Internet Comments - Freedom of Speech or Freedom to Abuse and Subvert Free Speech?

Yours Truly
Yours Truly

Introduction

The Internet has become a wonderful addition to the world's informational resources and provides an opportunity for all of us to exercise that most basic of our human rights - the right to free speech.

... in theory ...

The Internet can also be a vehicle whereby anyone can promote quite horrendously violent views, where lies can go unchallenged, and where, by sheer perseverance, an individual can impose their views upon others.

This page is devoted to one particular aspect of the Internet - the 'Comment' - which, depending on your point of view could be described as a modern day phenomenon of free speech and democratic expression, or an open opportunity for bigotry, and libellous browbeating.

N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops

The Internet Comment - Why Does It Exist ?

So many web sites have a section somewhere and in some form, usually at the bottom of a page, where visitors can post their points of view, their questions and answers, suggestions or criticisms about the site or the article. 'YouTube', 'Twitter', 'Amazon', 'Facebook' - they all have them - and so do most blogs and personal pages. Why? Comments can serve several functions. On a review site such as 'IMDb' and on retail sites such as 'Amazon', they provide a means for others to share their opinions - anyone wishing to research an entertainment, a product or a service can read not just one or two professional critiques, but dozens or even hundreds of reviews by ordinary members of the public. On Internet forums, clearly the need for public input exists to create a debate - a valuable opportunity for everybody to participate. And the only reason for the existence of many sites like 'WikiAnswers' and 'Ask.com' is to receive questions and replies from the public, and in this, they provide a valuable service. But all sorts of other web pages also feature Comments sections which may bring benefits to the page or its author:

  • Commenting gives the article author a sense of how the people are responding to his/her article. Without feedback, one doesn't necessarily know if any traffic is fleeting, soon to move on to other pages, or whether there is genuine interest in the article. And constructive criticism may reveal ways to improve the article.
  • Replies to questions raised by the author may well enhance the article. A debate which is sparked may improve understanding of the issues it discusses.
  • One has to visit the page in order to comment, and if a debate is initiated, one may have to visit several times in order to participate. Comments can therefore increase the number of page views and this may in turn increase revenue from the page. Paradoxically therefore, even negative comments may increase the success of the page.
  • Finally, let's face it, we all like to be flattered and encouraged. Most blogs or web pages are relatively uncontroversial, and if they are on a social network page where only 'friends' or 'followers' can comment, then the feedback may well be supportive. If the first comments on my web pages had been negative rather than positive, then I might well have given up Internet writing before I ever got started. It's very rewarding for the spirit to receive complimentary comments.

For all these reasons, most websites and web writers positively encourage feedback.

Deindividuation (1) - the Issue of Anonymity

  • 'With commenters able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, the blog and chat room have become forums for hatred and bile' Tim Adams in 'The Observer' [3].

Many Internet writers and commentators employ pseudonyms or 'user-names'. There are sound reasons for doing so. For example in some parts of the world, without this anonymity an Internet writer may well be persecuted by a repressive regime. Even in a free nation, ordinary people can attract undesirable attention and may well feel a need to protect their personal details from fraudsters and spammers. I myself have a user-name; I write as 'Greensleeves Hubs' on this site. I chose to do so initially because I felt I might be embarrassed if my writing was poor, or if I revealed my innermost thoughts and my friends or relatives were to read them on line. I also felt that if I tackled sensitive subjects I might be open to harassment. There are valid reasons for anonymity.

But anonymity is also blamed by experts for much of the debased commenting on forums and blogs. It removes a sense of responsibility for the words that we write. We are no longer answerable for them if nobody knows who we are. This has been recognised since long before the Internet was created. Philosopher Arthur Schoepenhauer said in the 19th century:

  • 'Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality.' [3]

He argued that no newspaper article should be anonymous. Obliging a writer to include their name would:

  • 'restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue.' [3]

It is known that the more anonymous an individual can be, the more they are likely to ignore social norms, resulting in more abusive, violent attitudes. There's even a name for the phenomenon in psychology - it's called 'deindividuation'. And in 1985, a deindividuation study by psychologist David Dodd showed that as many as 36% of people - when freed by anonymity from the repercussions of their actions - were likely to act in a more anti-social manner than normal. On the Internet anonymous commenters believe they can get away with anything [4].

