“This bitch needs bullying.”
You’ve seen stuff like this yourself, polluting the comments sections of online media. This example is one of many insults that transgender activist Aimee Challenor received after giving evidence on the intimidation of Green Party election candidates to the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Or take environmental and anti-debt campaigner Rachel Collinson, who went to the police after someone she engaged with around green issues on Facebook Chat said that he would “f*&cking destroy her.”
No wonder the recent Disney film Ralph Breaks the Internet featured this as the "First rule of the Internet: never read the comments.”
Why does this kind of abuse happen so frequently? Sometimes it’s the attitude of the media towards online freedom of speech. Collinson told me about the case of the ‘Arctic 30’ crisis that engulfed Greenpeace in 2013, where she was working at the time. The ‘Arctic 30’ were 28 Greenpeace staff and two journalists who were in the Arctic Circle to protest the start of drilling for oil by the Russians. The Russian coastguard arrested them as ‘pirates’ at knife- and gun-point. They were then held in Murmansk, many in solitary confinement, for three months.
The Daily Telegraph published a ‘poor me’ article about a female member of the group whose health was in danger after being denied her medication in prison. One anonymous commenter gleefully fantasised about the sexual violence that other female prisoners would inflict on her.
According to Collinson, the Telegraph moderation team were slow in removing this comment. They seemed unapologetic that their system had been used to facilitate incitement to rape.
Yet the comments sections of online media can also connect us with people we would never otherwise meet, give us information we would never otherwise know, and perspectives we would never otherwise see. When good things happen in comments, how and why do they happen, and how can these positive engagements be encouraged?
Luke Briggs is an Anglican priest in Leeds who shared an instructive example with me concerning discussions about feminism on Facebook, though the lessons of his experience – the attitude he adopted when discussing these issues - apply to other platforms too: “You need a spirit of ‘OK, teach me’,” he said, “as opposed to throwing stones.” Also important was the wide range of people he had access to online: “Friends and acquaintances from several very different phases of my life all chipped in with a common goal of correcting my faulty understanding of what feminism is.”
Collinson goes further. For her, what makes the difference is who we are able to talk with online. Take sex work, a controversial issue on which she changed her mind as a result of reading Facebook comments on news articles about the subject. She originally thought that all sex work should be illegal because it leads to trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable people. But through engaging with the views of others she came to believe in the ‘Nordic model,’ where the buying of sex is illegal but the selling is not.
However, she changed her mind again when she took part in online conversations with sex workers themselves from countries where the Nordic model is being used. Collinson told me about one regular commenter on gender issues whose witty and intelligent writing she had come to admire, and who has actual, lived experience of sex work. As this person said:
“Legalisation and decriminalisation are entirely different things. The UK has legalisation, which is why I can conclusively tell you that it's not safe. Sex workers don't want legalisation, sex workers want decriminalisation - an entirely different legal model. The way to make the industry more dangerous would be to advocate the model pushed for by the extremely biased website your article is from. Ireland changed to the Nordic Model recently, and look how that's worked.”
As Collinson concludes, “This conversation could only ever have happened online. I immediately realised I could no longer actively support the Nordic model if a person I admired, with lived experience, could explain so cogently and evidentially what made it dangerous.”
A similar example comes from transgender activist Challenor, who wrote a piece for the Guardian about the bullying of transgender children in UK schools in 2017. The commenters included several people who added links to resources for parents and children – making the original piece much more valuable on the process.
How can the potential offered by examples like these be expanded? That’s the aim of a project called ‘We Dialogue’, funded by the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project and the Templeton Foundation. It’s being led by a team of academics from the University of Westminster in the UK and the University of Connecticut in the USA. I’m also a member, along with Collinson and others. The project focuses on articles from the New York Times and is testing two approaches to encourage freedom of speech and healthy debate online: new designs for commenting platforms, and prompts to empathy.
These prompts invite users to imagine how others will feel when they read their comments. Researchers have shown that inducing empathy in this way can lead to reductions in prejudice and in behaviours like name-calling. They have also been shown to increase tolerance when citizens see reasons why others take a different view from theirs.
People who sign up will be randomly allocated to one of three platforms. They will then be shown an article from the New York Times, and will be able to read and comment on it. The more comments the better, but people are free to contribute as much or as little as they want. At the start and end of the experiment they will be asked to fill in a survey to capture different aspects of ‘intellectual humility.’
The experiment will be evaluated to see if one type of system is better than others when it comes to its effects on comments, commenters and the overall conversation. Researchers will also evaluate the different prompts to empathy to see if they have more or less impact than the software designs. Using the results, online media should be able to learn how they can make their reader experiences more interesting and less likely to lead to enmity.
Searching out examples that illustrate the positive potential of comment platforms can feel like prospecting for specks of gold amid the dross. But experiments like WeDialogue should be able to show newspapers and other media that they have choices beyond the ‘Wild West’ approach of a free-for-all, and turning off their comments completely when the going gets rough. There’s no reason why we can’t find more gold online.