It’s become a recycled joke—the online comments section is the place where humanity goes to die.
Yet I always find myself lured to the comments of an online article, grossly curious, even though I know exactly what I’ll see: mansplaining galore, paragraphs of hastily Wikipedia-ed information regurgitated with the added touch of a superiority complex, or simply some classic name-calling. And somehow, someone always finds a way to bring up Marxism.
Reading comments like these can have the regrettable side effect of damaging perceptions of journalism itself. As much as I try, it’s harder to focus on an article when there’s a flame war blazing right underneath. It really is unfortunate, since community discussion should something positive.
On some occasions, I’ll actually glean meaningful information from comments that constructively qualify an article. The truth is that journalists are people and people are biased. What they don’t include in their articles says as much as what they do, and factors such as wording or tone can affect impartiality. Experienced readers can catch such subtleties, and alert other readers.
So how do we reconcile these two extremes of online commenting? Some publications simply do away with the whole mess and turn off comments, but that feels counterintuitive to the very point of journalism. The upvote/downvote system relies on user votes to choose the most popular comments, but these are the same users that create the comments in the first place…
By far, my favorite system is a compromise. The comment section on this New York Times Opinion piece has three tabs: NYT Picks, Readers’ Picks, and All. NYT Picks highlights comments that are officially pre-reviewed for content and quality, and directs attention to genuine and diverse perspectives. But this still requires some unlucky staff member to sift through information dumps to pick the best comments. Not every publication has the resources or the patience.
Whatever the case, it is at least slightly comforting to realize that online trolls only reflect a fraction of the population. A small fraction that we can ultimately choose to ignore.