So What Is the Problem with Internet Comments

  • 'For some people, the most interesting way to participate in on-line discourse is to kick holes in the conversation. Others have a sense of entitlement that leads them to believe that their having an opinion means the rest of us are obliged to listen to it.' [1]

The problem with Internet comments is that it's just too easy for bullies and extremists, self-propagandists and spammers to abuse the facility. Once upon a time, if you wanted to make your voice heard (even a moderate voice) you had to go out and attend a meeting and face the public, or you had to make the effort to put pen to paper and then post a letter. The time taken to do these things meant that you had time to consider your words and think about whether your method of expressing them was appropriate. Only more thoughtful members of society would perhaps take that time.

Today it's very different. Anyone with access to a computer can say what they like without any thought for its merit, or for whom they might offend. When it comes to making comments, everyone is equal - but that doesn't just mean that the common man is the equal of those with power; it also means that the idiot or the bully is the equal of those with more thoughtful consideration of their views. They can argue without any evidence, without balanced judgement, and without care or consideration for those they attack. And they can do all of these things without any repercussion if they can choose - as is very often the case - to remain anonymous.

The consequence of this is that far from being a pillar of democracy and free speech, the Comments section can become a bear pit of unthinking bigotry in which analysis of facts and objective reason can be swamped, either deliberately, or simply by the nature of the medium. And it's easy to understand how it can happen.

As a rule, less than 1% of those who read a page, will leave a comment [2]. And on pages which discuss highly controversial issues or people, those who have the strongest views are the most motivated to leave a comment. That may be quite reasonable, but of course it also means that the range of feedback is not proportionate to the range of views in society. They will often be more extreme than the average view in society. In addition to this misrepresentation of the true concensus, Internet comments fail the democracy test or any concept of constructive discussion, in many other ways.

Any site which opens the gates to all communication, also opens the gates to people who are not really interested in the points made, the evidence presented, or any reasonable human interaction. Some will insist on having their say even when their point is based upon the flimsiest of knowledge. Some will have points they wish to make to the entire world, and they'll insist on making them in a Comments section even if the article is about something entirely different. Some will be deliberately provocative and offensive, just because they can be without repercussions.

Not only can Comments sections lead to irrelevant or anti-social comments; they can also put off writers of serious and considered intent from contributing either to the feedback or to the writing of any article which tackles sensitive subject matter. Every writer will very quickly become aware that writing on certain topics is likely lead to a backlash of hostile vitriol. They may consider it just isn't worth the hassle.

And even when feedback is sincere and constructive, the merit may still be limited. Thousands of people contributing their own slant on a topic means that Comments sections can become a mere list of disjointed ideas. Points made - particularly when humour is intended - can be misinterpreted in the absence of visual body-language cues. And feedback which contains unattributed evidence may be valueless.

Deindividuation (2) - Crowd Behaviour

  • 'Crowd behaviour is unanimous, emotional and intellectually weak - Anonymity leads to primitive and hedonistic behaviour' Gustav Le Bon [2].

In the blue capsule above I focus on anonymity, and how it can produce the phenomenon of deindividuation. But anonymity is not just about remaining unidentified. There is also the anonymity of being just one inconspicuous face in the crowd - and crowd behaviour can also lead to deindividuation, as the French sociologist Gustav Le Bon made clear in 1895 in his short treatise 'The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind' in which he focused on both anonymity and the disturbing nature of crowds [2].

The Internet is a modern tool. But the ability of a small minority to twist the truth, disrupt civilised behaviour and drag the unthinking along in their wake, is certainly not a modern phenomenon. Terms like 'rabble rouser' and 'lynch mob' have a long and inglorious history, as individuals have sought to turn a crowd away from normal social reason to behave in an anti-social manner. And the crowd is often all too willing to be turned. Everything from race riots to violent demonstrations and marches, to football crowd abuse and gang violence are encouraged by deindividuation and the anonymity of crowd behaviour.

But in the days before the Internet, it required individuals or small groups in the street to bully and coerce others to follow them. And it required courage to stand up and expose oneself to potential opposition or to the authority of the law. That's no longer necessary. The Internet can be used to say anything however irresponsible. It can (and has been) used to organise all of the worst elements of crowd behaviour such as riots and fights, to persecute individuals, and to spread disinformation.

Freedom of Speech or the Freedom to Abuse ?

Mic Wright, technology writer at 'The Telegraph', says:

  • 'Comments are like toxic waste buried under the foundations of an article and irradiating all rational debate with ignorance and aggression' [2].

