The National Journal announced Friday that it would become the latest publication to eliminate its comments section. While they remain committed to the noble calling of serving the public interest through the exchange of ideas, Editor in Chief Tim Grieve writes, the comments section of the venerable Washington insiders’ publication doesn’t live up to those standards.
“For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable,” he says. Maybe because it’s read by so many members of Congress?
Grieve’s characterization of the comments section will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been to any single website on the internet before.
The benefits of eliminating comments is something TNJ contemplated back in September, around the time Popular Science became one of the first high profile sites to banish the trolls back to the slimy hollows from whence they slouched. They pointed to a study that Mother Jones had contended with last year, which seemed to suggest that a combative, antagonistic comments section had a negative impact on how readers received the information of an article, regardless of their previous stance on the issue. The mere presence of partisan bickering seems to cause readers to double down on their preconceptions. Which makes sense if you consider the process of reading an article an act of intellectual warfare.
Mother Jones‘ Chris Mooney writes:
In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.
As the Washington Post wrote earlier this month, some publications, like the New York Times, have dedicated staff whose job it is to monitor comments sections, and right the ship back toward the destination, but that’s not a feasible reality for others with much smaller staffs. “We’d rather put our resources into the journalism that brings readers to National Journal in the first place,” Grieve wrote of their decision. “We think there are better ways to foster the dialogue we all want,” than the chaotic buzz saw of bickering.
Other publications have attempted to curtail the flame wars by requiring readers to at least put a name to their spittle-sodden invective, including a number of McClatchy Co. papers like the Miami Herald and 28 others.
“The wide-open, anonymous comment was the source of a huge amount of complaints from every one of our papers,” McClatchy’s Washington editor Anders Gyllenhaal told the Post. Requiring Facebook registration appears to have scared off many of the worst offenders. The Huffington Post has instituted a similar Facebook registration requirement. Predictably, the exact type of people you’d expect to take umbrage at this sort of thing decried is as a curtailment of their freedom of speech. Not understanding what the First Amendment actually is is one of the hallmarks of internet trolling.
I’ve written about this in the past, saying not reading the comments, or discouraging commenters, is sort of dereliction of intellectual duty. “It’s an opinion-maker’s job to sort through slush, isn’t it? For every fifteen comments arguing that I’m an idiotic cretin who’s probably engaged in sexual relations with my own mother at this very moment, I’ve found one that might challenge the way I’ve thought about something I’ve written. Isn’t that a good thing?” More below:
Who’s going to tell me I’m wrong if not the commenters? Presumably my editors and regular readers already agree with me. That’s not the type of feedback that’s healthy to hear. It creates a vacuum in which writers are sealed off from the rest of the world, and leads to, well, exactly the type of echo-chamber most of us operate in now.
At a time where so much of our media habits are condensed further into pre-ordained confirmation bias boxes, shutting yourself off from dissent, even in its more banal and reactionary forms, seems short-sighted. It’s for that reason that I’ll regularly find myself rolling up my sleeves and forging through the comments section of my hometown’s tabloid, The Boston Herald. like Sun Tzu heading off to battle. Remember: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” How else are we supposed to know what we’re arguing against if not deliberately seeking out the voices of our opponents?
I’ve since changed my stance on that somewhat, due to, ironically, push back from commenters who reminded me how different a place it is for women writing on the internet than men, for whom rape threats and stalker-like behavior is far more prevalent. That was also before I started writing for this site, where there’s no subject I can cover that won’t instantly devolve into an argument about Obamacareghazi about three comments in.
I’m not entirely sure what the solution is. I’m certainly not advocating for no opposing views on political stories, but maybe, for a start, we could try to keep them to the subject at hand as an experiment and see where it goes from there?
[Image via Shutterstock]
>> Luke O’Neil is a journalist and blogger in Boston. Follow him on Twitter (@lukeoneil47).
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