Killing Comments Isn't Going To Save The Internet

Back in 2014, online news media was booming. People were jumping on to the digital forms of magazines, newspapers and various other publishing site, but with all the raging success, the aggressive behavior of users in the comments section was also hurting the organisations badly, who still do business by presenting facts and opinions.

The negativity over shadowed the actual use of comments (to gather public reaction for the betterment) and later we saw that within just a few weeks, Recode, The Week, USA Today and Reuters joined hands with Popular Science and The Chicago Sun-Times to shift the accessibility to comment from public forums to social channels only.

Despite the move, which was copied by many others, comments somehow persisted. Now after almost half a decade and ageing social media, is the comment section still necessary in the internet world?

Comment sections was introduced as an opportunity for readers to post their reaction or opinions on any news article. This was done by pseudonymous or fully anonymous accounts and the format raised many questions in very little time.

On one hand it turn out to be an advantage for people who wanted a forum to share their opinions whereas the other side of the story was so negative that it deteriorated the impression of new sites. Comments began to impact the perception of readers which eventually had its effect on the viewership of articles and loyalty of people towards the news outlets.

Although most of the times the comments were completely anonymous but still the words managed to capture the minds of readers. Then two years down the lane, those anonymous commentors were replaced by authentic people and there was almost no shame around the internet.

As in the words of Dr. Gina Masullo Chen, assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and co-researcher of a study published in January, toxicity and instability was all over the place - even in the researches with one in five people (20 percent to be exact).

The credit for this effect majorly goes to humans' cognitive bias toward negative information. People prefer to remember the negative information more and then make decision based on it as well. This phenomenon can also be observed if we flip the situation, that is; when the comments are tend to be positive but the opinion submerged in the news article is negative.

However, Dr. T Frank Waddell, an assistant professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, says that even with all the negative impact, removing comments section won’t solve anything and Chen agrees to it. Even if such a thing happens, conversations would still continue to float on Facebook and Twitter in particular. Therefore, the prime focus should be to improve the streaming of content with the help of strong moderation and pre-moderation systems.

Besides that, doing so will also bring financial consequences which news sites can’t really afford at this point in time. This is best expressed in Maria Konnikova argument in The New Yorker in 2013, called shared reality, where she states that out experience really now depends on the fact that whether we would like to share it socially or not. Taking comments away from the internet means, you are actually going to take away the shared reality. Moreover it will also remove the biggest source of traffic for the news sites as people won’t hold any belief, which others read and react to.

But again moderating content is not easy as a social media giant like Facebook is still facing all the backlash for providing unhealthy work life to its moderators, even after doing so many efforts to improve it.

So what’s the way forward?

The world is currently focusing on the potential of artificial intelligence. The idea sounds great to leave the moderation setup to algorithms but as Chen states in the same research, there will always be mixed success in training algorithms for incivility. People often say things in a sarcastic way which just becomes hard for algorithms to pick up, unless they are trained well.

For now people can tolerate some incivility and imperfection, its just the awfulness that disturbs the whole environment.

Can killing comment section from news sites cure our toxic internet culture?
Photo: Getty Images

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