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Column: Why the anger in comment sections?

When it comes to online comment sections, I break the rules. Even my browser tells me: never read the comments. Roommates remind me not to feed the trolls. I just want to read, respond and reimagine the people on the other side of my screen.

Different comment sections have reputations: Facebook is mundane if somewhat surreal, Imgur has the same five jokes in the first 10 comments and YouTube has the comment section the devil would avoid if he had high speed internet (we all know the devil has dial-up, that has to be part of hell). YouTube comments are Bad with a capital B.

Some of these tropes are true, but not universally. And even when they are true, I feel compelled to scroll. In my experience, the quality of comments has more to do with what content the commenters are responding to than what platform they’re responding on. Undeniably, though, anonymity does something to people. They get braver; they get meaner.

And people don’t always seem like people when they’re just a username and a comment. Heck, even when there’s a profile picture attached, there’s something about interacting in 140 characters that makes people seem more cartoon, less flesh and blood.

Then there’s the issue of tone. Everyone seems angry online. I don’t know if that’s just me wearily assuming that every anonymous online user has a bone to pick, or if it’s just the way sarcasm sounds without a face attached. Or, the most frightening possibility, everyone actually is angrier online.

My question is, what does this do to discourse? I still haven’t found the answer. In the U.S., politics have become more and more partisan, and political arguments seem charged with anger (sometimes with good reason — anger is a valid response to white supremacy in the White House or to seeing your job and your neighbors’ jobs disappear).

Does having anonymous conversations about politics online heighten that anger? Does the default unsympathetic tone, coming from a person who doesn’t necessarily seem wholly a person (they might be a robot after all, or a troll), bleed over into real life? Do we have more bad feelings toward people on the other side of the political spectrum because of the ire fueled conversations that rage below a video or Facebook post?

In 2016, Vice and NPR axed their comment sections, joining Reuters, The Chicago Sun Times and Popular Science in moving public commentary about news to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. NPR explained that a tiny fraction of their users were making comments, but maintaining the comment section was a drain on their budget.

Popular Science (which ended comment sections on its site back in 2013) cited a University of Wisconsin study that found positive or negative comments, which again were left by a tiny portion of readers, could dramatically impact a reader’s response to an article.

I can see why news organizations want to present their readers an article with as little bias attached as possible (even if that bias is coming from other readers), or avoid dealing with monitoring the racist, threatening or sexually explicit comments that pop up in many threads. But I can’t help my fascination with finding out what people think and why they think it. I love that a single mom in Kentucky or a teenager in Brazil can tell me their thoughts on a news article or music video.

Maybe the solution to the abysmal state of comment sections is not to abandon them, but to flood them with thoughtful discussion. The number of people who post comments is typically a tiny portion of the number of people who use a site.

‘If we all start commenting more, sharing our thoughts, reaching out through our screens, maybe the discourse will improve. Or maybe I need to accept that comment sections belong to the trolls, and vitriol is the toll.

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Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily. The views expressed in this column are her own. 

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