Last September, the online version of Popular Science magazine made a startling announcement: it was shutting down its comments section. Not redesigning it, not moderating it, simply shutting it down. Why? Because online “trollish” comments were doing more than distracting readers from worthwhile discussion; they were also changing readers’ belief in scientific fact.
Trolls & The Problems They Bring
Popular Science looked to, well, science, to prove its point. It cited a study out of the University of Wisconsin. In the study, researchers asked over a thousand participants their opinion on nanotechnology. The participants were then asked to read a fictitious blog post discussing nanotechnology. After the blog post, some study participants read uncivil comments; others read civil comments. The researchers compared how participants felt about nanotechnology before reading the comments, and how they felt after reading the comments. Those who read the civil comments felt the same way about nanotechnology both before and after reading the comments. But those who read the uncivil comments, the trolling, rude, “you’re an idiot, no, you’re an idiot” comments? Those participants had a far more polarized understanding of nanotechnology. In other words, the uncivil comments changed the participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. Wrote one of the researchers in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”
According to Popular Science, the vitriolic comments on their website were not simply rude and distracting. Instead, by viciously “debating” settled scientific topics, commenters were “undermining bedrock scientific doctrine … beneath our own stories.” That was enough for the magazine. In September 2013, they exited the comments game completely.
Vicious online commenters are not news. You’d be hardpressed to find any mainstream news article that doesn’t have a dozen or more tangential threads full of insults, threats, and dismissive attitudes toward anything contrary. And though commenters are often told not to “feed the trolls,” many take to engaging these uncivil commenters, thereby making those irrelevant conversations the most popular and commented on ones on a post.
And the issue isn’t simply one of incivility. The related issue is, what I like to call, “Family Guy Syndrome.” Family Guy is a Fox animated television show where all the jokes are deliberately, intentionally offensive to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender – anything is fair game with the Family Guy comedy team. And while this might work on a 30 minute television show written and vetted by trained writers, they certainly aren’t jokes one would or should use in daily life. And yet, these are the types of comments that we see online. In posts about, say, the President of the United States, or Michael Sam, or Marissa Mayer, there will always be an offensive comment about race or sexuality or gender. When another commenter calls the original commenter out for the offensive comment, the response from the original commenter (and others) is often, “Lighten up. It was just a joke.” It appears that we’ve become more than just online commenters; we’ve become stand-up comedians.
So there we are, lost in an online commenting morass where genuine, incisive, commentary is often buried under uncivil trolls, offensive “jokes” and offers to make $765/hour working from home. (The last isn’t uncivil, just annoying). We want to create an open forum for discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Yet what can we do when that open forum is under threat by those who, rather than adding substance to the discussion, add extraneous, and dangerous, noise?
Well, you can do what Popular Science did and eliminate the comments entirely, directing users instead to comment via social media channels. You can do what Huffington Post and Google did and require verified accounts to post comments. You can even do what Gawker Media is trying to do and have users decide what articles, and comments, get featured on their website.
Each of those might work well if you are an organization trying to control the content on your website. But what if you’re an individual trying to get yourself heard in your online community? What can you do about incivility on your Facebook account, on an online message board, or on your attorney review site?
After two years traveling the state talking with attorneys about addressing incivility in their practice, I’ve come to realize that the skills are the same when addressing incivility online. Ignore it, address it, or report it, but don’t contribute to it.
Here’s an example. A former client anonymously comments on your law firm or legal practice online. You can let the comment stand and hope other reviews of your practice supersede. You can reply civilly to the comment, explaining, with privilege and confidentiality still in place, why you have a different perspective on your work than the commenter does. You can reach out to the person individually and address the person’s concerns offline. In certain egregious cases, you can even report the commenter to a higher authority (the website administrator). But what shouldn’t you do? Respond in the same uncivil manner, leading to a quickly unraveling situation where both of you angrily talk past each other on a public forum for the world, including other clients, to see.
In a perfect world, a civil response will defuse vitriol and keep the trolls under the bridge where they belong. In this world, it doesn’t always work like that. But let’s start trying, today. Otherwise we might see other websites take the Popular Science route and shut online communities down permanently.