Jesse Singhal, a writer on 'The Daily Beast' believes:

  • 'You can have a fully democratic commenting space, or you can have intelligent conversations - but, generally speaking, you can’t have both' [5].

The issue of commenting concerns many in the world of Internet writing and those who desire open but fair democratic debate. It does however divide people who may feel equally passionately about free speech, yet who think differently about the need to control (or censor?) commenting.

An increasing number of journalists, website administrators and web page compilers believe that the standard of on-line debate has deteriorated over the years, and that something needs to be done by all who own web sites or write web pages [2][5].

According to Tim Adams, writing in 'The Observer', Internet discussions have a tendency to become more and more polarised and extreme as mild prejudices become exaggerated and one post tries to outdo another. Each time the feedback becomes more extreme, so this extremism becomes more normal and 'acceptable' [3].

Of course extremism is a matter of opinion - those whom I would call extreme may regard themselves as moderate in the context of the country in which they live or the subject under discussion. But if 'extremism' can be a matter of opinion, 'abuse' certainly shouldn't be.

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, believes strongly in some policed restraint over abusive comments, encouraged in part at least by the case of the Internet technology blogger, Kathy Sierra, who got involved in a discussion / disagreement on-line. Subsequently she was targeted by an anonymous hate campaign posting gross images of her on-line, as well as death threats on various sites. She later wrote on her own blog:

  • 'I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same' [3].

Of course abuse at its most unpleasant may become a matter of policing not merely by the Internet but by the police themselves, as the consequences for the victims of abuse and/or lies may be of a seriousness which makes it a criminal matter. But the broadest concern (and the main concern of this article) is the use of comments and feedback to subvert free speech, intelligent debate or democracy - the very thing which Comments sections are supposed to encourage:

  • 'In the early days of the Internet, there was hope that the unprecedented tool for global communication would lead to thoughtful sharing and discussion on its most popular sites. A decade and a half later, the very idea is laughable. It didn't happen.' Nick Denton of 'Gawker' [6].

Extremism, abuse, demolishment of constructive debate - whatever one's personal concern, most who write regularly on the Internet, or who decide to tackle difficult or controversial subjects, will recognise that there are problems. The various types of problems and the worst offenders will be reviewed in the next two white sections of text below, followed by possible solutions which can be tried.

Deindividuation (3) - the Lethal Combination of Anonymity and Crowd Behaviour on the Web

  • 'The utopian tendency is to believe that social media pluralises and diversifies opinion; most of the evidence suggests that it is just as likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism' [3].

In the two blue capsules above, I have raised the subject of the peculiar effects that anonymity and crowd dynamics can have on the behaviour of an individual. Both influence behaviour on the Internet. Anonymity is clear cut in its effects. But in forums and debates the nature of the crowd who follow the debate can also influence. I have found that if people are broadly in agreement with me, I can feel much bolder and more strident in the statements I make. I think I am quite 'moderate' on most issues, but all other people, including those with extreme, anti-social views, will feel a similar sense of boldness. They will say things on forums and passionate lobby sites which they would never dream of saying if they were accountable by name, or if they were not part of the crowd. This toxic combination of anonymity and crowd mentality can in certain circumstances make the Internet a dangerous and vicious place to write.

Wikipedia Definition of Deindividuation

The Wide Range of Really Bad Comments

  • 'Due to the Internet's inherent anonymity, normally average, well-adjusted individuals who would never even dream of drawing attention to themselves don't hesitate to spew angry, pointless, insulting rants to the world in general when commenting on the Internet.' 'Cracked.com' [7].
  • Comments, at least on popular websites, aren't conversations. They’re cacophonous shouting matches.' John Gruber of 'Daring Fireball' [2].

The types of people who post on web sites in ways which undermine the value of the 'Comment' facility are many. Some will be quite deliberately antagonistic, some are looking for personal gain, and some simply lack full awareness of the consequences of their posts. What kind of posts should never be allowed to see the light of day? More or less in decreasing order of importance, they include:

1) Personal Abuse: According to one study at the University of Arizona, up to 20% of all Internet posts involve name-calling [5]. Of course this is only an average - the percentage varies across different sites. On some sites almost every comment will be filled with vitriol against somebody. On other sites, reason prevails, and this is what we should all aim for. There's a name for the worst offenders; they are called trolls - commenters who are deliberately offensive or controversial in their comments, even if it means going off-topic to be so. They'll name-call, they'll make personal attacks, and they'll present their 'views' in the most extreme possible language. They want attention, and nothing pleases them more than to upset their victim. So the best way to disappoint them is not to respond. Better by far to just delete them.

