The Comment Section's Sway on Online Civility

Sep 1, 2016

"This is a great article, just don't read the comment section" is a warning and rebuke sent in emails and attached to links throughout the Internet. But when news organizations like NPR and the Quad City Times decide to shut their comment sections down, an outcry claiming the loss of the Internet's public square usually follows. Racheal Ruble, Lecturer in the Communication Studies Program at Iowa State University, says the need to comment online comes, oddly enough, from a sense of community.

"We want to stand up for our side, for our perspective, for the others that believe the same things that we do. Sometimes that will give us a little more push or a little bit more oompf behind thinking, "Okay, I really need to say this, because I need to get my point out there, I need to make sure that my perspective and the perspective of the people who agree with me, is being presented.'"

The Des Moines Register specifically changed its comment policy for Rekha Basu’s columns after the subjects of her work were harassed by anonymous internet strangers. Now that people are required to log in through Facebook to add their voices to the conversation, Basu is the main target for the attacks.

“It shakes you up to be spoken of in very degrading terms for all the world to see. I really had to have some serious conversations with myself and say, ‘What am I doing this for? Is it to get nothing but praise all the time and to have my name in headlines? Or is it because I really want to change the world with journalism?’”

She says that, harsh as it may sometimes be, she values the back-and-forth she has with her readers.

“If I’m not willing to put myself out there in a way that people can come back and criticize me, well then I shouldn’t have this job. That’s really kind of what it came down to, and also the fact that I get to take my pot shots three times a week in my column, and people have a right to respond angrily if they’re angry. I just—they have to do it within certain limitations of language and profanity and also prejudice.”

Autumn Phillips, Editor of the Quad City Times, says as much as readers should have a place to air their grievances, the ratio of worthwhile comments to unproductive hatred made it simply not worth it.

“Some of the things we were seeing was the name-calling… there was some cruelty there. There were legitimate things questioning judgment or questioning the journalism or suggesting things that were left out or biased, but then there’s the name-calling and there’s body shaming, that gets to you.”

On this Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe talks with Ruble, Basu, and Phillips.