The internet was born open but is becoming closed everywhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rush to shutter readers’ comments sections at major news organisations. Cheered on by intolerant, snobbish cultural elites, news organisations from The Verge to The Daily Beast have, in recent months, informed their readers to take their opinions elsewhere.
Dozens of progressive blogs and news outlets are following suit, citing “abuse” and “harassment” as the primary reasons they no longer want to hear the opinions of their readers. But that’s not what is really going on.
There was a time when comments sections were seen as the next step in a golden age of democratised communication, particularly by the political Left. “For the first time ever, we are thinking aloud, unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers,” wrote a former Hillary Clinton advisor in 2008. “Never before has the global discourse been so accessible, recursive, and durable.”
In 2009, the former online editor for the Washington Post wrote that despite their problems, readers’ comments allowed readers to “complain about what they see as unfairness or inaccuracy” and remind editors that they “do not always agree with journalists about what is important.”
The late Georgina Henry, former editor of the Guardian’s online commentary pages, wrote in 2010 that “journalism without feedback, engagement, dispute and opinion from below the line no longer feels complete to me.” Indeed, the Guardian was once so enamoured of its comments section that it ran a weekly feature, Below the Line, in which “delightful, prolific, or controversial members of the Guardian comment community” were invited to profile themselves.
The rise of comments sections coincided with the rise of another high-minded idea: the Crowd. If TED talks from the early 2010s are to be believed, the Crowd was set torevolutionise government, end poverty, and cure cancer. In an age when the Crowd was going to fix the world’s problems, it stood to reason that they should fix public discourse as well.
But the era of Silicon Valley-led optimism is over, at least for the journalists and publications that once eagerly reported on it. Today, the tone is misanthropic, not utopian, and the Crowd – at least as it appears in the comment boxes – is portrayed not as saviour, but as a sort of barbarous horde at the gates of politically-correct progressive society.
“Vibrant online communities? Or cesspits of abuse?” asked the BBC in a recent feature on the closure of comments sections. “Alongside shouting, swearing and incivility, comments sections can also attract racism and sexism,” the article continued.
This refrain can be found in almost every left-leaning publication these days. The Pacific Standard: “Even if [comments sections] aren’t vile and psychologically damaging, most of them aren’t worth your time.” Brooklyn Magazine: “Most comment sections are vats of poison, filled with grammatically questionable rants at best and violent hate speech at worst.” The Atlantic: “Online comments are often ignorant, racist, sexist, threatening, or otherwise worthless. But you knew that already.”
At the risk of sounding too self-congratulatory, here at Breitbart we embrace our readers’ opinions. We love hearing from you guys! And there are a lot of you: 1.2 million comments, not including Facebook, are left on Breitbart.com each month. We are in fact one of the most enthusiastically commented-upon sites anywhere on the internet.
There’s a gross double standard in what’s going on in the progressive mediasphere, of course. Many of the columnists who complain the loudest about spiky comments are themselves professional provocateurs. Consider Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, the most recent commentator to complain about the “noxious thoughts” and “sea of garbage” in the comments section.
But Valenti is paid to write deliberately inflammatory columns, with titles like “Feminists don’t hate men, but it wouldn’t matter if we did.” She is also notorious for wearing a shirt bearing the slogan “I bathe in male tears.” Valenti is a great example of what one savvy blogger called an “above-the-line troll.” She may write columns rather than comments, but, like any troll, her words are designed to inflame and antagonise.
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!
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.
For a while online, authoritarian progressives forgot that vanishingly few people in the real world agree with their feverish and silly “hot takes” on current news and their bizarre ideas about racism and sexism. Now the whole population is tech-savvy enough to have their say, authoritarians are scrambling for a return to the era of broadcast news, in which viewers were left with calling up the station and ranting down the phone as their only means of robust criticism.