‘Don’t read the comments’ — is there a more ubiquitous piece of Internet advice? The phrase has been echoed in podcasts, thought pieces, and even a Google Chrome extension that allows users to block online comment sections on the pages they visit.
It’s true that there is rarely anything meaningful, or even coherent, to be gleaned from the average online comment section. As Tauriq Moosa writes in The Guardian, the comment section of an online publication “[sits] likes an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol.” As a female writer whose work is primarily published online, I’ve received my share of hateful gendered comments, and I’m certainly not alone. Should these online forums be allowed to fester? As Moosa points out, comment sections are tools of the Internet. “We don’t discard wrenches because of a few accidents,” she writes. “Yet, if people start using wrenches to mostly beat [each other], maybe it’s time to radically rethink whether they should be allowed at all.”
In the past year, media outlets both here in Canada and south of the border have taken this sentiment to heart. Canadian media has seen both its largest daily newspaper and its public broadcaster close their comment sections; The Toronto Star removed its comment section completely, while CBC News chose to turn off comments for stories about Indigenous people, in an effort to stem a tide of hateful and racist remarks.
In the span of two years, US publications like Popular Science, The Chicago-Sun Times, Reuters, Mic, Bloomberg Business, The Verge, The Daily Dot, Re/code, and Motherboard have all quietly closed their comment sections. The reasons behind the decision varied across outlets, but social media was often singled out as an alternative forum for online conversation.
Re/code wrote that they “believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years.” Mic explained that “vibrant discussions” were not limited to the pages themselves, and that discussions were had for “every article we post on Tumblr, everything that we tweet, really across any social channel that isn’t the article page itself.” Reuters wrote that platforms like Facebook and Twitter “offer vibrant conversation, and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting.”
Not everyone agrees that offloading comments to social media is the best solution. In response to Reuters’ announcement, technology writer Matthew Ingram wrote: “Reuters…is handing over much of the value of [engagement with its] readers to Twitter and Facebook and social media platforms.” He goes on to argue that “if the discussion and debate and interaction around a news story occurs somewhere else, then soon the readers who are interested in that engagement will start to think of the platform where it occurs as the important part of the relationship — not the site that actually created the content.”
There is an argument to be made based on both Ingram’s reasoning and the very issue Reuters addressed in its statement. Many outlets seem to be moving away from comment sections as a way of distancing themselves from the vitriol they inevitably attract. Yet, the assertion that Facebook and Twitter “are self-policed by participants” and “keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting” is patently false. Just ask any of the women who face daily harassment on social media, only to have their abusers legitimized by the platforms and the legal system alike as exercising their right to “free speech.’
The sentiment behind CBC News’ decision to close comments on articles about Indigenous people was admirable, but its reasoning was flawed. Those with racist and abusive things to say will instead turn to Twitter and Facebook, where the chances of their comments being moderated is drastically reduced. The tone of the conversation has not changed; it has merely been relocated.
Comment sections give online publications direct control over the conversations surrounding their content. Perhaps more importantly, comment sections give publications the opportunity to moderate the discussion in a way that promotes civility and protects the marginalized. It is not a tool that should be tossed aside lightly — and certainly not to whichever social media platform is waiting on the sidelines. As Ingram writes, “Why would you hand over the keys of that kingdom to someone else?”