(Image: Getty)

I was working at Vice in 2016 when they decided to turn comments off on articles. It wasn’t a shock. Motherboard Vice’s tech and science vertical — had made the switch a year before. And, to be honest, I was relieved by the news.

A post by then editor-in-chief Jonathan Smith mirrored my feelings. He explained that too often the section devolved into “racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise”.

This wasn’t an unpopular opinion. Over the last decade comments sections — let alone well-functioning ones — have become an endangered species.

When NPR introduced on-page comments in 2008, they were wonderfully idealistic. They boasted it would provide a “forum for infinite conversations”; exchanges would be “smart and generous of spirit”. Eight years later, they pulled the plug. In a less enthusiastic statement ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen said, “I think it’s disappointing that the commenting platform didn’t work the way that it could”.

At its best, the section is a place to challenge and engage with ideas and writers. At its worst it’s a space for people to abuse each other. Three decades of the internet has familiarised us with the architecture of online debasement. Access to instant, largely anonymous, feedback tends to bring out the worst in us. But beyond often being a bummer to read, comment sections may have more nefarious impacts.

When Popular Science killed their comments, online content director Suzanne LaBarre declared they could be “bad for science”. She was referring to a study conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Brossard in which he reviewed how comments below articles can influence reader perceptions. He gave 1183 participants a fake blog post on nanotechnology to read. Half the group’s version had insulting and critical feedback below. The other half had more muted responses. The study reported that “uncivil comments not only polarised readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself … Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

Popular Science added: “If you carry out those results to their logical end — commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded — you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

There are, of course, options besides rejecting comments altogether. The Conversation is committed to feedback, stating that “it’s important to maintain an accurate record of public discussion — it’s part of our goal of providing informed, transparent debate”. They manage “uncivil comments” through moderation, only removing those that breach “community standards or [where] there are exceptional circumstances”. It’s a common approach for many sites holding on to their comments — including Crikey.

Some publications like The Australian and The Wall Street Journal are also turning to tech solutions such as Coral Talk, a program Vox created to moderate and filter comments automatically. CNN selectively activates comments on stories that editors feel have the potential to spark valuable debate — or where there are resources for staff to moderate conversations directly.

“Resources” is the key term there.

Keeping the comments open and under control is expensive. Not only does it require additional trained staff (or technology) to curate and screen feeds, but even hosting a comment section on site is a looming expense for publishers who are finding their budgets stretched thinner each year. And that’s without even mentioning the legal liabilities. For many publications it’s not about opinion v abuse, it’s about costs. Because while the comment section does offer valuable space to question and feedback on reporting, most of us probably talk about it more than we use it.

But the longest nail in the comment section’s coffin might be social media. When Reuters dropped comments, they optimistically said it was because people “self-police” better on social media. Similarly, NPR wrote that conversations on Facebook tended to be “more civil” because “users are required to use their own names (not that fake accounts don’t get through, but there seem to be far fewer than the predominantly fake names that NPR commenters currently rely on)”. The fact that publications are holding Facebook and Twitter up as glowing options for public debate says a lot for the state their comments were in.

Feeling uneasy about reducing public spaces for ideas-sharing is understandable. But the reality is comment sections are already dying, and their survival would require an injection of money and effort that most media companies can’t afford.

In which case the question becomes less about whether we should kill the comment section, and more about whether we should make the effort to save it. Honestly, probably not.

If you disagree, the Crikey comments section is wide open. Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey