Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. A simple saying to remind children that words can’t hurt. But what happens when the children grow into adults and words can do more than hurt? In the real world words can shape perceptions and alter realities. Words become devices used to shape policies and organizations. Words have the potential to do more than hurt, words can destroy and reconstruct things anew.
The spike of these sort of words has caused online news media outlets to silence comment sections. In 2014 a move was made by news outlets to close or sometimes screen the comment sections of their articles. Some began by taking making the decision to delete comments or block users from engaging with content after a negative or misguided impression was left. Others completely omitted the comment section to silence users completely. Axing comment sections was designed to put an end to Internet ‘trolls’ and heated debates which only loosely related to the original posted content.
Now these conversations have moved to Facebook and Twitter, the current hotspots for political debates. User comments on these platforms are not limited or blocked. A platform for debate and discussion exists but it’s no longer tied to specific news outlets or their audiences. Instead of having journalists engage with those who consume their work, their employers have silenced their readers outlets.
This method doesn’t just screen out trolls, but also those who disagree with articles. On social media, conversations are then limited to the bubbles which users exist in. The phenomenon of shared reality is heightened when conversations move to social media platforms. Though social media are natural places for conversations to flow from, opinions on either extreme can be lost or oversaturated among others. Geography, language and who you are connected to all shape the conversation. By spreading conversations to other networks, those who engage with content are responsible for finding those who want to participate. Closed comment sections get rid of the trolls, but they get rid of the engaged users too.
While news outlets claim social media platforms allow users to expand their reach, they are limiting the scope of the conversation. Social media users tend to be younger and more privileged. News outlets are limiting their audiences and limiting the diversity of opinion they receive.
Furthermore, a 2016 quantitative study (Conlin and Roberts. 2016) indicates that the removal of comment sections has decreased user trust in the credibility and content quality control. The proliferation of fake news across social media has elevated this sense of distrust. If users are unable to engage with their media, they feel they are less influential. The inability to engage, ask questions, and reiterate information makes users stand-offish and less likely to participate. In the age of fake news, those with high digital literacy tend to examine the media they consume. Without the benefit of comment sections, some users feel limited in their opportunity to engage with news outlets.
By doing away with comment sections, the opportunity for news outlets to engage with their viewers is limited. But what do media outlets get from their audiences? Being bombarded with Internet trolls and arguments is what led to the change in the first place. If conversations are pushed to social media, what are they gaining? Is it out of sight, out of mind for news outlets? Or is the possibility of better knowing commenters what is driving the change?
In an age where a digital footprint speaks volumes, is putting a face to a comment giving words more weight? Is it possible that the weight of a criticism is judged by the critic? Social media offers a wealth of information that gives context to comments beyond the comment itself. While the Internet troll rationale seems likely, what is even more likely is that news outlets are better able to track and understand their audience when there is more of a profile to a user. Why try to create their own network, when millions of users exist on already established networks? It may be true that news outlets are looking for more than opinions from their users.
There are implications to removing comment sections. It does not end negativity but transforms it. It changes the weight of a comment. It changes what the news site themselves may look like, what they are used for. It perpetuates the trend of politically charged discussions on social media. It can also limit credibility of news sources and keeps the power amongst those who already have it. Words and their location on the Internet matter, social media reshapes what dialogue looks like. In a world with no comment sections, users must claim their words with new pride, reshaping the conversation and ownership of commentary.
by Daniella J Galdamez
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