Should Newspaper and Blog Comment Sections Simply Be Eliminated?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

If you've ever checked out the comments section on just about any newspaper or blog, you'll quickly notice that it's a nightmare. Wackos. Vicious a**holes. Liars. Science deniers. Bigots. You name it. And no, it's not just on politics; it's on any and every subject under the sun, from the weather to sports to dating advice to...anything, basically. The question is, who are these crazy, nasty, horrible human beings trolls and why are they allowed to pollute newspapers and blogs? A new study helps answer that question, but also raises another one: should comments sections be eliminated altogether? First, some background:
In the past few years, the science of internet trollology has made some strides. Last year, for instance, we learned that by hurling insults and inciting discord in online comment sections, so-called internet “trolls” (who are frequently anonymous) have a polarizing effect on audiences, leading to politicization, rather than deeper understanding of scientific topics. That’s bad, but it’s nothing compared with what a new psychology paper has to say about the personalities of so-called trolls themselves. The research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called “Dark Tetrad”: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). It is hard to underplay the results: The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behavior. What’s more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the internet. [...] To be sure, only 5.6 percent of survey respondents actually specified that they enjoy “trolling.” By contrast, 41.3 percent of internet users were “non-commenters,” meaning they didn’t like engaging online at all. So trolls are, as has often been suspected, a minority of online commenters, and an even smaller minority of overall internet users.
It's studies like these that prompted Popular Science to completely ditch its comments sections, and in my view they made the correct call. Why? Several reasons. *The vast majority of readers - whether of newspapers or blogs - are "lurkers," never (or rarely) commenting. Only a tiny minority of human beings are trolls, thank goodness. *If active measures aren't taken to ban trolls, they will quickly infest a website with their lying, Machiavellian, sadistic lunacy. But that, of course, requires a lot of resources for a website with millions or hundreds of thousands of visits, so it's unwieldy at best. *It can't be emphasized enough that trolls aren't just a nuisance, perhaps one to be laughed off, but are actively harmful in a wide variety of ways, such as driving off legitimate commenters, warping the discussion, and basically ruining the website. Here at Blue Virginia, we allow commenting by any registered user, as long as they don't engage in: "profanity, personal attacks, bigotry, insults, rudeness, frequent unsupported or off-point statements, 'trolling' (NOTE: that includes outright lies, whether about climate science, or what other people said, or whatever), and 'troll ratings abuse' (e.g., 'troll' rating someone simply because you disagree with their argument)." We're generally comfortable with this policy, as it weeds out the vast majority of trolls, although it certainly cuts down on the number of comments as well. But if the comments are just going to be a handful of trolls spewing their b.s. ad nauseum, it simply isn't worth it in our view. Still, we haven't completely eliminated our comments sections, because there are plenty of normal, sane, smart people out there who have interesting things to add to the discussions. But it requires careful monitoring, and also ruthless purging of trolls as they pop up. If you're not willing or able to maintain that level of monitoring (and purging), you're better off just ditching your comments sections altogether. By the way, over the years I've seen whining by trolls who've been banned here at Blue Virginia, because they would love to come back here and start spewing their bigotry, science denial, idiocy, bile, or whatever. Message to trolls: whine all you want, but we're not letting you back on here unless you learn how to be civil, learn how not to spread your homophobia or whatever your particular bigotry happens to be, learn how to debate a subject without using ad hominem attacks, and learn what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said (that "you are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts"). We're certainly not holding our breaths waiting for any of THAT to happen!