Below the line, below the belt?


Comments threads democratise online media, but they present their own problems for free speech.


Helen Lewis
12 March 2013

Shutterstock/Andrew Sproule. All rights reserved.

“Your a ugly whorish slut.” That has to be one of the most arresting academic paper titles I’ve ever seen, and the contents are hardly less disturbing. The report, by Emma A Jane in Feminist Media Studies, details the obscene sexist abuse which women are routinely subjected to in online forums and comment boards.

Until recently, it was thought that this kind of “e-bile” was merely an occupational hazard of internet discourse: something to be accepted with a weary shrug. But recent research suggests that comments can have a measurable effect on what readers think of the article above them. For instance, a University of Wisconsin study found that “simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make [readers] think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought”.

(Fans of internet swearing will note that the ”ad hominem” attacks referred to in that article are nothing more than the words “idiot” and “stupid”. If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ll know that’s very much the shallow end of author abuse.)

For anyone interested in media accountability, this presents a problem. We can demand until we’re blue in the face that articles are bylined to promote accountability (no more vague “Staff Reporter” pieces) and that online newspapers, magazines and blogs maintain the highest levels of accuracy and offer a right of reply where needed. But what’s the point of all that, when – for example – a thoroughly researched piece on climate change, based on peer-reviewed research, can be undermined by a thousand howling sceptics below the line?

Stretch the researchers’ hypothesis a little further, and the disproportionate levels of abuse that female and non-white writers get becomes even more troubling. Because if those authors take more flak in the comments, doesn’t it follow that their positions are more consistently undermined, purely by virtue of their race or gender? Is it too much to say that internet comments are helping maintain a public sphere that’s dominated by white men?

As someone whose job involves moderating comments, that worries me. But I’m also troubled by the invisible bias of comment sections towards the moderators’ own views. Most reputable website have a moderation policy which forbids author abuse, obscene or offensive language and off-topic discussions. But whether a comment falls into any of those categories is determined by an editorial judgement, and it’s a procedure against which there is no appeal.

My final concern is what the “silent majority” thinks of comments. 

The usual rule of thumb is that only one in ten readers will leave a comment; but an analysis of the Guardian’s community by digital consultant Martin Belam suggests that the debate is dominated by a tiny minority. (He estimated that a fifth of comments were left by just 0.0037% of the paper’s declared monthly audience.) What do all the people we never hear from think of comments? Do they feel reluctant to participate in the debate because they worry about being attacked?

Internet commenters often claim that deleting their opinions infringes their free speech. But the true picture is much more complicated than that: editorial judgements have to be made, and freedom of speech for one group must not be protected at the expense of others. Journalists must also educate ourselves, and the public, to make critical judgements about evidence and authority on internet comment threads. If we don’t, then a format which was supposed to encourage greater accountability may end up doing the opposite.

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