2) Spamming: We all know spam. In comments sections spammers may write for one reason only; they have no real interest whatsoever in the subject which is under discussion but it offers them a chance to promote their own pages, or to advertise some service or product. Basically they are only commenting in order to take readers away from the page.

3) Wandering Comments: Comments which wander far from the theme of the article may need to be curbed, though that's very much up to the author / moderator of the article. On some pages only a tiny fraction of the comments actually address the subject of the article. Others skate all around that subject as commenters try to move the theme to suit their own agenda. This may be innocent (it's quite reasonable in feedback to cover points which may have been overlooked by the author of the article) or it may be a deliberate choice to move a debate from a rational opinion to an irrational or extreme view.

4) Feedback Flooding: Some readers will flood the Comments section with their own passionately held views. I have seen this in action. No sooner is a comment posted than one of these people will post back, often at greater length. Sometimes in a Comments section one or two correspondents may provide as much as a third or a half of all the feedback received. Often they may end up writing more words than the original author of the article. I've seen pages when one person has contributed as many as ten comments in rapid succession - one after the other - covering every aspect of the subject including many not included in the article. I've also seen pages in which the original author has felt the need to terminate comment posting because they simply lack the time to deal with all the posts from a handful of individuals.

5) Flame Wars: These are people who use a comments section to conduct their own private little war. Usually it is not pre-meditated, but it develops when one person antagonises another, the second person reciprocates, and from that moment on, both insist on having the last word. It's easy to understand how it can happen! In themselves, the altercations may be sincerely held opinions, but the argument often tends to take the conversation far away from the subject matter of the original article.

6) Repetitive comments: Through no fault of their own, some commenters will merely echo what previous contributors have written. This is especially so on much discussed and controversial issues where certain arguments may get raised time and time again, and disputed time and time again. Slogans and mantras will get passed round between advocates of particular causes and then repeated ad infinitum on forums and on lobby sites.

7) Comments which don't contribute to debate: Some commenters will submit one or two line entries which don't really add anything significant. On many pages such comments may be fine. Indeed they may be welcome, friendly messages of support. On a serious forum of debate however, such messages are an irrelevance to be bypassed by those who are looking for an exchange of constructive opinions.

The Worst Offenders

  • 'Today, through the marvel of modern technology, anyone can post exactly what they are thinking on the Internet at any time. The downside to this? Anyone can post exactly what they are thinking on the Internet.' 'Cracked.com' [7].

Almost any site which allows everybody to post their unfiltered views may at times be subjected to degraded and unpleasant commenting, but some are of course more vulnerable than others.

All news sites and political forums are obvious targets for those who wish to post aggressive or extreme views. They are not the preserve of one side in any debate because extremism on one side tends to breed an equal and opposite reaction from the other side; 'Buzzfeed' highlights comments on both conservative ('FoxNation') and liberal ('Huffington Post') sites [8]. On some topics however, one body of opinion - usually the one which feels itself under most threat - may post particularly vitriolic views. Which topics are we talking about? Crime and punishment, gun control, social welfare, abortion and race issues are among the subjects guaranteed to bring out the trolls. Faith (strong beliefs) and conspiracy theories (cherished beliefs) are two more topics on which a simple question or statement in a forum post can lead to endless discourses by those who feel that they have to promote their opinion, or state that their opinion is, in fact - a 'fact'. On all of these types of subject the worst offenders of all are likely to be the lobby sites where the crowd mentality described above comes to the fore. People who support the lobby are surrounded by like-minded individuals, and it seems anything - no matter how extreme - which is favourable to the cause is likely to be accepted as legitimate comment.

Of course it is not just serious news forums or lobby sites which can be a problem. The most trivial of subjects can provoke truly grotesque comments. Celebrity gossip sites may be vulnerable to vicious commenters; if the singing / acting / lifestyle of the celebrity isn't liked by one of these types, then the celebrity is apparently fair game to be abused and name-called. Some may argue that celebrities are strong enough to withstand such attacks; maybe some are and some aren't, but cyber-bullying is never justified. And of course it isn't just celebrities. 'Ordinary' people may also be attacked, and the consequences may then be far more serious. Comments on social network sites such as 'Facebook' and 'Twitter' have led to victims - teenagers in particular - committing suicide as a result of hate campaigns and gossip. And even if comments are tempered on these sites by the need to hold named accounts, there's nothing to stop people finding somewhere else to post anonymously if they wish to conduct a vendetta against an individual.

