Reader Comments

Are reader comments terrible?

Reader comments are widely derided for hate, ignorance and irrationality, and it is not difficult to find instances of these things. Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post called comments the maggots beside the steak: “spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity . . . It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.” Even commenters themselves sometimes make such sweeping generalizations. The merits of reader comments are closely connected to their failings, so it is important to consider why they attract so much criticism.

Some of the best critiques of reader comments have been by news sites that have gotten rid of them. The editor of the Toronto Star explained why his paper disabled comments: “They were homophobic. They were racist. They were sexist and in many cases just stupid.” It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots. CBC disabled commenting on stories about indigenous people for similar reasons: “Some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance,” they wrote. Popular Science discontinued comments, explaining that they were undermining rational discussion. Stories about climate change, for instance, were regularly inundated with comments making long-discredited arguments that the earth is not getting warmer.

Commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded . . . The cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories.

Popular Science drew on academic research indicating that reader comments can skew the perceptions of readers. Brossard and Scheufele found that incivility in comments polarizes the viewpoints of participants. Other research has found that comments affect the views of readers: and commenters seen as experts can have an even greater impact than the article to which they respond.

Yet even organizations that have limited or removed commenting have praised the importance of comments. We believe it's important to provide the public with a democratic space. "We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters," wrote Popular Science. When CBC announcemed that comments would be disabled for some stories, they also affirmed their commitment to the format:

We believe our comment section helps answer our mandate as a public broadcaster to reflect the country and its regions to itself. We believe it's important to provide the public with a democratic space where they can freely engage and debate the issues of the day.

I mentioned three problems with reader comments: hate, ignorance, and irrationality. Considering each in turn, by the CBC's standard of public engagement, reader comments can be valuable public space even if what they have to say might be erroneous or irrational. As for ignorance, it comes with the territory: readers visit news sites to because they wish to be informed. The most serious problem, I think, is hate, which can be seen as an extreme expressions of incivility. To an extent, though, this too is to be expected. These criticisms of comments all share an assumption that I think is misleading: they assert that comments are about community. In many respects, I suggest that comments discussions are unlike communities. On the one hand, this results in poor behavior, including hate. On the other, it is a source of strength.