Don't read the comments
October 5, 2013
I recently (mostly by accident) started reading the comments on
Predictably, the comments are a hotbed of ignorant, hateful
racism. With an article like this, it isn’t too surprising. But it
is generally common knowledge that for peace of mind, one should
always avoid reading the comments. Perhaps one of the most
universal axioms of safe interneting.
I also remember reading Anil Dash’s post on internet commenting and how websites really need to start taking responsibility for
the hate speech in their commenting sections. Two years later…
and well, commenting is still a problem and the only effective
solution is not reading them.
So why bother?
Usually this discussion gets bogged down by calls to ‘free speech’
or ‘open discourse’. I’m not going there. Not only do I think it
misses the point, but it trades on a great deal of falsehoods
about the difference between free speech and hate speech.
What I do wish, is that more people truly understood that the
commenting problem is a problem of technology. It isn’t the
internet that has caused this. Nor is what happens in the
comments exacerbated by anonymity of most online commenting
I have never seen anything in the comments of a website that I
haven’t heard in person and said to my face. Or someone else’s
face, as the case may be. The McLean’s article is actually a great
example of how we should be unsurprised about the xenophobic and
racist comments, given that the article itself is xenophobic and
This isn’t a technology problem. The comments on websites simply
reflect offline public discourse. And they don’t even present a
more serious/extreme example of it. The same people who express
their hateful opinions online (with or without anonymity) express
This is a social problem and, yeah, one that we’ve been
working to fix for a while. Not reading the comments isn’t good
enough. I want to be able to participate in public discourse with
as much casualness and freedom as all the racists, misogynists,
ableist, fatphobic, etc. people do and can.
However, this isn’t going to change until large publications like
Maclean’s stop publishing racist and xenophobic artiles, or
biopics aren’t made that glorify rapists like Julian Assange, or
have article after transmisogynist article repeatedly dehumanizing
Chelsea Manning, or ‘news’ outlets like Fox News are allowed to
make up lies and disseminate misinformation.
Technological solutions to the commenting problem will work best
for ensuring that random hate doesn’t take over, say, your YouTube
video of your child’s third birthday. But it won’t solve the
problems with public discourse today.