In the opinion of some, the worst of all sites is 'YouTube'. Critics of YouTube say that comments here are among the least intelligent, most bigoted and abusive [2][5][8].

  • 'YouTube' is home to the elite imperial guard of internet idiocy.' Mic Wright [2].
  • 'YouTube' is a comment disaster on an unprecedented scale. 'YouTube' comments read like gibberish and don't really seem connected to one another. Content ranges from typed grunts to racist sentence fragments to nonsensical homophobic outbursts.' John Herrman [8].

Fortunately, nobody visits 'YouTube' to read comments - they visit to watch videos.

Strength of Opinion Can Alter the Opinions of Others

  • 'Since the beginning of the Internet, comments sections - which combine our love for barstool pontification with the allure of instant, worldwide publication - have always been a sort of digital Wild West, in which leathery cowboys are replaced by pasty people with names like RedDog1974 slouched before glowing screens in darkened rooms, shooting first and thinking later, if at all' Jesse Singhal, 'The Daily Beast' [5].

An interesting experiment was recently conducted by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They set up a phony Internet page which reviewed an equally phony new technological product called 'nanosilver'. 'Nanosilver' was said to offer great technological benefits as well as carrying some risks. They then created two sets of comments to accompany the product news - one set providing a range of opinions thoughtfully expressed, the other providing a similar range of views, expressed much more aggressively. Then a panel of readers were given the product review, and just one set of comments to read. Subsequently the unsuspecting readers were asked for their opinions of the product. Those who had read the more aggressive comments were more polarised in their views, and much more likely to be influenced into developing concerns about 'nanosilver' [9].

That is extremely depressing. It suggests that passion and strength of opinion weighs more heavily than thoughtful reason in influencing people. It's not really new however as I've noticed the same phenomenon in television debates. Irrespective of whatever subject is under discussion, a politician or activist who makes a stirring and confident speech (it doesn't matter whether it makes any sense) gets the applause, whilst the more restrained and moderate voice tends to be received politely but quietly.

Perhaps therefore, it is not surprising that the unpleasantest Internet commenting is sometimes favoured over reason.

My Experiences

Recently I wrote a web page on the HubPages site about gun control. I was already aware from visits to gun lobby forums that this was a sensitive issue, and that it may attract quite a number of aggressive comments. Of course on a neutral site like this, the feedback was much less extreme than on forums devoted to the subject, but I did find myself being slightly overwhelmed, and for the first time on HubPages I had to delete a few comments. On another page by a different author more than 500 comments were received, many from the same few respondents who kept their comments coming thick and fast; no sooner was one post received, than a response came in, frequently irrelevant, inaccurate or repetitive. Reluctantly, the author of that article eventually decided to terminate all posting as the feedback was becoming unmanageable.

However, it is my visits to some Internet forums and lobby sites and the reading of feedback on some social network sites which have really encouraged me to write this page. The nature of some who comment is little short of appalling.

The Hubpages Website and Comment Policy

I write articles on the HubPages site - an excellent facility for those who wish to compile web pages without the hassle or the technical know-how to create their own web sites, or who lack the time to administer such a site. One of the options on HubPages is to allow comments on the article or 'hub'. Feedback can be given by anyone who happens upon the page - you just have to type a name or nickname and then you can comment.

The author of the hub can choose to allow submitted comments to appear immediately (but with the option to delete them later if s/he wishes to), or alternatively can review comments before they have been made public. On almost all my hubs, I have allowed comments to appear immediately. The pages - film reviews, travel guides, science articles etc - have generally been non-controversial, so comments have tended to be pleasant. On just one hub (at the time of writing) I have reserved the right to review comments before they appear in public.

The concerns which I am discussing are not hugely relevant to HubPages, because the site has the feel of a community, which means that the majority of posts are from members who are supportive, and who may well be approved 'followers'. This creates an encouraging atmosphere, in which most members act responsibly, hopefully setting a good example to all who visit and want to post comments - the social norms of the residents on a website, just as in a real neighbourhood, can influence the behaviour of any newcomers [1][5]. As a result, HubPages is something of a refreshingly tranquil haven in an Internet ocean of raging storms. However, even here on HubPages, there are topics calculated to bring out the rage of those in opposing camps - topics such as religion, conspiracy theories and climate change.

