It was a Saturday morning, I was on duty, and National Journal had a story on Janet Napolitano that was picked up across the Web. Unleash the trolls.
For about an hour, I deleted comment after comment on the then-Homeland Security secretary that used every anti-gay epithet imaginable, and some not-so imaginable. (Napolitano has never commented on her sexual orientation.) Very little of the conversation was relevant to the article — a short pickup on a revelation that she does not use e-mail. What does that have to do with her appearance or orientation? Napolitano was a polarizing figure, worthy of debate, but not in these terms.
Griping over comments isn't anything new in media, but few sites have yet to resolve the problem. National Journal's sister site Quartz has just pioneered an annotation feature, which lets readers leave comments on individual paragraphs. Good commenters are endorsed, bad thoughts are kicked off. Gawker likewise has spurred efforts to get commenters more involved with the material by allowing users to reblog stories with commentary. The idea behind both of these efforts is to literally lift the comments out of the gutter and perhaps, because they are more prominent on the page, the user will think through their thoughts a little more carefully.
In either case, it takes a lot of effort, and some bad comments are sure to still get through. At The Atlantic, another NJ sister publication, Bob Cohn, the top editor of the website, says it just takes manpower to domesticate the comment sections. "Writers or editors have to jump into the conversation to keep it on track, or to mete out justice by removing comments or even banning the worst offenders," he writes.
Which sounds great, until you have to delete hundreds of comments in a go.
And then there's the other side to it. Comments are content on the site, content that the site implicitly approves by allowing it to stay. How does a 100-plus comment thread of polarized, sparsely informed responses reflect on their adjacent stories?
There's been some science on this lately. Mother Jones reports on recent research into trolling, and it boils down to this: Polarized comments polarize the readership. "It appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs," Mother Jones explained. So instead of acting as a salon to grow public understanding of a subject and to reconcile conflicts, comment boards can do a disservice to the journalism they underlie. (And it's not like the journalism is ever without flaws. There are legitimate reasons to question an author on sources or methods or facts.)
Today, Popular Science has decided to opt out of comments altogether, writing that "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."
Basically, they're saying that if the comments don't further the intended goal of journalism — informing the public in an intellectually honest way — than why have them? It strikes a similar tone to the debate over "false equivalence," the media's tendency to give both sides of an argument equal merit, without considering that one side might be categorically wrong. One role of the media is to be a dam to misinformation, right? Popular Science said comments are bad for science. Maybe they are bad for politics, too.
This is tricky for media organizations, which are huge fans of the First Amendment. Censoring the comments can therefore seem hypocritical. And I know that when I write, I do so with the understanding that my word is certainly not the last on the topic. There has to be a way to do it better. In a recent piece in The New York Times magazine, Michael Erard says that we need to rethink "the relationship between creators and commenters in more fundamental ways."
So, brave commenters of National Journal, I have a challenge for you. How can we make better comments on political-news sites? Yes, I know I just spent the last few paragraphs degrading you, but let's have some optimism. If there is a pleasant commenting experience on the Internet, where is it? And how can we foster greater understanding on a topic by engaging all of you?