SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 20, 2013

Watson: Online comments often a drag on debate

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — One of the most significant attributes of the Internet is its capacity to facilitate both constructive and destructive personal and group expression and behavior.

Just look at the wide array of social media communications “canvases” available — websites, blogs, email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Reddit and Google+.

Examples of some of the positive consequences of all that digital possibility are easy to find. We are able to communicate with more people, at faster rates, with more efficient use of energy, and sometimes at lower costs, than before the creation of the Web.

The Internet and its related messaging tools allow us — as never before — to connect easily with people and ideas that previously would have remained hidden to us — or at least required formidable efforts to become exposed to.

Today, instantly, we can read a foreign newspaper, check the climate overseas, watch a video clip of an ongoing event or correspond with a person in a faraway country.

More easily than in the past, we can organize into groups, share opinions, raise awareness and plan activities. Use of the Internet has been integral in organizing everything from the Arab Spring to election campaigns to book clubs to car shows. At its best, the many facets of the Internet have increased human participation and engagement in an almost infinite number of endeavors.

Some of this participation has a dark side, however, and I’d like to focus on just one unfortunate aspect (of many possible). It’s an aspect that journalists observe constantly.

Most newspapers today print an actual, physical paper as well as an online version. Readers of old could always type a letter to the editor and mail it in, in the hope that it would be selected for publication. Today, at most papers, readers can simply type their comments — to any and every article or opinion piece in the paper, if they wish — onto their computer screens and the paper’s online technology will quickly and automatically display the comments (in a “blog”) alongside or below the relevant article or column.

You can see an obvious benefit: daily, readers have a new and large opportunity to communicate with editors, writers, politicians and fellow citizens. Trouble arises, however, when Internet postings become vitriolic, disrespectful, intolerant or inflammatory. Discussions can quickly become nasty, irrational, tit-for-tat feuds that many civil participants will abandon — or just stay away from entirely.

The prevalence of rudeness — and even bullying — across the Web is striking. Some bloggers will routinely write comments that they would be unlikely to make in person to anyone’s face — for nobody would put up with the insults and the disrespect. So, it is the Internet that has given the commenters a forum that they’ve never had before in their lives.

Bear in mind that dismay regarding the Web’s vulnerabilities (which also can be its strengths) is not an issue of free-speech rights. People have the legal right to express themselves crudely or without deference to society’s norms or sensibilities.

Furthermore, we journalists who lament the often destructive character of Web speech are not referring to the normal, healthy contest of opinions across America, or to the vigorous criticism of any and all ideas or positions. Rather, what is discouraging — and really bad for deliberative democracy — is the intolerance of others, the insults, the personal attacks and the derisive tone of disrespect that too often poisons the postings on the Web.

Researchers have speculated about online vitriol. At first, they thought it flourished because commenters could remain anonymous and therefore uninhibited. But as more newspapers have eliminated anonymous blogging, only to see the poison persist, it is evident that additional factors are involved in the phenomenon.

Across the Web, it now seems likely that the worst (most hostile) comments come from people with personal issues and degrees of dysfunction. Those individuals may carry unhealthy degrees of illogic, emotion, irrationality, resentment or self-unawareness, or some combination of them. So, the intelligence and character of bloggers — as well as the distance, actual and emotional, from which they blog — play some role in the tone and content of their postings.

The irony is, we ordinary citizens, from across the social and political spectrums, who write and comment should be in this together. We should not be attacking each other and dividing ourselves. For in a democracy, it is us together — with the press — who form a vigilant, countervailing force checking the formidable powers of both the government and the private sector.

We need everybody’s comments. Why throw away opportunities for growth, understanding, humor and connection?

The antidote for fear, confusion, anger, dysfunction and rudeness — much in evidence on the Web — is not silence. No, those afflictions are best combatted by the individuals themselves who would display them. So, speak up respectfully, disagree or not, and help build a community of other ordinary citizens that is robust, competent and creative.

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Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at btwatson20@gmail.com.