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

Updated on December 17, 2016
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Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found on these web pages

Yours Truly
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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 has also become 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 element of Internet life - 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 invitation to bigotry and libellous browbeating.

Please note, all my articles are best read on large screens. This is particularly true of this article - some sections may appear out of sequence on a cell phone.

The Internet Comment - Why Does It Exist ?

So many web sites have a section somewhere, usually at the bottom of a page, where visitors can post their points of view, their questions and answers, suggestions and 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 retail site such as 'Amazon', and on review sites such as 'IMDb' they provide a means for others to share their opinions - anyone wishing to research a product or an entertainment, 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 discussion - a valuable opportunity for everybody to participate. And the only reason for the existence of sites like 'WikiAnswers' and 'Ask.com' is to receive questions and replies from the public. In this role, they provide a valuable service. But all sorts of other web pages also feature Comments sections which may bring any or all of the following benefits to the page:

  • Commenting gives the author of the page a sense of how people are responding to his or 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 more. 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 will most probably 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'. And there are sound reasons for doing so. For example in some parts of the world, a controversial Internet writer may well be persecuted by a repressive regime. Even in a free nation, ordinary Internet users can attract undesirable attention and may feel a need to protect personal details from fraudsters and spammers. I myself have a user-name; on this site, I write as 'Greensleeves Hubs'. I chose to do so initially because I felt it would be very embarrassing to be identified if my writing was poor, or if I revealed my innermost thoughts and my friends or relatives were to read them on line. And I felt that if I tackled sensitive subjects I might be open to harassment. There are clearly 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 ever 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 begin to 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 all 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 temperate 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 they were appropriate. Only the 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 in positions of power; it also means that the idiot or the bully is the equal of those with considered views. They can argue without any evidence, without balanced judgement, and without any care for those they attack. And they can do all of these things without any repercussion if they 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 very 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 with the strongest opinions are the most motivated to leave a comment. That may be quite reasonable, but of course it also means that the range of feedback will not be proportionate to the range of views in society. They will almost always 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 constructive debate, or indeed any reasonable human interaction. Some will insist on having their say even if their point is based upon the flimsiest of knowledge. Some will have points they wish to make to the entire world, and they'll make 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.

Not only can Comments sections lead to irrelevant or anti-social comments; they can also dissuade authors of serious intent from writing articles which tackle sensitive subject matter or even contributing posts to feedback. Every writer quickly becomes 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 on those rare occasions when all 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 - particularly humorous or ironic points - can be misinterpreted in the absence of visual body-language cues. And feedback containing 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

In the blue capsule above I focused on anonymity, and how it can produce the phenomenon of deindividuation. But anonymity is not just about remaining unnamed. There is also the anonymity of being just one inconspicuous face in the crowd - and crowd behaviour is the other factor which can 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, 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 for those individuals or groups to stand up and expose themselves to potential opposition or to the authority of the law. That's no longer necessary. The Internet can be used to speak the most irresponsible words. It can be (and has been) used to organise the worst crowd behaviours 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 worries many in the world of Internet writing and those who desire open but fair debate. It does however divide people who may all feel passionately about free speech, yet 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].

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

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

Jimmy Wales, who is 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 which bacame a 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, the demolition 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 rest of this article, together with 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 who writes on the Internet. Anonymity is quite clear cut in its effects. But in forums and debates the nature of the crowd who follow the debate is equally important. For myself, I know that if people are broadly in agreement with me, I feel much bolder 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 enhanced boldness. They will say things in forums and lobby sites which they wouldn't 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 really undermine the value of the 'Comment' facility are many. Some will be quite deliberately antagonistic, some are spamming for personal gain, and some simply lack full awareness of the consequences of their posts. Which comments 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 and 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, or maybe to ridicule them. Best by far for the site owner 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 under discussion but it offers them a chance to promote their own pages, or to advertise a service or product. Basically they are only commenting in order to take readers away from the page.

3) Wandering Comments: Posts 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. The rest skate around it as commenters try to shift the theme to suit their own agenda. This may be innocent (it's quite reasonable in feedback to cover points which 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 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 many 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 conceivable aspect of the subject, perhaps to drown out the voices of all others. And I've seen pages in which the original author has decided to terminate all commenting just to put a stop to this flood of posts.

