Wanderings – Online commenting and Mark Twain

There is a positive trend in the news media business. One that I hope is adopted by more and more places – the lack of comments. Or to be more clear, the lack of the ability to comment on news and other things.

This trend started in early 2022. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation began limiting comments on its Facebook posts after the social media platform gave businesses the ability to do so. That “six month trial” now is policy at the CBC, and at many outlets, not just in Canada, but around the world. Why?

Social media management is time consuming for any business. No matter what platform it is, it takes people to run those channels responsibly. When comments are open on a platform, it has to be monitored – first for spam, then for libelous statements, then for general negative conduct.

It only takes one bad comment, one personal attack, by someone in a comment section to skew the whole post into a flame war. What is a flame war you may ask? I define a Flame War as two kids in the school yard throwing insults at each other. Eventually it boils down to each party yelling, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Unfortunately this sort of conduct, along with posting unverified scientific theories, online “Get Rich Quick” schemes, and various unsuitable for public consumption graphical images, can make the comment section of even the most reputable news outlet look like a dumpster fire rolling into a train wreck. People are supposed to moderate this?
Not all comments are bad, but many don’t need to be said. Queue the 20 replies to a post about a new pasta dish, each saying “Me too!” or “Ditto.”

The ability to comment on social media posts was originally billed as a way to connect to the masses. A way for readers to engage with the authors or content creators. In theory, a creative comedy bit posted to the platform would be greeted with comments about how much people enjoyed that take on things. In practice, the high water mark of discourse for many involved with vitriolic comments is looking up to the gutter. The adage of “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing” is lost online, so why bother having comments at all?

The darker side of online comments is that without moderation, there is great opportunity for abuse. Keyboard Warriors hiding behind fake names can abuse, libel, attack, and seriously damage the reputation of others with zero proof. The court of public opinion online is always in session, and there is no judge or defence, just a jury and the prosecutors. It is difficult to undo damage once inflicted on others online. In some countries, where the laws make the platform account holder responsible for the words that are said on their channels, it gets even worse. Companies can be sued for public comments on their channels.

Of course there are many places pre-Internet that you could have your say – and still can. Letters to the Editor is one of them. It’s also easy to start your own website to say, or spout off, on anything you want – no matter the topic or your knowledge (or lack thereof).

A quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain, but according to quoteinvestigator.com is from Maurice Switzer (and paraphrases a Bible verse) is “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” This quote fits online commenting for the most part. This is why I am glad most places are eliminating it.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it, but things have become more polarized and vitriolic in recent years. It has been more noticeable in the past decade, but I think that’s because we’re now not slowly cresting the hill but speeding downwards the bottom at an ever increasing pace.

Not having the space to write what you want, with little-to-no responsibility, on another company or person’s social media channels, is one of the best things to happen to the internet since Al Gore invented it.

May the trend towards improving social decency and discourse (or keeping comments to yourself) continue! I think even Mark Twain would approve of that.

Column originally published in the April 19, 2023 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.