On HubPages the staff behind the scenes play only a limited role in administration of comments, identifying obvious spam but generally allowing the final say to the author of the hub. This is fairly manageable because usually postings do not run into the hundreds, let alone the thousands, and the optional control which the hub writer can exercise should enable him/her to keep things civilised and constructive.

What Can Be Done on Major Forum Sites?

  • 'Without moderators - things would get ugly fast. The stuff that we reject is pretty virulent. People try to get the most disgusting comments through us.' Erin Wright, 'New York Times' [5].

On major web sites thousands of comments may be received every day on different pages. The administrators of these sites must decide whether to allow a free-for-all when it comes to feedback, or to control the facility. The general consensus seems to be that the free-for-all is on its way out [5]. One possibility is to ban all comments, and that is an option increasingly exercised by some writers such as John Gruber on 'Daring Fireball' [2] and Andrew Sullivan at 'The Daily Beast' [5]. But that may seem unnecessarily restrictive. If a more liberal form of control is to be tried then it must be done either through a team of moderators, or through some method which detects and spotlights comments which disobey the rules. Various methods have indeed been suggested and tried.

Some, like the 'New York Times' and 'National Public Radio' (NPR), have introduced moderation systems which give preferential treatment to commenters of proven quality. These may be automatically approved, but all other feedback will be checked before it is published [5][10]. According to one of the 'New York Times' moderators, about 70% of comments are passed, whilst the rest are deleted. To be approved, feedback has to be relevant, free from abuse, and coherent [5].

Another solution is to have a voting system to enable 'best' or 'most interesting' comments to rise to the top of the pile, whilst poorer comments get buried and unseen. This approach has been adopted by 'Reddit', the news and entertainment site with user-led content [5][10].

Threaded replies to comments may also be helpful as a method of linking related issues together in the Comments section and making it less disjointed. Threaded comments are now found on many sites - they don't necessarily lead to the removal of bad comments, but at least they make it easier to find relevant feedback.

'Metafilter', an on-line blog site, adopts a powerful control on commenters by laying down guidelines. Anyone who wishes to comment has a pay a small fee. If they then disobey the rules, they are banned without a refund - a tough policy certainly, but perhaps it is necessary to maintain reasoned feedback [2].

Increasingly administrators are trying to reduce anonymity by insisting that all comments should be accompanied by a real name or at least an identity on a social network such as 'FaceBook' The thinking is that if people can't remain anonymous, they are more likely to be restrained in their utterances [7].

What Can Be Done By All Who Compile Web Pages?

What about sites like HubPages where articles are written by individual authors? On sites like this, most control is rightly in the hands of the author who merely wishes for their feedback to remain constructive. These authors have to administer their own pages, review feedback and delete if necessary, applying their own rules to their own work. Usually no control at all is necessary, but in those rare instances where it is, I think the most practical answer is the simplest. Anybody who promotes a 'discussion' by introducing a Comments facility at the end of the web page should also act to take control of the discussion. This is in the interest both of the author if s/he wishes for the page to retain credibility, and also to genuine sincere correspondents who may find their views overwhelmed or subjected to abuse by others.

On all of my web pages except one (the gun control page), I have to date allowed all comments to be published before review. On the gun control page, I have exercised the right to review comments before they appear. I may follow that practice on other controversial pages. I may also on occasion control comments in other ways. There are several control possibilities which web page compilers may consider:

  1. Limit all correspondents to 3 or 5 comments (or another appropriate number of your choosing). This will not only help to prevent individuals from dominating and overwhelming the page with their own views. It will also make people who wish to contribute several points rather more selective and judicious in the comments they make.
  2. Limit the length of feedback. Long comments are time-consuming to read and respond to, and they may tend to swamp other shorter replies. Anyone who scrolls through is likely to miss short pertinent viewpoints buried amidst long rambling comments.
  3. Ensure that the comments stay broadly on track. There is a possible home for wide-ranging discussions on forums. Whether the author of an article wishes his article to be turned into a debate is for the author alone to decide.
  4. Remove repetitive feedback which covers exactly the same ground as has been covered in other posts.
  5. Avoid personal exchanges which show signs of developing into a 'flame war'. It's all too easy for a Comments section on a controversial issue to become the focus of a personal argument between two people.
  6. Delete abusive comments and all other comments which include unnecessary swearing - self evident.

