The danger of comments

Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos observe that the mainstream media is increasingly unwilling to permit the public to talk back for fear that their lies and inept arguments will be exposed.

It’s no accident that so many of the loudest voices against online comments sections are also political zealots. Jessica Valenti, Arthur Chu, Tauriq Moosa, Anita Sarkeesian: all have come out against comment sections. This isn’t an accident, of course. Psychologists have long been aware that political extremists have the most negative reactions to contrary information. Combine that with a disdain for free speech, a core cultural authoritarian value, and you get a frantic rush to remove the opinions of ordinary people.

But there are also more sinister, elitist motivations. A study conducted by The Washington Post and USA Today found that readers who viewed articles with comments sections were more likely to develop a negative opinion of the news media. Curiously, this effect was seen even when commenters praised the article in question. In other words, when the opinions of journalists and the opinions or ordinary members of the public are placed close together, it leads readers to question the competence of the mainstream media. What horror!

Another study found that reading assertive, aggressive comments could actually sway the opinions of readers. “Don’t read the comments,” warned Ars Technica, “they can make you mistrust real experts.”

It’s a piece of advice that captures the war on comments sections perfectly. Having initially cheered on the death of the “gatekeepers of information,” cultural elites are now scrambling to reinstall those barriers. Too late, they have discovered that people don’t always agree with them – and now they want to push that disagreement into the wilderness of the internet.

As most of you are aware, I am very pro-comments and pro-talking back. And while I have had to go to a higher level of moderation of late due to an unfortunate incident or two, it’s always been my intention to return to unregistered commenting. Which I am doing so now.

However, I would strongly recommend continuing to comment with a registered name as any attempts to abuse the more open system will be met with an immediate response, which will include, but is not limited to, turning the registration requirement on for extended periods of time without warning. This is the last time that I will announce the status; in the future it will be simply turned on, or off, as the moderators and I see fit.

Free speech is important. So is complete anonymity. Respect and support that by refraining from trolling, from “just having fun”, from “making a point”, from “playing a role”, and just as importantly, from responding to the occasional troll.