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Why are we such jerks in comment sections?

Written By Nick Mendez | Apr 3, 2015

Since its earliest days, the internet has been a safe haven for jerks. Anonymous, hate-spouting and troll-faced jerks. Nevermind that it’s completely revolutionized commerce, global communication and self expression—you can’t hear any of that over the jerks’ incessant shouting.

While there are bad seeds in every corner of the internet, no place has engendered a reputation for horrible, broken discourse like comment sections. They’re the bane of electronic communication! A place you’re warned, perhaps wisely, to avoid at all costs.

“A majority of these commenters wouldn’t say these horrible things to someone’s face.”

How did things get so bad?

“Commenters feel they can behave badly because they believe they are hidden behind a veil of anonymity,” said Victoria Wilson, a social media specialist at Momentum Factor, and a former marketing intern at Yelp. “A majority of these commenters wouldn’t say these horrible things to someone’s face.”

Anonymous communication is possible offline as well, but the internet makes it so damn easy. The ability to hide behind a screen name has put due pressure on organizations like Twitter to build better policing and reporting systems in response to rampant harassment, for instance.

But anonymity alone doesn’t explain the vitriol. Even behind the veil of anonymity, why do these trolls get such a kick out of raising ire?

“Comment sections can turn sour due to a gang-effect,” said Emily Branson, social media community manager at Main Street Hub. “People play off other people’s ideas, and find comfort in the idea that their thoughts are shared with someone else, so it doesn’t matter if it’s offensive, because someone else agrees with them.”

Emily points to a sociological phenomenon much older than memes: mob mentality. Perhaps the trolls in the population always had this vitriol coursing through their veins, but the internet connected them with other trolls, and united, their filter melted away.

“A lot of the aggressive behavior is the result of a lack of consequence,” said Brad Haggadone, a doctoral student at the University of Texas. “Say something rude to a guy in the bar and you might get punched, or say something rude to your significant other and you end up sleeping on the couch. When you are online, however, neither of those things is likely to happen.”

To me, that suggests a natural solution—find a way to virtually punch people in the face when they act a fool. That’d lower us to the trolls’ level, however, and likely wouldn’t be productive.

“You have passionate people talking about often controversial subjects on a medium that allows for immediate, potentially unreflective and reactive thoughts,” said Rutgers Professor of Communications Craig Scott. “One solution some have adopted is to remove these sections—but that may be overstepping, and it shuts down all participants due to the problematic behavior of a few.”

That may sound like an extreme measure, but it’s the chosen solution for an increasing number of media outlets.

When Popular Science, a 141-year-old publication, launched their new website, they did so sans comments. The explaining post cited a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that found that even a fractious minority of trolls can significantly skew a reader’s perception of a story, even one based around scientific fact.

The English news agency Reuters killed comments on news stories last fall, although they left the forum open on their opinion and blog pages.

That same month, when popular technology columnists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher left the Wall Street Journal and started their own site, Re/code, they also removed comments from the equation.

All three suggested their social media channels as a replacement venue for discourse, and that logic is very common–with so many places to share your opinion, what good are comment sections anyway?

But more troublingly, many outlets are turning off comments not as a matter of strategy, but in direct response to vitriolic episodes.

In January, Portland outlet KOIN TV became the first area television station to ban comments from their website.

“Pseudonymous commenters seemingly have limitless time to post inanities, vitriol, sexually explicit, mindless, vulgar and hurtful notes about people and things of which they have only cursory knowledge.”

“For every great, insightful comment or news tip I’ve seen over the past decade posted to the bottom of a story, I’ve dealt with 50 times more comments that add no value,” KOIN Digital Managing Editor Tim Steele said in a blog post. “Pseudonymous commenters seemingly have limitless time to post inanities, vitriol, sexually explicit, mindless, vulgar and hurtful notes about people and things of which they have only cursory knowledge.”

True as it may be, those are some harsh words with which to describe the (according to Tim Steele) majority of your active readership.

Last April, Chicago Sun Times Managing Editor Craig Newman explained that they too were getting rid of comments.

“We do want to take some time and work on the qualitative aspect of how they are handled and how we can foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing,” he said in a blog post.

Newman explained that details of a new and improved comment system were forthcoming, but to date, that system has yet to materialize.

Then in November, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the resulting demonstrations in nearby Ferguson, the St. Louis Post Dispatch attempted to prompt an online discussion about race. The resulting comments were so hateful and vitriolic that in response, the paper announced that they’d disallow comments on editorials for two months.

Just like the Sun Times, they never turned them back on.

“Keeping the conversation going is important,” Emily said. “It’s the media and community manager’s job to steer that conversation in a productive and positive direction.”

To shutdown comment sections entirely, it then follows, is to admit defeat–or at least concede that you don’t have the time or resources to actively police the discussion.

“Timely responses to negative feedback can stop a problem from spinning out of control and turn it into a positive interaction,” Victoria said, drawing on her experience at Yelp and Momentum Factor, a social media and digital marketing firm in Austin. “It shows readers that you are really listening to their feedback and grateful for the interaction.”

“Most important is to not feed the trolls, if you feed them, they win.”

Others put less emphasis on community managers’ responsibility to act as comment police, and more onus on the community itself.

“Most important is to not feed the trolls, if you feed them, they win,” Brad said. His main area of study at the University of Texas is digital communities. “You have to encourage people to self police. To do that, people have to be invested in the community, they have to care about the community itself.”

Peer pressure is widely heralded as an effective method to discourage littering, and even smoking in public areas. Maybe all we need is for Iron Eyes Cody to come back and weep about trolls.

“Asking what a online community manager can do is like asking what the mayor of NYC can do to make the city more friendly,” Brad said. “The power is really in the people and it’s important to remember that.”

That’s a painful reality to admit, and a difficult one to respond to, as it requires every member of an online community to consider how they contribute to a site’s atmosphere, and whether each opinion they share is productive, or just designed to maximize reaction.

“A climate of civility can work best when peers and key contributors practice civil discourse and correct others who don’t adhere to such norms,” Professor Scott said. “Perhaps the best solutions are those that allow for a wide range of participation by users who can still choose some level of pseudonymity—but work to create a more civil communication climate and respectful discourse in the online comments.”

Like most social issues, comment sections are a tough nut to crack because the solutions aren’t simple. The quick fixes won’t work. You can shut down your comment system entirely, but the trolls will find another medium by which to reach you. You can assign staff to policing comments diligently but, just like the mail, the vitriolic comments never stop. It’s enough to drive a community manager insane.

“I can’t give you a magic formula, and each community is going to be a little different,” Brad said. “I will say this–I have studied some of the most hostile places on the Internet and even in the worse places, not everyone is being rude. When you look through any comments section you will see both positive and negative comments.”

To expect perfectly civil and respectful discussion, in any venue, fundamentally ignores our nature. Human beings are messy, incomplete, and still evolving. The Internet is this brand new frontier for self expression and discussion, and naturally, it’s going to reflect our appetites for destruction and hatred every bit as much as our desire to be understood.

Online, just like in real life, you have to take the bad with the good.

“If the goal is productive debate,” Brad continued, “that might get messy, and if you want honesty, expect that honesty to include rude comments.”

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