Una Mullally: No comment

Comment sections as they currently exist have failed. Instead of fostering intelligent debate, they are taken over by ranters and ravers

The Guardian did journalism a decent service this week, especially contemporary online journalism that is overly enthralled by reader reaction and input. Social media has become a “content” source for media companies. Sometimes this obsession with social media yields excellent results, such as when when a new form of citizen journalism emerges, breaking stories, providing firsthand reportage, offering a diversity of opinion, and reimagining and opening up new topics, stories, places, people, and voices. And sometimes the obsession creates flimsy “content”, the churnalism of clickbait or inane celebrity “news”, or using the space real reporting once had for viral videos anyone can see elsewhere on the internet. But for many journalists, the real rub is the “below the line”.

Conducing a study of 70 million comments on their site, The Guardian reported, “New research into our own comment threads provides the first quantitative evidence for what female journalists have long suspected: that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about. Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the ‘top 10’, one was Muslim and one Jewish. And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.”

The vitriol that women and minorities experience online is anecdotally obvious, but now we have the data. Perhaps finally, news organisations will wake up to how the scale and scales of abuse are tipped towards women and minorities. The bigger picture also calls into question the value of comment sections at all. Whatever the motivations for the Guardian study, what is shows is something any journalist who is not male, straight, white, or all three already knew, but that was often undermined by their male, straight, white, peers. Women get more flack because they are female. That doesn’t mean that male journalists never get abuse, but the motivation for that abuse is different. Gendered abuse or criticism is not as obvious as “I hate this article because you’re a woman”. It is more insidious than that. Male journalists are often criticised for the opinions they hold, whereas women are often criticised just for holding opinions.

When people put the rhetoric of abuse and criticism in comment sections down to the default language of the internet, what is really insinuated is that this is the the type of language that certain people online have to put up with, primarily anyone with an opinion that does not come from a place of relative privilege. There is a lot of sniggering at the idea of “safe spaces” for those who have rarely needed to engage with that idea. But the internet is a very “safe space” for angry white men to say whatever they want, and everyone else just has to put up with that, which is basically an amplified representation of the world we live in. Any suggestion about stopping this culture is generally met with resistance from those who are the least likely to be victims of it.

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One of the tropes of comment section discourse that some male journalists seem to endorse is when a female journalist takes time out to put the nasties straight. This generally comes in the form of replying to comments in a sassy or brash way, taking on a troll, writing an open letter to people who wronged them online, or taking the anonymous meanies of the internet to task. This is held up as an example of how you “do it “. Look at her! She’s got balls! What this false praise actually means is (a) women should be expected to waste their time fighting back when it’s far less tiring to just ignore it, (b) other women who don’t adopt this approach don’t have the good humour or sassiness of the journalist who does, and (c) instead of complaining about comments you should do something about them, as if you are somehow responsible for other people’s vitriol towards you. None of this deals with the actual issue.

Occasionally comment sections can be entertaining and informative. But if a mob runs down the street and 90per cent of it is screaming and roaring, should you let it continue just in case the other 10per cent has something decent to say? Why are we protecting disruption? Why are we facilitating nonsense? Where is the value in making potential comment posters and readers angry and annoyed when they go below the line? The authors of articles are not the only victims of abuse, but also other comment posters who go up against the most domineering comment posters.

Journalists, believe it or not, want readers to engage with what they write. They want reaction and debate. They want intelligent conversations and interesting counterpoints. They want nuanced interpretations and valid arguments. There have been places for these to happen in the past, especially letters pages. When those debates spill over on to Twitter, journalists at least have the control to mute, block, or report them. The limitations of design in comment sections seem to foster the loudest, most bullish and most obstinate remarks. A “carrot and stick” design element of comment sections should have been fostered from the outset, where smart comments get rewarded and promoted, and stupid, nonsensical or abusive ones are weened out, and comments shouldn’t always be anonymous. But this has been slow to happen online. The question news companies have to ask themselves is what, if any, value do comment sections add for anyone? And if they do have some value, then are they really worth the hassle for readers and journalists alike?

Comment sections as they currently exist have failed. Instead of fostering intelligent debate, they are taken over by ranters and ravers. Instead of adding value for the reader, they detract from the reading experience. Instead of representing alternative points of view, they are specifically hateful of women and minorities. In an industry obsessed with what its readership wants, the tail has ended up wagging the dog.