Online comment sections are generally regarded as a miasma of ignorance, malice, and outright lies which makes one wonder why so many publications think it necessary to have them. They may have started as a noble experiment, but the forums quickly degenerated into a platform for socially inept malcontents whose rantings are too poorly sourced or too badly articulated to meet editorial standards. In some cases, publications like the Arizona Daily Star have made too-little-too-late moves to rein in the excesses, but editors generally seem reluctant to take responsibility for providing a respectable platform for hate speech and personal attacks.
The Tucson Weekly actually does a pretty respectable job of policing its online comment section (In the interests of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that I am a paid occasional contributor to the Weekly). In some cases the editorial staff takes the time to respond to the posts, particularly when the comments become personal. The exchanges between editor Dan Gibson and a local cosplayer who calls himself “Colt Cassidy,” for example, are sometimes interesting.
A recent article by Linda Ray generated an interesting post from the cryptically named “Ronsonit” which illustrates another problem with online comments:
Only those who comply with Immigration Law should be given consideration when the discussion on Immigration Reform takes place. Anyone knowingly commiting a crime in the process of attempting to “Immigrate” will select and choose the laws they will obey as Permanent Residents and make Lousy Citizens. Get in the back of the Line of people scrambling to join US. You have no “Birthright” other than to contribute to earn your position in this Society.
All right, so this guy definitely needs to go back to grade school and revisit his lessons about capitalization, and his post is basically boilerplate anti-immigration reform rhetoric, but at least he is clear and articulate, and he never makes vaguely racist remarks about local elected officials, which is more than can be said for too much of what we see online. The real problem is that the comment is not in response to an article about immigration reform, but to a review of the Polyphonic Spree’s recent show at Club Congress. As near as can be figured, the writer saw the word “immigration” in the article (and perhaps the word “dreamer,” even though this term did not even refer to the DREAM Act in this context) and his anti-immigrant gland started producing the hormone that made him write this generic response before he even read the piece.
A more likely, and somewhat disturbing, possibility is that such comments are the result of so-called “sock puppets” who mindlessly post canned rhetoric in response to web alerts about certain keywords appearing somewhere or another. These may even be generated by software rather than actual human beings.
Defenders of online comment sections say that they provide an important forum for discussion, but as the response to Linda’s article shows, there is a real possibility that they can become dominated by automated bots, cynical political operatives or trolling cranks rather than concerned citizens with a real stake in the community, which makes their value in this regard questionable.