Uncivil Discourse: The Comments

The tone of our civil discourse around current events and news – expressed through talk radio, news shows, comments sections and discussion forums – feeds intolerance and hate in America. The failure of civic leaders and media outlets to embrace their responsibility to require opinions to be based on some reasonable interpretation of fact and expressed in ways that exhibit respect is eroding civil discourse in this country, promoting division and making practical compromise impossible. 

While these subjects warrant larger treatment and discussion, I’ll focus for now on a particularly low form of civil discourse: the comments.

The Problem

It’s easy to be hateful when you’re anonymous or distant. Exhibit 1, culled from the Anchorage Daily News, my old daily newspaper:

The quality of discussion in most major newspapers’ comments sections is somewhere between anonymous libel and hate speech. It makes us see the worst in other people – not just a differing view, which would be useful – but opinions expressed uncivilly in ways that prevent a productive conversation from occurring.

At best, we’re all stuck in a defensive mode. We assume that our opinions, no matter how carefully expressed, will be dismissed and derided. We isolate ourselves in circles that share our opinions, creating ever more insulated communities based on shared assumptions.

Free speech is a core American value, but uncivil discourse undermines another core American value: our strong sense of community and the founders’ belief that America was a place for everyone. It’s also bad business. It scares off the responsible people who might spend more time on your site if the comments were useful, interesting or even educational.

Without the capacity to debate like reasonable adults, we’re no longer going to compromise. It’s impossible to admit you were wrong, shift your position or cut a deal when every conversation is based in strident absolutes. The standoff between Governor Walker of Wisconsin and the state’s Democratic legislators is a prime example of the results of uncivil discourse.

Civil discourse isn’t just the name of this silly blog – it’s part of our American tradition, and we have to find a way to reestablish that tradition in order to solve the real challenges that face this country. I’d like to start by calling on major media institutions to take control of the comments sections and forums that they provide.

What to Do

A critique of media practices isn’t useful without useful suggestions for changed behavior. There are a few different ways of reducing the hate in public forums:

  • Gawker Media requires people to audition to become an approved commenter. As an auditioner, you comment for a while until a moderator (usually a volunteer) approves you for published commenting.
  • Quora (a new question and answer site) has a few interesting techniques. First, your profile is attached to either your Facebook or Twitter profile, and they encourage you to use your real name. Second, users up-vote and down-vote answers as appropriate. Third, you can’t answer a question more than once, although you can comment on answers. This reduces the prominence of any “flame wars”.
  • TechCrunch recently switched to using Facebook for comments. They report it is reducing nastiness and promoting good discussion: “With the Facebook system, the most popular posts are only touching around 100 or so comments. But of those 50 to 100 comments, many of them are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself — you know, what a comment is supposed to be.”
It seems that you need either strong community moderation or some way to tether comments to users’ real identities in order to promote civil discourse. Of course, some people don’t mind being jerks on the record, and no moderator is perfect. But these methods are low-cost and actually reward committed community members by asking them to take responsibility for the quality of the discussion. It’s one step in the right direction towards constructive discussion.
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