The comment sections of online articles offer a variety of contributions, ranging from bigotry to thoughtful insights. Of course, the purpose of comment sections is to foster productive discussion on the article at hand, which, unfortunately, sometimes does not happen. Different publications are considering ways to referee discussions on their sites, which raises questions concerning freedom of speech. However, one solution–a new software by NRKbeta that administers a quiz on the subject matter of the article before users can comment–has the potential to improve existing comment section policies.
To address the issue of unruly comment sections, different publications have adopted a variety of policies. For example, Motherboard–the Science and Technology section of Vice media–has done away with their comment section entirely, and encourages readers to engage with the editorial board through letters. Politico takes a less extreme approach, and simply removes comments that are profane, abusive, or illegal, like threats or plagiarism. A fairly original method is being tested by The Seattle Times where they have private groups for paying subscribers where they can debate without interruption by Internet trolls.
Regardless of the policy pursued, publications should be committed to protecting freedom of speech, while also promoting productive conversation and discouraging echo chambers. Failing to adhere to the principles of freedom of speech would be hypocritical on behalf of the free media, and it is a publication’s responsibility to make sure the conversations it creates are productive.
The three policies mentioned differ in the degree to which they respect these principles. Motherboard’s policy, for instance, is the most problematic. Of course, respecting freedom of speech does not mean any site has to give individuals a platform to spew nonsense. However, Motherboard’s policy of not letting anyone share their thoughts or criticism on the article page, but only through the arduous process of letter-writing, is not in the spirit of fostering conversation as it occurs in the digital age. Instead, the policy is likely to shelter the publication and its readers from differing opinions and help create echo chambers. A similar problem is found with The Seattle Times’ approach. A private comment section restricted solely to paying subscribers has the potential to generate mostly homogenous opinions, and create echo chambers rather than productive conversation. Politico’s policy is probably the most reasonable of the three. It respects free speech and diverse conversation within reasonable limits. But, the policy can be improved upon with respect to fostering productive conversation.
Useful conversation on a subject requires informed opinions, as well as enough disagreement to create a clash of ideas. On the latter point, the most Politico can do to facilitate diversity of opinion is to open up the conversation to readers on the webpage. When it comes to generating more educated opinions, NRKbeta’s software can help. Administering a brief quiz to people on the article they are commenting on ensures that those frequenting the the website have at least read the article. Thus, the software will help weed out Internet trolls and may even help mature people’s opinions before they comment. It is possible that once reading the article, the would-be commenter realizes they were wrong or refines their opinion, sparing the comment section from their nonsense. The software could also potentially take the edge off of more aggressive comments–taking the extra 30 seconds on the quiz means an extra 30 seconds to think an opinion over, and likely moderate it.
Some may argue that the software amounts to a form of censorship–however, this is unreasonable. Making sure users have read the article before they comment is not an ideological test, and presents a barrier to the exercise of free speech only insofar as it requires people to learn something about the topic at hand before they speak. Far from constituting censorship, the software has the potential to return some degree of civility and productivity to online discussions.
Comment sections can be an instrument for productive discussion and civilized discourse. If people are made to read what they are commenting on, it will create more informed discussion, which can make conversations genuinely useful. Sites can now do this, to some degree, by using NRKbeta’s software. Giving up on discussion forums or closing them off to outside opinions is against the spirit of free speech and creates echo chambers. The Internet has the potential to foster a public good through productive conversation, and publications have the potential, if not the responsibility to help that conversation flourish.