The Place of Internet Comments
This is a small site. I probably average one comment every two weeks, after Disqus filters out the straight-up spam. About half of those comments are trolls, which I am defining as somebody who posts to tell me why I’m stupid as opposed to actually wanting any dialogue. It’s usually pretty easy to tell who disagrees but wants to give feedback and who are just angry. I try to engage with those who seem to honestly disagree, even when I have a really hard time figuring out why they would think that – sometimes that engagement even helps me understand why they would think that.
I promptly delete trolls. I have better things to do with my time. More importantly, as the owner of this site, I have some responsibility over everything on it, including the comments. If somebody sees a hateful comment directed at them on my feed, I will delete it because I do not want to be a part of spreading those hateful messages to hurt people. The same is true for my social media channels. Sometimes I will get accused of censoring people I don’t agree with, but I’m not going to endorse those messages in the spaces I control. Moderating my site and social media is not a big problem with the kind of numbers I get. Even though I don’t get paid for my time spent moderating, practically speaking, it’s probably worth the minimal effort to stay open for that occasionally helpful comment.
But what about sites with bigger followings, or sites which have simply become targets of hate groups like GamerGate? We could be talking about a site with 5 people on staff, and those 5 people could spend their entire days deleting trolls – people who don’t even bother reading the content, definitely don’t think about the content, but are just there to attack one of their favourite targets. I don’t get these against me personally, but I occasionally get some where it is clear that the person just Googled for a topic and ranted without realizing that I addressed all 8 “points” of the rant in my article. Sites that are getting flooded with these kinds of comments, I would definitely support in turning off the comments. Yes, people will rant about loss of free speech, but I think that’s missing the point.
It pushes us to a philosophical question, though: to what degree do we want to encourage complete democratization of knowledge? Years ago, I reviewed the neo-Reformed author Tim Challies’ book The Next Story. One particular question where I most opposed him was that of authority. Not surprisingly for a neo-Reformed author, he puts a lot more value on only the right people having a voice than I do as an Anabaptist with our community hermeneutic. I remember his example of Wikipedia vs traditional encyclopedia’s, where he cited studies that Wikipedia was slightly less accurate due to the fact that there are more people contributing even when they don’t know anything about the topic.
I don’t want to apply his logic on a wide scale, but I do think there are some scenarios. In the days of print media, people had to write in to a newspaper if they wanted to say something about the topic in question. That writing was then screened by editors to make sure it was relevant and accurate – not necessarily in agreement with the paper, but at least true and not hateful. Comment sections erase that. Anybody can comment on anything. We’ve seen that a lot of people think they should comment on everything. It doesn’t matter if they’re blatantly wrong and that could have been proven by simply reading what they’re commenting on. It doesn’t matter that they are hurting a lot of people – it’s common to hear of suicides caused by online bullying.
Some sites, I believe, get so many of these comments that their best option is to turn off comments entirely. If they have the resources to do it, they can offer a “letter to the editor” feature instead. That can still amplify knowledgeable and helpful voices that should be amplified without spreading harm. Maybe a lot of sites have to do this to be able to promote actual conversation.
Nobody is obligated to take abuse in comments. Nobody is obligated to promote abuse on your space. In fact, I think it is our duty, webmasters, in loving our neighbour to shut down bullying whenever we can. Lives depend on it.