Whenever I really want to feel depressed about what we do here at The Boston Globe and for whom we do it, I know exactly where to go.
This newspaper’s online comments sections.
Heresy? An insult? Biting the hand that feeds us? Not really, since I and many of my colleagues don’t consider the Globe commenterati — those posters who regularly express themselves on multiple articles — to be representative of the average reader. Rather, they’re representative of a specific subtype of reader, one who wants or needs to be heard. They may be compelled by a genuine interest in discussion or a desire to share thoughts or knowledge — or sometimes resentment, loneliness, a need to amuse the troops, or sheer boredom. In the worst-case scenarios, they can seek to overwhelm the conversation and drive more moderate voices away.
It’s a problem, especially in the Globe’s coverage of politics. And it’s going to get worse as the 2020 elections near. So, a question: Should we do something about it? If so, what?
Nobody talks about this, really, because it’s a fact carved in marble that a modern news organization has to provide a space for public feedback, especially given the woeful demise of the public editor or ombudsman. To not do so is to retreat into the tower, to make plain an institutional disregard for the readers who pay the bills and in whose interests the publication presumably acts.
And it’s not like reader comments can’t be useful or helpful, even in disagreement — especially in disagreement — or foster a sense of community between reader and journalist or reader and other readers. One of the most gratifying experiences in my 17 years at the Globe was the online response to a very personal 2017 Father’s Day column, with dozens and dozens of readers telling tales of their own dads, good and bad, and the whole thing turning into a lovely digital group hug. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Some reporters are too busy or otherwise engaged to read the comments at all; for me, it’s a chance for outreach, temperature taking, banter. Generally speaking, the experience has been benign — some hearty disagreement with a movie review isn’t just expected, it’s welcome and necessary. The more political my columns get, the more intemperate the response, but even then it’s not too bad. You want vicious screeds of hate? Read the comments under what, say, some women journalists of color at this paper write, and then try to imagine what their e-mails look like — the stuff that’s too beyond the pale to even post online anonymously.
It varies from section to section. In Sports, the commenterati wax talk-radio nasty — this is possibly a feature, not a bug — with a high ratio of La-Z-Boy blowhards to those who Know of What They Speak. Similarly, local stories tend to attract readers who know the particulars, can offer further information and seasoned opinion, and occasionally act as a corrective or clarifier to the Globe version.
But bring politics into the mix — especially racial politics, or national politics, or anything to do with Donald Trump, and the trolls scurry out from under the bridge. Lately, any Globe or wire article having to do with a few particular female politicians is beset by multiple accounts posting virulently negative comments with a rapidity that’s breathtaking and not a little suspicious. They intentionally post the same comments endless times (as opposed to that annoying software glitch that repeats posts by mistake), and they drive up each other’s “likes” while driving away anyone who might have an opposing or even less incendiary point of view.
The Globe uses a third-party company to moderate, and it surely does what it can while trying hard not to overstep the line of free speech, whatever that is. But a larger question persists: Who are these people, and why do they appear to spend entire waking lives posting online attacks? Why do they descend en masse and quickly divert rational conversation into abuse, invective, fact-free ridicule? Why do their efforts seem to be increasing as we get closer to a national election? Many readers with differing opinions have given up fighting the trolls and gone away, which only makes the comments section appear more monolithic, more closed off to healthy discussion. Is that the intent? If so, what are they afraid of?
I scoff at conspiracy theories, by and large. Looking at what appears to be a concerted effort to hijack civil discourse, seeing the same thing happen at other news outlets, and knowing what we now know about the 2016 election, I’m not so sure anymore.
The real issue is anonymity, and here I’m going to go out on a limb. The need to keep one’s identity a secret has its uses in whistle-blowing, providing journalists with sensitive information, and pushing back against authoritarian regimes. Despite what some people believe, we’re not living under the latter (yet).
By contrast, anonymity in the context of digital speech — in every variety of social media, as 25 years of the Internet have taught us — enables a great deal of ugliness and bullying. It can let loose the demons of the id, because it’s people being held to account for the things they say that allows us to live together peaceably and civilization to even function. Yet there’s a double-bind here: Identifying oneself online, especially in the case of women commenters, could potentially open the door to harassment in real life. There’s no easy answer.
I will say this, though: Many of my own regular commenters, even the snarky ones, seem like good and thoughtful people, but until they do what I and every single one of my colleagues do with every single piece we write — which is to sign it — it’s difficult to grant them the respect they hope for.
If we ever were to somehow chase the worst abusers from the digital commons, I’d like to think responsible reader-commenters would return. That may not be true. Maybe people actually like to watch the pit-fights from ringside. In which case, I have to ask: Don’t you have anything better to do?
Perhaps that’s the place to leave this. In the coming months, the Globe will be shifting to new editorial software that we hear will also change how the comments system functions. Regardless of how that plays out, it may be useful for the average reader, those of you with opinions but not an agenda, with a point of view rather than an ax to grind, to think of the comments section not as a conversation or a voyeuristic bar brawl but as at best a participatory tool and at worst a bludgeon. And then to wonder who’s wielding it, and why.