5) Flame Wars: There 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 from the original subject matter, in increasingly intemperate language.

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 issues where certain debating points 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 very 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.

News Sites and Political Forums. These 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, race relations and abortion 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 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'.

Lobby Sites. On all of the types of subject described above, the worst offenders among web sites 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. Reasoned opposition isn't heard.

Celebrity Gossip Sites. Of course it is not just serious news forums or lobby sites which can be a problem. The most trivial of subjects can provoke genuinely grotesque comments, and may be vulnerable to vicious posting. If the singing or acting of the celebrity, or their lifestyle isn't liked by one of these types, then the celebrity is apparently fair game to be abused. Some think that celebrities are well capable of fending off such attacks; maybe some are and some aren't, but cyber-bullying is never justified.

Social Network Sites. 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 sites such as 'Facebook' and 'Twitter' have led to victims - teenagers in particular - even 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].

Why do people - even people well-adjusted in their daily life away from the Internet, indulge in this kind of stuff? Quite apart from the psychological factors of anonymity and crowd behaviour described above, there may be perverse yet genuine benefit to be gained by being extreme. An interesting experiment was 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 claimed to offer great technological benefits albeit also 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 same product review, but just one of the sets of comments to read. Subsequently the unsuspecting readers were asked for their opinions. Those who had read the more aggressive comments became much more polarised, and were 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 exactly the same phenomenon in television debates. Irrespective of the subject 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 page about gun control on this HubPages website. I was already aware from visits to gun lobby forums that this was a sensitive issue, and that it may attract a lot of aggressive comments. Of course on a neutral site like this, the posts were much less extreme than on forums dedicated 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 many hundreds of 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 post there is little short of appalling.

The Hubpages Website and Their / My Comment Policy

I write articles on the HubPages site - an excellent facility for those who wish to write 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'. The 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 (with the option to delete them later if s/he wishes to), or can alternatively review comments before they have been made public. Almost all my hubs allow comments to appear immediately. The pages - film reviews, travel guides 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 go public.

The concerns which I am discussing are not hugely relevant to HubPages, because this 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'. That creates an atmosphere of encouragement, in which most members act responsibly, which in turn hopefully sets a good example to all others who visit - the social norms of the residents on a website, just as in a real neighbourhood, can influence the behaviour of 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 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, or whether to control the facility. The general consensus seems to be that the free-for-all is on its way out [5]. One option is to ban all comments - 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 the '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 posts can now be 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. It's a tough policy certainly, but perhaps a tough policy is necessary to maintain reasoned feedback [2].

Increasingly administrators are trying to reduce anonymity by insisting that every comment 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 what they say [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, should act to take control of the discussion. This is in the interest both of the author who wishes to retain credibility, and also to genuine correspondents who may find their posts 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 some other controversial pages. I may also on occasion control comments in other ways. There are several control possibilities which web page compilers may like to 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 judicious in the comments they make.
  2. Limit the length of feedback. Long comments are time-consuming to read and reply to, and they may 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 originator of an article wishes their article to be turned into a debate is for him or her alone to decide.
  4. Remove repetitive feedback which covers exactly the same ground as has been covered in numerous 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. Self evident. I'd also delete comments which include gross swearing. That's a personal dislike of mine.

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 me not be a killjoy. I LOVE getting comments on my Internet pages. Clever thoughtful comments are great but it also does the ego a world of good to receive nice, flattering messages. I also don't mind jokey comments and 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 responsible manner, so too must the Comments section.

My Final Thoughts

Internet freedom of speech can be of tremendous benefit to society; but it can often also be a very destructive and unpleasant source of malice. And this aspect is increasingly emerging as a concern of the criminal courts. There have been high profile cases 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 which have led to their conviction. Increasingly, those who abuse the right of free speech 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.

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 civil liberties. But remember these liberties 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 our most senior 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 it 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 can say on the Internet and for the most part those controls can only be managed by site owners or by web page authors. The only question is exactly how that judgement should be exercised, and how far those controls should go.

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

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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image
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      Greensleeves Hubs 8 months ago from Essex, UK

      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.

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      hubber8893 12 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
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      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      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?

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      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.

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      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.

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      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      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.

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      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      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

      Tamara Wilhite 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
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      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      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.

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      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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