Rather than creating a space in which users' voices can be heard, online comments sections have became another space in which racism, misogyny, homophobia and plain old hate speech can be expressed, loudly and, often, abusively – most often from behind the mask of a pseudonym. The efforts by online commentators to silence the voices of women, black people and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are deafening.
Recently, two of our online news sources, News24 and IOL, have disabled comments on their websites. All over the internet, people are behaving as if their favourite toy has been taken away. Naturally, the ones complaining the loudest are those who have inherent privilege – white, straight men.
The arguments in favour of comments sections can, roughly, be summarised as: “Editors gave us a voice, and we are entitled to use that voice in whatsoever manner we wish; they can’t silence us now.” The longer version of this argument is that the comments section allowed news media to move away from the old-fashioned print media and towards a medium where content was driven by users, rather than the editor.
For women, black people and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, however, any positive effects of this move were outweighed by the negative effects. Rather than creating a space in which their voices could be heard, online comments sections became another space in which racism, misogyny, homophobia and plain old hate speech can be expressed, loudly and, often, abusively – and most often from behind the mask of a pseudonym. The efforts by online commentators to silence the voices of women, black people and LGBTI people are deafening, and what is also patently clear is that, when white, cishet male voices do speak out in support of them, they are afforded a different level of abuse to that which their female, LGBTI, and black counterparts receive. Comments range from wishing ill on the author to threats to rape, kill or mutilate authors or other commentators (or even, in some cases, their families or children), or even these threats extending to real-life attempts to harm them.
I have heard the counter-argument, that the best way to deal with this behaviour is not to “feed the troll”, but the advocates of this behaviour ignore the obvious: the troll is responding to an online article which speaks out against his deeply held bigotry and therefore the author of that article is, in posting it, already feeding the troll. By suggesting that the author NOT feed the troll, advocates of this approach are, in a not-so-subtle way, telling the author to keep quiet. In other words, they are making he author complicit in his or her abuse. At best, they are silencing him or her; at worst, they are contributing to the daily fear which women, black people and LGBTI people live with daily, purely as a result of their gender, colour or sexuality.
The other argument is that the comments section should ‘self-regulate’. That we should allow other posters (our allies) to deal with offenders, and silence them. Sorry, white men, but you’re not exactly doing a great job of keeping the streets safe for me to walk, unharrassed, so forgive me for not thinking you’ll keep me safe online. You’re not exactly going out of your way to unpack your straight, white, gender privilege.
Also, I’m not a princess in this fairy tale and you’re not my prince. Instead of keeping me silent by telling me not to feed the troll while you go out and slay it, I’d like you to support my demand that online news sources remove all comments sections so that I feel safer about publishing articles online. Because the reality for women and minorities is that we are more reluctant to write about our oppression because of the fear of further abuse in the comments section.
Online news sources should be encouraging women and minorities to engage critically and to become confident voices against the prevailing hegemony. That is harder to do when it could easily result in online abuse, abuse which is aimed not merely at your opinion, but at your right to hold it, at your very identity.
The final argument against the ‘free speech’ argument is that, if commentators feel so compelled to share their views, there is a plethora of spaces in which to do so: they could share posts on social media and invite their fellow Men’s Club members to engage in matey-matey slut-shaming. They could blog away to their hearts’ content about the downfall of society as a result of the LGBTI community daring to poke its nose out of the closet. They could (and this might be earth-shattering news to some, so brace yourselves) send in their OWN counter-arguments to posts to the editor and ask to be published.
The point is that removing the comments section is not silencing debate. It is simply an acknowledgement by the owners of that space that they have a duty to contributors to ensure the space is a safe one in which they can post. It is them saying “not in my name”, or, to put it more accurately, “not on my bandwidth”. DM