Comments sections can be both a boon and a bane for online sites, whether they be news sites or blogs. In an ideal setting, the conversations and insights that can be derived from those who leave comments would be wholesome, respectful, decent, lucid, on-topic, and diverse.
The ideal setting does not exist in today’s internet landscape.
In the United States, there has been, for years, a move by news sites to close the comments sections on their respective websites. The most recent one to join them is National Public Radio (NPR).
The decision should not be taken to mean that NPR does not value audience engagement, said Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news. “We’ve been working on audience engagement, user connections, in a variety of ways, for many, many years, certainly going back to even before the internet. It is a part of public media. It’s important to us,” he told me.
But at this point, he argued, the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, rather than in the NPR.org comments section.
“We’ve reached the point where we’ve realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism,” he said, with money, and spending it efficiently, part of the issue.
The list of news sites that have closed comments sections also includes Recode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Week, Mic, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW. As we can see above, one such motivation to close comments sections is because the target audience has moved to other social media platforms. The experience of several of these news sites is that the number of people leaving comments has become small relative to the people generating discussion on social media. To certain site owners, the time, money, and effort spent maintaining comments sections may not necessarily make sense anymore.
Outside of the cost-benefit consideration, however, there is a grimmer reason some sites have chosen to close their comments sections: the proliferation of online trolls. Defined simply, trolls get a kick of harassing, threatening, and generally making life uncomfortable and miserable for fellow netizens.
The inherent problem in online comments sections is not at all different from an all-too-familiar situation in face-to-face discussions: the loudest voices often dominate and hijack the discussion. As Chris Cilizza in the Washington Post explains:
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. Anyone trying to urge the conversation back to the topic at hand — or even something approximating the topic at hand — was shouted down and shamed.
More often than not, the domination of either the loudest voice or the most popular bandwagon in the discussion threads results in a derailment of it. It is simply just the way the ecosystem of the internet works.
Recent local developments related to comments sections and trolling have been nothing short of amusing. “Social news network” Rappler has been promoting the hashtag #NoPlaceForHate on social media:
On Rappler, you should feel safe to express yourself without fear of being attacked and swarmed by an army of anonymous commenters who seek to silence and tame.
We welcome all views – as long as you’re respectful of others who may or may not agree with you. Our moderation will become stricter to create, safeguard and protect this safe space.
Those who have been critical of Rappler and its perceived pro-Aquino and pro-Liberal Party (LP) partisanship wouldn’t have given much attention to this if only Rappler didn’t have its own history of not practicing what it preaches.
Get Real Post has kept track of such exhibitions of hypocrisy. Recall how Rappler CEO Maria Ressa pulled rank against blogger Katrina Stuart Santiago and threatened her with libel for asking questions Ressa didn’t want to hear. Rappler “journalists” Magtanggol de la Cruz and Carmela Fonbuena released confidential bank account records of the late Renato Corona during his impeachment trial. When then-senator Bongbong Marcos garnered attention for his role in the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) discussions, Rappler was seen to be mounting a demolition job against him. Rappler has never apologized for any of these; the only thing they apologized for was “taking something Mar Roxas said out of context”.
Rappler is only one component of the bigger Aquino and LP media army that makes a lot of noise on social media. Some of the Yellow army, as they have come to be known, once tried to make trending on Twitter the hashtag #StopTheHate while they were campaigning for Mar Roxas a few months ago. They also went around spreading a Time Magazine article on internet trolls.
What actually happened was this: they wanted to “go above” perceived “hate”, which was actually passionate, and well-founded, criticism against Mar’s platform (or the lack of it), proclaim themselves as “decent people”, but conveniently keep on spewing ugly propaganda against their opponents. The Yellow army conveniently forget that they were responsible for attempting to do a dirt job on Grace Poe after she refused Mar’s offer to join forces against Rodrigo Duterte.
Furthermore, the Yellow army troops have now been trying to paint themselves as “victims” of rabid Duterte supporters. Remember what I said earlier: on internet forums, the loudest voices and the most attractive bandwagon usually end up dominating. In this case, because Duterte won the presidency, it gave Duterte “trolls” weight. The Yellow army, already suffering from a lack of moral ascendancy due to the incompetence of Aquino and the LP, further lost whatever “authority” it presumed to have left with Mar’s loss.
Quite simply, pro-Aquino and pro-LP trolls could dish it out, but they couldn’t take it. And that is why Rappler is perceivably nothing but hypocritical in its attempts to create a “safe space”. They want only comments which validate them; they can’t take opposing views. Given that content moderation for social media platforms is now being outsourced to the Philppines, don’t be surprised if the Yellow complex increasingly starts finding ways to censor FB and Twitter, among others.
So much for being a “social news network”. Rappler should stop denying its true nature: that of a gossiping hen party blog, one that serves merely to validate the egos of its cadre of “journalists”.
As for private blogs like GRP, we continue the option of maintaining comments sections. We thrive on the challenge of providing an alternative to the heavily co-opted mainstream media. We appreciate the commentators, both who agree and disagree with what we write, and we also especially appreciate those who can provide great insight; some of that insight has served as sparks for the articles they read there!
The difference is, of course, that we are not a news site, nor have we ever pretended to be one.
In conclusion, here are a few passages from one of my old articles, relevant to the topic of comments sections:
“To have comments published is not a right. In my view every blogger should moderate comments. It’s in the best interests of readers that published comments are lucid, to the point and interesting. Too often respondents wander from the point, criticise other respondents and generally degrade the quality of discussion. If a comment does not add value to the original posting then drop it. Who judges what adds value and what doesn’t? Easy, the owner of the blog.”
“Now here is a tough question: Is it impossible for moderators/blog owners to balance out freedom of expression with maintaining the integrity of the blog discussion? Is it necessarily a dichotomy of having to choose which one to emphasize? Are these things, by nature, unable to coexist in the same place? The simple answer to all of these is no. The longer answer is that it is an extremely difficult balancing act to maintain both, and many bloggers stumble on this from time to time.”
[Photo courtesy: indianexpress.com]
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