It has been seven years since I shared my perspective as MercatorNet’s Comments Editor. While the tone of debate on this site seems to have improved a bit over the years, it’s useful to revisit what I wrote then.
Questions for keyboard warriors here include:
- “Am I seeking approval? When I seek validation through something I post and that little red flag starts popping up to notify me of each person giving me attention, it’s an addictive reward.” A sense of validation may also be derived from seeing one’s name in the byline of a comment, preferably one that appears at the top of the comments column. We would do well to check for “unresolved conflict with someone I love” or whether we “just thrive on pleasing people and hearing their praise”.
- “Am I discontented? When we view social media from a lens of discontentment, whatever we find will be coloured with bitterness and ungratefulness.” Ironically, the arguments we get into here can stir us to come back for more, like online gamers returning with battle scars for a fix of sorts.
- “Is it kind? We have been given covered space from which to throw grenades, without requiring us to take responsibility for the weight of our words.”
Before hitting the Post button, it’s worth asking ourselves “Imagine saying this in a town hall meeting. Would it hinder my cause by coming across as little more than an angry rant?”
Commenters emboldened by easy thoughtlessness and anonymity on the internet often resort to ad hominem attacks and false accusations when they can’t add value to a debate.
As I said to someone who posted a comment on a recent article here about the San Francisco gay choir, “If the comments on recent articles by mothers concerned about their children being conditioned to transition by strangers are any guide, I’d say there is a lot more abuse from the other side.”
To be sure, we get callous comments from all sides on hot-button issues. I recently deleted a few from the right on Margaret Somerville’s latest article on mandatory vaccination and let others through. To anyone distressed by the bitterness of published comments, I’d echo what a Sydney Morning Herald moderator wrote: “You should have seen the ones I threw out!”
In a recent email exchange with someone who objected to having his comment deleted, I wrote: “Your comment was deleted for calling another commenter a compulsive liar, showing trollish contempt for this person. Not all ad hominem remarks are deleted, only those that show trollish contempt for other commenters. As a regular commenter myself, others have called me ignorant, dishonest and worse. Partly so that justice is seen to be done, I let these comments pass, responding to them dispassionately.”
We ban commenters as a last resort. We have banned a dozen in 2020-21 – from both the right and the left – mostly for repeated trolling with spurious allegations or abusing contributors. The last person banned showed persistent contempt for our editors’ work. It’s a balance between encouraging free debate and letting through invective that deter other readers from saying their piece. We’d like to build a community that feels more like a debating club than a fist fight.
A good rule of thumb is Socrates’ three tests for when to speak up and when to be silent – whether what we say is truthful, necessary and kind.