By:  | 

This Editorial is Garbage

When The Commentator unveiled its new website three years ago, the editorial staff added what they hoped would be a democratizing feature: open, uncensored comments. Now, anyone could chime in. Everyone could be a writer.

I suspect that the leadership of the newspaper was excited by the possibilities, by this addition to free and open dialogue. The Commentator stands for freedom of speech, and what could be a greater internalization of those values than instating them on our own turf?

As the readership of The Commentator expanded far beyond the reaches of our campuses to other universities and Jewish communities worldwide, comments offered a venue to exchange ideas, foster debate, and hear other perspectives. Online articles could expose alumni, professors, and community members to stories that might otherwise be geographically or socially inaccessible. Comments could link people through dialogue.

Maybe something changed after The Beacon controversy. Maybe the civil discourse on the internet as a whole has decreased. But the predictable and courteous community that complimented and challenged our writers got hijacked by individuals happy to fall back on diatribe and ad hominem attack, what’s now called “the nasty effect.”

Here’s a smattering of the comments left on our main website from a few uncivilized commenters in recent months: “This article feels like it was written by a 5th grader trying (and failing) to write at an 8th grade level.” “This article is complete garbage.” Alternatively, “Come on this is garbage.” Lastly, a gratuitous and ironic personal attack: “Needless to say, [the writer of the article] must have abandoned his Jewish ideals ages ago, as virtually no Jewish figure, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Humanistic would condone needless ad hominem columns.”

(For clarification The Commentator actually has two websites, a regular site and a mobile site. For technical reasons, the comments left on our regular website are fed through Facebook, thus commenters must use their own name. Users can comment anonymously on our mobile site. If you ever want to see really nasty anonymous comments, visit our (mostly) uncensored mobile site.)

A 2013 study by George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that comments have far greater power than previously thought. Researchers presented over 1,100 test subjects with two identical articles with two very different comment types. One version had polite and positive comments. The other was rampant with rage, full of trolling, and contained attacks on the author and other commenters.

If you’ve ever spent time on the web, you can guess the results. The participants weren’t swayed by the positive comments and maintained their original opinion of the article. However, when presented with negative comments, participants changed their minds. “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself,” wrote the researchers in a recent New York Times article. In other words, disapproval is infectious.

The results of this study should deeply disturb us. Our opinions are not fully our own. A few comments from people we’ve never met can commandeer our ability to think rationally and objectively. “We need to have an anchor to make sense of [stories],” Dominique Brossard, co-author of the study, told National Public Radio. “It seems that rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues."

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if every person who read an article joined in a conversation, but of course, that is never the case.

Google analytics of The Commentator website have reflected the widespread 90-10-1 principle of journalism. 90 percent of people will simply read an article. Ten percent will “like” it or share it on Facebook, where discussions happen behind closed cyber-doors on walls and chat-rooms. Only one percent of those who read our articles will comment. That one percent dominates the conversation.

So now we have a tiny minority of readers influencing the vast majority. It’s not exactly a democracy, it’s more like the “digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in a bar,” to borrow the words of NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard. Even if thousands of people “liked” the article on Facebook, the article has been infected.

I don’t want to shortchange those in the commenting community who engage in civil discourse. Comments elicited from “How YU Left Me Estranged from Torah” were, for the most part, prime examples of sensitive and inquisitive exchanges. However, trends on our website, on The Beacon, and throughout the Internet as a whole are establishing new social norms. Those social interactions are often completely discordant with the rules of our in-person exchanges.

The nasty effect is damaging the health of journalism at YU. Our writers fear taking up positions or publishing important stories lest they become the victim of vitriol. A thousand people may have thought the article was important, thought provoking, and necessary, but if thirty angry people comment, the consensus will turn. Few want to step in to show support, as they fear falling under personal attack or dread becoming embroiled in a never-ending cyber-feud.

Two months ago, I learnt that one student created a Facebook avatar, Malcolm Prince, so he could defend an article. This student didn’t want others judging him; he wanted people to judge the content of his posts. The irony of a student having to post anonymously because he feared reprisal from named students should seriously call into question whether we have created a safe space for conversations.

As a writer, I’ll admit that acerbic comments upset me. As a reader, it pains me to think that one percent of commenters polarize and color the experience of the ninety-nine percent.

So, if studies show that thoughtful comments make little difference, and negative comments simply cloud our readers’ ability to make objective judgments, I will leave you with something to discuss. Should The Commentator still have a comments section?