comments. I don’t think it’s about people finding a voice. I think it’s people in their mom’s basement whacking off and being mean.”

Carly Lewis is a freelance writer and music critic in Toronto. She is working toward her Master’s of Journalism at Ryerson University