The Bittersweet World of Online Commenting

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The uprising of social media and the allure of anonymity have made it easier for people to voice their opinions. But, at times, these opinions can be a little farfetched, disrespectful, or completely off-topic.

When I wrote my article, “The Struggles of the Black Race,” I placed a portion of it on my Memphis Flyer blog. I received some backlash from certain Flyer commenters as a result.

Although I highlighted early in the article that I wasn’t seeking to defame any particular race but to simply express my thoughts on the black race and what it’s like to be part of it, several commenters still accused me of “stereotyping other races,” being “ignorant,” among other things.
 
Considering that race can be a touchy subject, I presumed that I would receive varied reactions for my views. Stating that, it isn’t acceptable for people to be blatantly disrespectful with their opinions. But who can control this?

Whether you’re a journalist, an artist, or just a person who posts videos on YouTube or images on Instagram, there’s a great possibility you will encounter commenters—maybe they’re friends, family, supporters, individuals expressing their opinion, or, even, “trolls” desiring to use your post to spew thoughts that are negative or off-topic altogether. That’s the gamble you take when you post something on a website with a comment section.

On one end, the comment section on social media outlets can be a good place for people to share insightful feedback regardless if they agree with what’s posted. However, it’s another thing to be undeniably negative or off-topic all together when you comment on a post.

Take YouTube, WorldStarHipHop, or Livemixtapes.com for examples. The commenting sections on these sites are being used less and less for people to share their opinions on the content posted, but more for them to bash other commenters, promote certain things, or leave meaningless messages.

Not every online commenter is a person with boatloads of time on their hands just waiting to shoot loads of ammo from their keyboards at everything posted on the Internet. A lot of people actually pose thoughtful perspectives on things. Sometimes a comment can spark a conversation from various individuals who desire to add their take on specific topics. It just depends.

Furthermore, the fact that a significant number of commenters remain anonymous or utilize pseudonyms as their monikers allows them to say whatever they please without repercussion. Across the country, numerous publications, social media outlets, and organizations are unhappy with the pool of commenters who choose to leave negative or irrelevant responses on their websites. And this is primarily because a large portion of the commenters are unidentifiable.

The Huffington Post recently made the decision to ban all anonymous commenters on its website due to the aforementioned issue.  The ban will require all new commenters accessing the site to identify themselves by name and verify their identity. This will hopefully increase more meaningful and civil discussions among commenters on their website.

In New York, lawmakers have proposed the Internet Protection Act, a ban on anonymous online comments. If passed, the act would require a website administrator to pull down anonymous comments from sites, such as social networks, blogs, forums, and message boards upon request. To avoid this, commenters would have to agree to attach his or her name to the post and confirm that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.

The issue of anonymous commenters has even crept upon the radar of Memphis-based social media outlets over the last couple years. In 2012, the Shelby County Commission filed a federal subpoena against The Commercial Appeal to release the identities of people who posted racial comments about the Memphis and Shelby County school merger (the Unified School District). 

The Shelby County Commission sought to obtain information to determine whether or not racism played an underlying factor in the Tennessee General Assembly’s decision to merge the school districts. However, the Commission’s request for The Commercial Appeal to release its commenters’ identities was rejected in court.

It’s fair to acknowledge that freedom of opinion and expression is a human right that allows everyone to disclose their thoughts without any consequences. This was made possible through the First Amendment. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. The article states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

But there can be certain limitations against freedom of speech with regard to it being considered potentially libelous, slanderous, obscene, and/or ethnically hateful.

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Every American citizen is granted the ability of free speech, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere. It’s one thing to have an opinion, but it’s another thing to be blatantly disrespectful or significantly off-topic. Is it truly free speech to talk negatively about a photo of a baby on Instagram or when you’re attempting to defame the person who created or is highlighted in the particular post you’re reading? I guess, technically, it is “freedom of speech” when a person leaves comments totally unrelated to the post they’re commenting on, but it’s just annoying.  Or maybe it’s just a waste of time and space for a person who actually has something to say.

In an article on thestar.com, the prevalence of off-topic dialogue in commenting sections is explored. The article, “Online trolls goading commenters into angry off-topic dialogue,” highlights how online commenting has become more farfetched and less responsible, among other interesting points.  

Hiding behind a computer screen to express negative views, or, in some cases, indulge in cyberbullying, which has been linked to several suicides over the years, is quite cowardly to say the least.

According to a survey conducted by Disqus, an online commenting platform with 60 million-plus users and nearly half a billion comments, 61 percent of its commenters utilize pseudonyms while 35 percent remain anonymous. Only four percent use their real names verified by Facebook.

To some people, it’s important to have anonymity or utilize aliases when commenting on the Internet to protect their careers or positions in society. This is understandable, but when it comes to leaving wholeheartedly negative comments or ones that are completely off-topic, I presume that some people would rather keep their identity undisclosed due to them being too ashamed and/or cowardly to put a face with what they’re posting.

The commenting sections on websites aren’t a bad thing. But certain people are discrediting the purpose of their existence. Online commenting sections are primarily for people to disclose their thoughts on the topic at hand, whether good, bad, or neutral. But for some, this has become a space to bully, defame, and also promote. This is something that may never stop completely, but with things like The Huffington Post’s decision to ban anonymous commenters and New York’s proposed Internet Protection Act, its presence will hopefully lessen. Only time will tell.

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