Friday, August 26, 2016

Internet Hate Culture - Why So Many "Comments" Sections Have Been Ditched

After writing his recent article for TIME ('Tyranny of the Mob', Aug. 29, p. 27) on the culture of internet hate gone wild, Joel Stein informed the chief editor he was "going off  Twitter" and also "hopes there will be no comments in the online edition", i.e. for the net trolls to come after him. (In his 4 page piece he cites several examples of being net-stalked and receiving hate missives, including from losers like Andrew Auernhiemer who barked in one tweet "You people (meaning Jews) belong in a fucking oven".  Such is what the web, with all its initial promise, has descended into: a huge dog pit, with snarls, howls, bites and free floating excrement.

But what about the comments sections that typically accompany the major media sources, and which are usually allocated for reader inputs or exchanges?  In respect of these, Alicia Shepherd  recently wrote  on

"NPR is joining a growing list of media organizations that have said “finito” to comments including, ‘This American Life,’ Reuters, Recode, Mic, the Chicago Sun-Times, Popular Science, CNN, The Toronto Star and The Week."

This should not be surprising as we read in the recent TIME of the rise of hate on the Internet in media and  sites as  diverse as Reddit, Twitter and even Facebook. Sadly, hate speech and vitriol  has become the new coin of the realm thanks to mentally deranged trolls who get off on pissing in public - and crapping too. 

In the lengthy TIME article,   Joel Stein gives a number of  other examples (including the attacks on black actress Lesley Jones)  that show how far down into the toilet our net culture has deteriorated.   It wasn't always thus. I can recall from as early as 1994 having very heated discussions on topics in the old AOL forums. But though these debates (especially on the atheist  boards) were animated they never descended into the sort of invective with racial and other hate so abundant today.

The reach of hate culture  was eventually bound to extend to the comments section of the big corporate news media.  By 2004, when comments sections were initiated on news sites  like The Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Baltimore Sun and WaPo, they were hailed as a means to "democratize the media".  The original template also allowed a two-way conversation between readers and the journalists who served them. But that didn't last long, and the journalists themselves soon found out they were unable to enter into debates without being tracked and excoriated by assorted nuts with chips on their shoulders.

What one also found, as I have in the comments sections of The Financial Times,  is that  readers are often talking to and past each other because most of the resident journalists don’t engage. Alicia Shepherd noted there’s a reason.  She refers to how  Chris Cillizza enthusiastically embraced his audience when he started his political blog, The Fix, in 2006, on The Washington Post.  According to Cillizza:

I would regularly go into the comments to interact (or try to interact) with readers. I incentivized and deputized regular commenters to keep order. Then I gave up. Because none of the tactics or strategies we tried ever had any real impact on the quality of the dialogue happening on The Fix. No matter what the original post was about, a handful of the loudest — or most committed — voices in the room hijacked the comments thread to push their own agendas.”

Which is much the same take that Joel Stein had in his TIME article, noting that trolls ("most likely to be sociopaths with Asperger's") have now taken over most discussion venues and filled them with their hot air and venom.  Stein also cites studies by psychologists who refer to the "disinhibition effect" by which contributing factors such as anonymity, invisibility and not communicating face to face in real time, encourage brash behavior. Stein insists this has led to "the stripping away of mores that society spent millennia building".

The point is that the journalists,  as well as many of their major media,  have finally tired of sponsoring enclaves for unhinged simpletons to vent and hate- and having to constantly monitor and censor. Hence, removing comments sections. (This blog also has a comments section but it is rigorously moderated. I welcome challenges to any arguments or posts  but they  must have a  logical and coherent basis in making specific points. They can't be just shooting from the hip in the equivalent of a verbal 'drive by')

Shepherd herself, as an  NPR ombudsman from 2007 to 2011, claims  firsthand to know  "how futile and frustrating comments sections are."  She further points out that even though NPR had a sign-up system, and hired an outside moderator to check comments before posting, a listener could still create an alias and write whatever he (usually men) liked. The comments "were often mean-spirited and did little to foster civil conversation."

Shepherd,  in a 2011 essay on comment sections for the Nieman Reports,  wrote: “The goal is dialogue, but it’s pretty clear that the debate between dialogue and diatribe is still being waged. From the view I’ve had for the last three years as NPR’s ombudsman I’d say diatribe is winning—hands down.” It’s still true today.

Why is this? Why does diatribe trump dialogue? My own theory is that too few netizens know how to conduct a civil dialogue. They are affected by the "disinhibition" effect and also lack the patience to develop rigorous and consistent arguments to build strong dialogue. It's much easier just to deliver drive -by shots with little or no information for support.  But this isn't just in comments sections, it abounds in other places on the net. It's also one reason I stopped frequenting the Deja News online discussion groups, as on the JFK assassination. There was too much noise, not enough signal.

Shepherd writes (ibid.):

"The trolls who rule the comment seas may actually have won because they often scare away people with their vicious attacks. An infinitesimal number of NPR’s 25 to 35 million unique monthly users bothered to join story-page conversations."

Moreover: “Far less than one percent of that audience is commenting, and the number of regular comment participants is even smaller,” wrote Scott Montgomery, NPR’s managing editor for digital news announcing the shutdown.  He adds:

Only 2,600 people have posted at least one comment in each of the last three months –– 0.003 percent of the 79.8 million users who visited the site during that period.”

NPR’s current ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, noted that caretaking NPR’s commenting system becomes more expensive as the number of comments increases –sometimes costing twice what was budgeted. So basically, NPR decided it’s not worth the money to engage only a sliver of its audience  While Jensen notes cost is certainly a critical factor for any media company, the more valid question remains: What is the value of commenting unless it’s tightly moderated and journalists engage?  Well, on the evidence, not much!

That is a question more and more websites and blogs will have to address in coming years given the troll culture and its dregs is only likely to grow -  like a cancer. You can maybe treat and eliminate a biologic cancer with surgery or radiation, but I don't know exactly what the corresponding treatment would be to tame the hate-troll social cancer metastasizing across the net.

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Kandinsky said...

It won't be the end of the world if media sites start ditching comment sections. Alongside the rising animosity is a drop-off of people even reading the articles properly or each other's comments. They skim for buzzwords and phrases with their replies already in their minds; they're just looking for someone to hook their prejudices on.

Still, it'll be regrettable for the quieter, moderate majority who'll lose their voice due to the ignorance of the others. Moderation and site-membership appear to be the only solutions in town. It was surprising to see financial concerns being raised there as people are often willing to moderate sites for free. They feel an affinity to the brand or perhaps they're unoccupied at home etc.

A small team of reasonable people can hold the hordes of discord at bay. A banning here or a post removal there can return a site to reason; in theory at least though difficult in practice.

The subtext that concerns me more is that so many people are angry, uneducated and spend their days seeking to emotionally bruise and bully strangers. I'd say it's a societal problem, but it it's more like a people being people problem. If so, there's no cure for their attitudes and we'll end up with an internet devoid of comment sections. It's a high price to pay for such a small minority.

Copernicus said...

Very solid points you make here!

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