In the fall of my freshman year, I thought it would be a sane idea to write about gun control for The Sun. As an 18-year-old barely moved into my first-year dorm, I looked at a topic that has caused intense political conflict for decades and thought, yup, time to take a stab at that. Needless to say I got absolutely flamed in the comments section. At the time, each one felt so personal. Reading through the comments now, some have a bit more meat to them than I had originally thought.
One commenter by the name of “jim smith” responded with more than 1,000 words over the course of five comments. Which was a lot. And, as you can probably guess, he wasn’t totally convinced by my argument. “Jim smith’s” manifesto included, there were 16 comments on that one column. It was more than usual, but I’ve seen other columnists get upwards of 60 when tackling issues of social justice or racial politics. Some comments on my column were condescending, others were harsh. But after weeding through the strands of typos and monologues from my anonymous counterparts, it would be unfair to say that none of the comments were productive or compelling.
A few people pushed back on data that I referenced. Others challenged me to go further with my points. “What would a policy solution actually look like?” Good question, and definitely one that should have been answered in my column.
But of course, for every good question, you have three people just using the forum as an opportunity to incite hate. The notion that the comments section isn’t the gold-standard for commentary is by no means a “hot take.” Many forums, including but not limited to The Sun, have been co-opted by trolls. When writers have to attach their full names to their opinions, and commenters do not, I think it’s valid to question if that conversation — between article and comment, writer and reader — should even exist.
In 2016, NPR opted to get rid of their comments sections entirely, joining other sites such as Reuters and Popular Science. On the other hand, you have publications like The New York Times, which goes so far as to feature their best online comments in the paper and on social media. We’re in an era where the comments section, as a “medium of discourse,” is both on the verge of eradication in some spaces and in its height in others.
Last year, one columnist for the Sun wrote a piece about racial identity and was met with a slew of particularly heinous comments. One anon referred to Asian males as “whiny high-pitched … yellow men.” If you think this kind of comment is an example of constructive “discourse,” we can agree to disagree. I understand that the value of speech doesn’t necessarily depend on whether or not it’s productive, accurate, or even decent. That being said, the fact that someone was able to use The Sun as a platform to anonymously post such blatantly derogatory crap online gave me pause.
Interestingly, the columnist who received these comments chose to leave them up in lieu of having them removed, because he said he doesn’t believe in censorship, but also because he said they only helped to emphasize the point he was trying to make. And that’s valid. The commentary on that column did corroborate the assertion that such racist sentiment exists.
But I think for every author who is able to wade through the waters of gross, prejudiced and even sometimes threatening comments, there are authors who are deterred from writing about hard, personal, important topics because they don’t want to be called an [insert racist or misogynistic slur] underneath a column with their name on it.
In a perfect world, I’d prefer a platform in which commenters have to put as much skin in the game as we do, and include their names on what they write. But websites don’t currently operate this way, and even if there was an attempt to change, vetting commenters wouldn’t necessarily be as simple as “linking to their Facebook profile.” So the named writer-anonymous commenter dynamic will continue.
The thing is, I don’t think anybody is entitled to be an anonymous jerk online. The First Amendment guarantees you freedom of expression, but it doesn’t guarantee you the right to masquerade as “Big Guy Class of ‘81” in the comments section of your alma mater’s college daily. It doesn’t give you the right to use this particular website to make sexist comments towards young female writers, or to say racist things with a comfortable veil of anonymity. The Sun could do away with the comments section at any moment and I think it would be completely justified — maybe even for the better. But I also think it would also be a bit a of a mistake.
For every decent reader looking to give their 2 cents on a piece, there seems to be three trolls, looking to co-opt a forum and attach their ugly comments like barnacles to the original column. As conversations continue to shift onto the internet, we’re constantly creating new spheres in which they can occur, and extending the invitation to participate. I don’t think we should try to act as censors, claiming authority in deciding what is and what is not “valid discourse” — whatever that means. But if three negative and insubstantial comments are coupled with one thoughtful one, I guess i’ll take them all.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.