All these measures are workable on web pages with a single administrator (author) and relatively few contributors to the Comments section. I am not of course saying that all or any of these measures are necessary for every web article. I am merely saying they are options to be considered to keep control of any controversial discussion that develops. Doug Merrill in a comment in 'The Atlantic' provides the analogy of a front yard which, if neglected, can easily become a bed of weeds:

  • 'Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden' [1]

But I must emphasise - and this is most important - none of these controls should be used to censor genuine debate or obliterate all opposing viewpoints. If an author does not wish to hear alternative points of view expressed, then s/he must make this very clear to their readers. If there is a genuine wish for an exchange of views, then almost all points of view should be acceptable, so long as they are written in a civil manner. I am not interested in censoring points of view - merely in keeping debates civil, relevant and constructive within the parameters of the theme of the article.

Keeping Things in Some Sort of Proportion

Let's not be a killjoy. I LOVE getting comments on my Internet pages, and if the pages are non-controversial pages of information, well - clever thoughtful comments are great but it also does the ego a world of good just to receive nice flattering messages. I also don't mind jokey comments, comments which ask questions and comments which are just friendly chatty remarks. The site I write on - HubPages - has a good community atmosphere, and comments are one way in which that community atmosphere is expressed amongst members. I'm not on a mission to ban comments!

My concern is those pages which tackle serious and controversial subjects, and pages which discuss real people who have a right to be treated in a civilised way. Even if the article handles things in a civil and responsible manner, the Comments section must also do so.

Conclusions

Internet freedom of speech for all of us can be tremendously beneficial to society; but it can often also be a destructive and unpleasant source of malice. This aspect of the Internet is increasingly emerging as a concern of the criminal courts. There have been high profile cases in the recent past in which contributors, notably on 'Twitter' and 'Facebook', have written posts about public figures which have been libelous. Some of these contributors have fallen foul of national laws and been convicted for their comments. Increasingly, those who abuse the right of free speech to perpetrate libel and to encourage violence, may be subjected to legal action [2].

However such cases are still a rarity (and rightly so). The vast majority feel free to write whatever they like on the Internet. In these circumstances it is up to the sites themselves to lay down rules, and the responsibility of article and web page compilers to maintain some reasoned control of comments.

In that way, the Internet will indeed become what it can be - a resource for civilised discussion, thoughtful contemplation, and rational debate of all shades of opinion from extreme left to extreme right.

I know that there are those who believe that freedom of speech requires everybody's point of view to be embraced, regardless of what is said and how it is expressed. They would say that any other approach is censorship and an erosion of liberty. But this liberty never existed before the Internet. There have always been limits on what can be said and even today limits exist in all other media where it just isn't practical for all voices to be heard. Even leading politicians in television debates are not free to say anything they like. They are subject to moderation. The host will control the discussion to ensure that debate doesn't become just a free-for-all slanging match in which the loudest voice suppresses the rest. And if the public are involved, their contributions also have to be moderated to ensure that they stay on subject, valid and non-abusive. Nobody is allowed to say anything they like even in the free-est of nations. Internet discussions should be no different.

I believe passionately in both democracy and freedom of speech. Yet democracy and total, unrestrained freedom of speech are not synonymous. A total unrestrained freedom of speech is only synonymous with anarchy. There do have to be controls on what people say on the Internet and for the most part those controls can only be managed by site owners or by web page authors. The question remains as to exactly how that judgement should be exercised, and how far those controls should go.

Web Pages Comments Poll

If you write web pages, what control do you think needs to be exercised?

  • I exercise no control at all
  • I occasionally feel the need to delete comments
  • I have specific rules which all commenters need to abide by
  • I often feel the need to delete comments
  • I do not allow comments
See results without voting

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I'd Love to Hear Your Comments (yes, Honestly!) Thanks, Alun 11 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 months ago from Essex, UK Author

hubber8893; Thank you for your comment, and my apologies for the late reply. It isn't the fault of the Internet as such that this problem has arisen, but rather the people who administer it and the people who use it and abuse it.


hubber8893 profile image

hubber8893 8 months ago

Everything has its positive and negative sides, same is the case of internet. The difference comes from the good efficacy, which if more than demerits the thing is required to be launched for general public. It depends upon the people and civilizations about how they adopt it. We cannot call an evolutionary revolution like internet for this misfortune.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

My thanks to Bryan and to 'Learn Things Web'. I can certainly agree with the view that Comments sections - even when well-intentioned - can frequently become vehicles for banal and irrelevant contributions by people who know nothing of substance about the subject under discussion.

