Comment Sections: Becoming What You Hate

Dumpster fire at construction site
Photo credit: Suzanne Hamilton – flickr.com
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

One deeply unfortunate requirement for publishing useful online content is staying informed of current events. I generally despise the modern news media—not even primarily for its ideological slant, but because the constant churn of the “news cycle” and the need for more negative fuel is partially responsible for making those who watch it become worse people.

Fittingly, one of the places this is most evident is in the comment sections of online publications, particularly those which address politics. If news media itself attracts shrill demagogues, the comment section is home to screeching sycophants. If the publication in question has any ideological inclination, commenters largely consist of the most vitriolic elements of that base and provocateurs from the opposition.

My days as a keyboard warrior are behind me. I generally consider comment-section arguments in general to be nearly worthless, and this is most true of comment sections on news publications. Although I haven’t commented in ages, I still read comments too often, either to look for people to agree with my thoughts (a rare occurrence) or because I dislike myself and apparently desire needless emotional harm (much more frequent).

In this case, I delved into the comment section of an article for research. I’m cynical by nature, and believe comment sections are cesspools, but I was surprised by just how awful the comments I discovered proved to be. This was the worst comment section I’d seen, but I have no reason to believe it is particularly atypical or that it doesn’t represent our partisan furor accurately.

I’m going to respond to several screenshots from the article in question, and along the way I hope to provide some tips for those who want to engage with others on the internet. Again, it’s bad and uncensored, so consider this your warning before you proceed.

Online Comment Vitriol Is Shaped and Signaled by the Title

Headline from article online

Townhall is a very right-of-center news site, so we can already guess the general sympathies of the commenters. People often self-select into echo chambers; while algorithmic Facebook feeds may have accelerated this process, it is no new phenomenon. That also incentivizes the site to publish articles with both content and voice which panders to its audience (because that’s how they get paid).

Without posting any of the article content (link here), we can see that the title is fairly incendiary. Now, to be fair, the claims in the article are the sort of thing that should anger people, if true; I’m less bothered than the average reader because I’m already aware of unethical experimentation from my background in bioethics. But the use of the word “scandal” in particular signals that people ought to be outraged, to be scandalized. Seeing this word, before you’ve read anything in the article, tells you that something happened which was deeply wrong, that other people are angry, and that you’d better be angry, too.

I don’t want to address the claims of the article because I would have to vet the paper trail; suffice it to say, the author provides several links to evidence which a dedicated reader can judge for themselves. My point is that the content is irrelevant, in some sense, to the effect that this title has on the reader and on those who choose to comment.

The Best Approach to Comment Sections is to Avoid Them

Let me show you the moment I made my error:

Show comments label

You see that button? The one labeled “Show Comments”? Don’t click that button.

In some instances, an online comment section can promote reasoned engagement with the content of an article and different arguments about a subject. If you find a site where that occurs (we aim to be such a site), feel free to comment. Otherwise, don’t even view the comments. You will not benefit—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or in the development of virtue—by reading stream-of-consciousness rants about how evil one side is and what should happen to people who think like them.

Furthermore, if you choose to engage in the comments, you must not yourself participate in the vitriol (tempting though it may be). Once you comment publicly on something, you are not merely a private individual with an opinion, but a public representative of “the sort of people who believe X.” Whether that’s fair or not, it’s reality. You’re probably not going to convince online trolls, but you may be able to positively impact a silent third party reading what you wrote.

Online Comments Generally Don’t Display the Best Arguments

Even in a relatively benign comment section, you are unlikely to encounter the strongest arguments for either side of an issue. The commenters above technically agree with the author, but they manage to use two of the worst pro-life arguments in the span of two comments. Not only does the first commenter reference the Holocaust—not a winning rhetorical move—but both commenters use the Beethoven Argument, which actually benefits the pro-choice position. Furthermore, in these and following comments, you will find an unhelpful invocation of God as the vehicle for the commenter’s wrath.

There are much better arguments about why what was alleged in that article is wrong if it happened. But if you’re unaware of better arguments and you read these comments, you might believe that this kind of argumentation represents pro-life thinkers. If you want to engage the best ideas, engage with the content itself; look for what the authors actually think, and pay attention to how they say it. Be willing to call out bad comments on your own side; you can point out that you’re on the same side, but that they’re making a bad argument and there’s a better way to say the point they’re trying to make. And don’t judge a position by the quality of the commenters arguing for it.

Internet Anonymity Provides an Outlet for Cruelty

The next few images show what actual people chose to write on the internet about what should be done to other people, Fauci in particular.

Online comments

Online comments

Online comments

Online comments

I don’t really care what your views on capital punishment, just war, and justified revolution are: suggesting that political opponents be killed in an intentionally brutal manner on live television is morally damaging to the person who makes the suggestion. Harboring that kind of flippant hatred turns you into what you hate: the people in this thread participate in the dehumanization of others because of their actions or beliefs.

