We have all read the comments on a post about current political or public health decisions. At best, they are a sea of oppositional views that leaves one wondering whether we will ever be able to find consensus in society again.
While The Varsity sees lower readerships overall than major papers or BlogTO, our posts about controversial topics or people see far more engagement than our everyday content. When engagement is boosted, it rarely means a lively, well-educated debate that will enhance understanding. Instead, the comments are more geared toward inflammatory statements, lying, or name-calling. Inevitably, the original comment is followed by several more from different people, condemning or supporting the original commenter. Often, these comments are uninformed. Even worse, though, many of them tout beliefs that we at The Varsity know to be false, which leads to the question: do we have a responsibility to our readers to remove these comments?
A good example of this situation can be seen in our posts detailing the decisions U of T has made around vaccination requirements. Alarmist and false information pours into the comment sections almost immediately after posting. The inflammatory comments lead to heated replies, which create a cycle of misinformation and opinions. The entire exchange exists side by side with the information we have ensured is true. Meanwhile, The Varsity becomes a catalyst for the entire interaction, making us somewhat complicit. These exchanges happen in our comments and under our logo. As a newspaper that is committed to a high standard of journalism, giving false information on our platform goes against what we hope to achieve. While our goal is to educate, these comment-based debates only make the truth less clear. Our whole job is to create clarity where it is difficult to find. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, American journalists and authors of the book How To Know What’s True In The Age of Information Overload, see the modern journalist as an authenticator, among other things. They write that “we will need some way of distinguishing what information we can trust, and some basis in evidence for why that is the case.” While we are not endorsing the inaccuracies in our comments, we are providing them a platform and reducing the potency of the truth we aim to support.
Suggestions that we moderate comments, which imply we are removing someone’s space to comment, create fear that we are stifling free speech. It goes without saying that we also believe in free speech and ensuring all opinions are heard. However, by giving false perspectives the same spotlight that we give to the truth, truth and falsehood become equal.
Thus, we have a responsibility to weed out perspectives that are irrelevant to the reader. Our only job is to ensure the reader has the best understanding of the relevant facts surrounding an issue. Even though The Varsity is not publishing the commenters’ views side by side, our content is largely consumed over social media and the internet. Comments are tied to our paper and are as accessible as the truth we have authenticated. False information and harmful inaccuracies become tied to our existence and are given equal attention to real news. Moreover, commenters have their own spaces to share their opinions, which preserves their ability to speak freely. Thus, I believe we would have justification, if not a duty, to take down comments we know are blatantly false.
Emory Mitchell is public editor at The Varsity and can be reached at [email protected].