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Don't read the comments

I recently (mostly by accident) started reading the comments on

McClean’s infamous racist article about universities being ‘too Asian’.

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

systems.

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

racist.

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

them offline.

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.