The commenter “joe” deserves special mention. Let’s begin with his avatar. Put aside the whole debate about the confederate flag itself; this guy is going out of his way to be racist (and invokes God as a party to it). Historically, people have primarily been this boldly racist when wearing white robes at night. The internet, with the illusion of anonymity, changed that.

His hashtag manages to draw on opposition to another famous hashtag while targeting tens of millions of his fellow countrymen for subhuman status. After all, the claim that a creature’s life “doesn’t matter” is the same as saying it is not a person and lacks serious moral status. It’s important to distinguish this from saying that someone’s life is forfeit based on his evil actions (such as an assailant killed in self-defense). Someone whose life is forfeit is being treated as a person whose life matters and whose life is being deprived precisely because the criminal is treated as a competent moral agent able to understand and pay the consequences of his actions.

Finally, “joe” proposes mass violence against pro-choice people; not merely abortion practitioners, mind you, but all people who support legal abortion. His statement literally boils down to “make people pay for their wrong beliefs with their life and maybe they’ll reconsider.” It boils down to what John Locke decried as men being “compelled by fire and the sword to profess certain doctrines.”

I can tell you that “joe” is not representative of pro-life people. But, honestly, a pro-choice person looking at those comments and the responses from people supportive of his garbage can’t be expected to believe me. Pro-choice people could be forgiven for thinking that “joe” and those like him are the id of the pro-life movement; as if they said what pro-life people really believe but suppress because it’s not socially acceptable.

I don’t necessarily recommend engaging in comment sections. But, if you choose to do so, know that it’s valuable to provide a visible pro-life presence that isn’t like “joe.” You’ll probably get negative comments from the trolls, but your goal isn’t to change their mind; you’re providing proof that there are sane people who believe what you believe. You’re convincing the people scrolling through without commenting that good people can think like you do.

This is one large cost of irresponsible people pecking nonsense on their keyboards: they are an impediment to what they profess. How much good pro-life work, how much hard-earned goodwill, would be neutralized in an instant if CNN displayed a screenshot of these comments in a segment on the abortion debate?

Bad Commenters Belong to All Sides

I’m being hard on the conservative commenters because they deserve it, and there are more of their comments to select because there are more of them. But we shouldn’t pretend for a moment that this is a distinctly conservative problem. I could provide better evidence by appealing to actual tweets by liberals or marxists, or to comment sections from their publications, but I’m artificially restraining myself to this comment section in this article as a case study.

Online comments

Online comments

“Martin” and “HandsomeMrToad” are apparently regulars here, and they belong to a subgroup I’ll politely call “pot-stirrers.” They’re trolls trying to get a rise out of all of the people I highlighted above. They incentivize and enjoy the nonsense coming from the other commenters. In other words, they’re no better, even if they sometimes posture as if they are.

These comments don’t promote real discussion. They’re not particularly well thought-out; just ask Marco Rubio how effective it is to sink to Trump’s level and sling insults at the former president. The last comment is ethical nonsense, presenting a viewpoint that a technology’s inevitability (usually overstated as such) implies its legitimacy, and that religious or conservative people need to accept it and get out of the way of progress.

Your Time Is Valuable—Don’t Waste It in Online Comment Sections

You have a finite amount of time available in a given day or week. It’s best to spend it on things which benefit you in some way. Comment sections are often actively detrimental. They can cause you to see the worst elements of each side as normative, to make you think in terms of the worst arguments around an issue, and—most importantly—they actively facilitate the “othering” or dehumanization of the other side. You are unlikely to convince those who inhabit comment sections, but you can do a lot to damage your witness if you sink to their level.

  • If you choose to engage in the comment section, remember these tips:
  • Your goal is to convince bystanders that pro-life people have good arguments and that most of us are reasonable, normal people with functioning moral compasses
  • Call out bad arguments on “your side” so people are exposed to the good arguments for what you believe
  • Understand that you will take heat from the trolls, and probably also from those who disagree with you
  • Set a limit on your engagement; don’t invest serious time, have a hard limit on the number of comments you write, and stop before it takes a toll on you

There are many pro-life activities which offer a better return on the investment of your time. Go to coffee with a friend and talk about important issues, like abortion, instead of superficial topics. Read the best advocates for each perspective, and minimize unhelpful reading, including of the news. Learn how to engage with other people through content like the Equipped for Life Course. Volunteer at a pregnancy resource center. Don’t waste your time on angry comments.

Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: Comment Sections: Becoming What You Hate
  • Tweet: If news media itself attracts shrill demagogues, the comment section is home to screeching sycophants
  • Tweet: This was the worst comment section I’d seen, but I have no reason to believe it is particularly atypical or that it doesn’t represent our partisan furor accurately
  • Tweet: How much good pro-life work, how much hard-earned goodwill, would be neutralized in an instant if CNN displayed a screenshot of these comments in a segment on the abortion debate?

The post Comment Sections: Becoming What You Hate originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Writer / Researcher

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Lead Editor at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

Andrew blogs about theology and other topics at andrewkaake.com

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