The savagery of online comment is coarsening all public discussion

Opinion: The police tend not to know what to do about this relatively new phenomenon


The National Catholic Reporter ( NCR ) has a strong online presence. Its editorial stance might be guessed from the recent request by the bishop of the diocese in which the publication is based to remove the word Catholic from its title. Nonetheless, it is highly regarded by many readers.

In January, NCR did something very interesting. It suspended all online comments. It is not the first website to do so, but the comments of the editor, Dennis Coday, were particularly interesting.

Coday said the comments were rarely about the substance of the article, but were instead attacks on people. For him, malicious, abusive and vile comments constituted “pure vandalism”, a violation of every value held by NCR .

Coday directed his readers to a piece by Conor Friedersdorf on the website of the Atlantic , “Misogynist trolls make the internet miserable for women”,, which he felt explained the nature of the abuse.

Friedersdorf suggested that reprinting excerpts was to miss the point. He said that to appreciate the impact of comments you had to experience their regularity.

“Instead of a lone jerk heckling you as you walk down a major street, imagine dozens of different people channelling the same hyper-aggressive hatefulness, popping up repeatedly on random blocks for hours on end,” he wrote.

Both Coday and Friedersdorf said the two biggest targets were women and gay writers, or stories written about women, or gay people.

In an update on the decision to suspend comments, Coday pointed out that the majority of readers who wrote to him agreed with the decision, but they all wanted the comment facility reinstated.

Fair enough, said Coday, but it will cost you. Having someone sit and moderate comments means less journalism, because it takes from the resources needed to research and file stories.

It will cost you in terms of privacy, because NCR has decided to step away from anonymity. The only way to restore civility was to make posters more accountable by making them more identifiable.

Safer Internet Day
Finally, Coday suggested it was everyone’s responsibility to make the internet a more civil place. Safer Internet Day was earlier this week, and lots of schools were using the acronym “Think”, which stands for: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

However, when confronted with the reality of what is posted on the internet, that acronym seems incredibly Pollyanna-ish.

It has always struck me as bizarre that I have to adhere to strict guidelines in this column, which respect the right of every individual to his or her good name, but that people can comment on my articles with impunity and say anything they like about me or about others.

The sheer level of nastiness is difficult to describe. But once you venture onto Twitter or other social media it is exponentially worse.

As Friedersdorf says, it is the unrelenting volume of it that eventually wears you down. Some of it is just childish. For example, commenting negatively on women writers’ hair is one trope.

Other comments have a far darker tinge, such as the fervent wishes that I be badly beaten, or die from painful diseases, or that my children be taken away from me for their own safety. One person has repeatedly expressed the wish that I be burned to death.

The police tend not to know what to do with this relatively new phenomenon.

Man up’
Among the general public there are
two schools of thought. One can be summarised as: “Man up. It’s just
the internet. Don’t read the stuff. It’s unrepresentative.”

The other, with which I have far more sympathy, sees that this level of abuse is utterly corrosive, and that it has begun to shape mainstream discussions in ever more disturbing ways.

Matt Cooper nailed it in a recent column: “The internet generation seems to believe it is possible for people to say anything they like, simply because they tend to get away with it online where there is a more relaxed approach to litigation.”

The internet is the most wonderful resource for any writer or researcher. Many people, including this writer,
find it invaluable, a place where you
can learn about articles or discussion papers that you might not have otherwise come across.

There are communities of online comment where ideas are discussed, even on Twitter.

But where the light is brightest the darkness is deepest.

Much of what passes for discussion on social media is profoundly anti-intellectual, designed to “take down” individuals and render it unnecessary to engage with a single idea they have.

The savagery of online commentary is beginning to bleed into everyday discussions. You can choose not to be online, but if online commentary is beginning to coarsen all discussion, there is no escape.

This newspaper is actively exploring ways to make people making comments online more accountable and identifiable. I wonder, though, has a great deal of the damage already been done? Can we move back to a more civilised, sane way of relating to each other’s ideas, or is the new norm of personalised, vitriolic abuse here to stay?

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