We were sad to see NPR become the latest online news site to kill its comment section, joining such esteemed (and not-so-esteemed) news sources as Bloomberg, TIME, CNN, Vice, Vox, Rolling Stone and numerous others.
All have cited the same reason, the one amplified on the cover of TIME magazine this week: Trolls are ruining the Internet. Mean-spirited cranks who go out of their way to insult other readers and commenters, change the subject and derail debate, and push the conversation down through the bottom of the barrel until the original subject matter is completely lost.
These complaints are not wrong. Only the solution is. This is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and while it overtly solves a genuine problem it also covertly solves another problem the media doesn’t want to talk about.
We’ll hit the baby with the bathwater complaint first. For every lousy, hateful, disgusting comment I’ve read on the internet -- almost all of which I’ve quickly forgotten -- I can think of countless occasions where reader discourse has illuminated the original story, expanded upon it, clarified it or corrected it. I’ve read intelligent debate and genuinely hilarious rejoiners (R.I.P. Gawker) that improved my online experience. The loss of the public voice is a loss indeed.
Moreover, what this move by more and more publications covertly suggests is that they don’t like losing control of the terms of the conversation as they set them. The corporate media is keeper of the “Official Story,” and it doesn’t like it when people veer from the “Official Story.” THEY get to pick who comments on a story, and they don’t like it when a reader makes a few connections and points out bias of the writer or the writer’s sources.
But the biggest tell here that this is an over-reaction to an addressable problem is that software technology exists to better moderate comments than the current free-for-all. You can use key words to filter out and delete any comment that uses profanity, misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, and other offensive terms. You can have other readers flag commenters who waylay the conversation, then track the ISP (while leaving the user anonymous) to keep it from being resurrected under a different identity.
The current push is to move conversations to social media, most specifically Facebook and Twitter, of course. But they are some pretty weak replacements. The most immediate place for anyone to engage with a story and its writer is at the place the story happens: The website source. If you read an article, it makes the most sense to segue right into the comments. It's also much easier for a writer to ignore a direct tweet that few see.
Retreating and resorting to social media platforms also brings all kinds of new problems for readers but not publications. It’s very easy to shadowban people via Facebook verification (which I found out first-hand -- thanks, Huffington Post!) if you don’t like what they’ve got to say, whether offensive or not. One click and you can shut their voice out forever, even if the account is tied to a real person and verified.
Twitter is more of an echo chamber for journalists and other media/marketing types mostly talking to themselves (which may be the only people other journalists want to hear from, come to think of it), and is half-deep with trolls and shills and bots anyway.
And that’s the capper. Social media is becoming at least a big a cesspool as any comments section, and it’s loaded with fake profiles and A.I. “voices” to boot. Twitter, in it’s IPO in 2013 said roughly 5% of its users were bots, and that number has surely only blossomed with the current contentious election.
So despite claims from a righteous corporate media that the killing of comments is only to save us from ourselves, my feeling is that it’s got just as much to do with saving themselves from Emperor stripped to his skivvies moments.
What's happening here is a false dichotomy. It's something we wrote about on 7CTOs back on May 25th, referencing Google's former design ethicist, Tristan Harris, the "Illusion of Choice." These publications are offering two choices, comments or no comments, like there is no other option. But that's not true. Better solutions are available. They’re just not being used.