Hitting Mute: Why Online Comments Just Don’t Work

HQ /
Dec 22, 2016 / Opinion

Comment sections on online articles are like the modern day ‘Letters to the Editor’, but with less regulation and more anonymous keyboard warriors. It’s a destination for angsty users to, more often than not, vent their dissatisfaction with the article, the writer or both.

Yet another online publication has made the decision to cut the comments section at the end of their articles. VICE announced their choice to make the chop causing somewhat of an uproar amongst readers and avid commenters. Many were disappointed after the announcement on Twitter, contrary to what many of their writers thought, who were actually pretty thankful for it.

One VICE journalist wrote how she experienced derogatory comments about her appearance posted on articles that had nothing to do with what she looked like. Hannah Ewens tweeted: “Making personal or misogynistic comments about female writers hasn’t got anything to do with the quality of content”. She went on to say it made her anxious about writing anything when she first started in journalism. And too right, why would anyone want to put their work out there if they thought it was going to get ripped to shit? Or worse, that their appearance was going to get irrelevantly dragged into it. If ridding readers of the ability to comment stops insults directed at writers and enhances the freedom in which they have the right to write, then I believe they’ve made the best decision.

The proportion of genuine users who post praise and helpful, constructive criticism is pretty small compared to that of trolls; they post troll-y comments wanting to cause upset, antagonise, or simply do it to be awkward. Online comments aren’t generally moderated and even if they are, it’s easy for the abusive and insulting ones to slip through even the best censoring systems.

But do these online readers only miss the comment sections once they’re gone because they haven’t got anywhere else to vent their irrational pent up anger? Or should other publications follow suit and have a comment-removal modernisation? I say, why not.

I’m sure most people can agree the worst comments can be found on the online versions of Britain’s national tabloids, where the caliber of people could be used to make one of those ‘How many tabloid newspaper readers does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ joke. But have you ever read through these comment sections? I had to recently, and I have to say, it wasn’t a pleasant experience at all.

I was reading the comments posted on the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the people’ article after the other week’s High Court ruling against the implementation of Article 50. It’s one of those times when you’ve finished reading a ridiculous news story and then you reach even more ridiculous comments. Most of which were threatening, with users spurring each other on. One user commented: “Brilliant article, award winning stuff. We are going to crush these judges and drag every last remainer kicking and screaming out of the EU”. And there’s worse. Why isn’t there more regulation on these forums that stops people writing menacing and insulting posts? It’s a shame that the situation has come to this, with major publications saying goodbye to the opportunity for readers to react. Especially as the discussion after an article in these comment spaces provides some of the most interesting conversation.

It’s about time more national newspapers and magazines noticed how harmful these online comments could be. They’re good in theory, like when Editor’s could hand pick all the nicey-nice and least provocative letters to print. But when users have the power to influence other readers, voicing ethically questionable opinions and proving to be pretty offensive, then surely that is one step too far. It’s a bold move to make such a drastic change to a website, and there are still other routes for these trolls to reach writers, like one Twitter user said after the announcement: “I WILL JUST START REPLYING TO EVERY TWEET IN BLOCK CAPS INSTEAD”.

Oh the internet age, isn’t it beautiful.

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