Perhaps the most useful comments sections are those on highly specialist sites - science or arts sites, or specialist trade and skills sites perhaps - which tend to attract only those contributors who have a genuine interest or professional experience of the subject?


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California

I agree with Bryan. Comments sections can be great when people are actually informed. But those kinds of comment sections tend to be the exception.


Bryan 3 years ago

I generally dislike comments sections because of all the uninformed opinions. They often don't serve the purpose of providing a forum because most commentors know little about the topic at hand. And that turns away people who are knowledgeable because the ignorance is too much for them.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

tamarawilhite; my thanks for your visit and comment.

I do think myself that a clear distinction can be drawn between expression of a contrary point of view, and 'bullying', though I accept that it can be a fine dividing line, and some will draw that line in the wrong place to exclude any critical viewpoint. I feel it is, however, the prerogerative of the author or website owner to control a debate and to draw a line somewhere - otherwise speech and discussion may become noise without value. I suspect this will always remain a sensitive issue with no entirely satisfactory answer. Alun.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

TheKatsMeow; thanks and appreciations for your nice comment. I can agree that just as offensive or anti-social comments can be depressing, so the opposite situation can be quite reassuring, when members of the Internet community reinforce one's feelings of outrage or injustice.

It's a good healthy attitude you have to be able to shrug off the more ugly comments which the Internet throws up. Alun.


tamarawilhite profile image

tamarawilhite 3 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

Internet comments are the equivalent to handing out pamphlets in the square - everyone can see them and read them. Cruel and nasty comments are immature. However, we cannot let speech get silenced because there are jerks. The term bullying has been hijacked, expanded to include "you disapprove of my actions" and criticism of actions and extreme behavior are shut down as "bullying". We should punish violent criminals and those who are planning harm, but speech is speech.


TheKatsMeow profile image

TheKatsMeow 3 years ago from Canada

Wow, lots of info in this hub and I really agree with a lot of what you said. As someone who loves to read comments, one of the things I love about internet comments is that after I read a news story, I can see what people are saying about the situation. Many times after I read about something awful, it's nice to see that the community is just a shocked or disgusted as I am, it makes me feel better when I realize that I am not the only one upset by something. On the the hand, people love to make awful comments and get a rise out of people, it's frustrating but Ive learned to expect it. It used to really bother me, but now I am getting very good at shrugging it off. I voted this hub up, it's awesome!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Hi Tom; appreciations for your considered views. I would very much agree that everyone has the right to an opinion, and I hope I wouldn't censor anyone's opinion, but I do feel that the manner in which that opinion is expressed can sometimes matter.

Certainly the HubPages forums can be more hostile places than the hubs - I've got involved in 2 controversial 'debates' in the past which perhaps predictably resulted in something approaching a 'flame war'. One thankfully petered out and I pulled out of the other when it became clear that each post I was making would be followed by one twice as long by my 'adversary'. I rarely follow controversial issues on the forums now - to become properly involved just takes too much time, given that the chances of changing anyone's opinion are minimal.

I was surprised to hear of your experience with the 'photographer', and HubPages's message to you. Even more so that he felt it necessary to complain to HP given that it's easy enough for HP members to approve or delete comments on their own hubs without looking for official sanctions.

Finally Tom; thanks for visiting - and for being brave enough to post the first comment on a page which looks at bad Internet comments! :-) Alun.


justom profile image

justom 3 years ago from 41042

Hi Alun, this is another hub that's put together well. I take the approach of not taking most comments for anything more than they are. On FB there are plenty of wild comments that I just pass by. As for HP's I think the forums get crazy but I don't go on them. Also I would disagree with you on HP's moderation. I get tired of all the fluff and am not afraid to comment about it but it seems people are way too touchy about critical comments even if they are meant to be constructive. There is one guy on here that calls himself a photographer and while he talks a good game the photos (sometimes not even his own) don't show it. When I questioned him about it he refused to approve my comments and went so far as to contact HP who sent me a message to stop commenting on his hubs. I don't see how they expect quality when you can't comment on something you have not only knowledge about but have a degree in. Lastly, I never censor anyone. I think everyone has the right to an opinion and I don't feel the need to agree. I've rambled enough, I think I've made my point. Nice work!! Peace!! Tom

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