Comments fall into silence and trolls will have to get a life
Jan 9, 2016
Silencing Comment Sections: The Decline of Online Discourse and the Shift to Social Networks.
"The customer is always right." This phrase is one of the most forced public relations exercises in history, as everyone who has been on the customer's side knows that it doesn't work in practice. In journalism, the maxim is even less true because the journalist's obligation is (supposedly) to tell the truth, even if that may alienate the audience. Those who do not alienate themselves are the audience itself, especially the 'trolls'. After years of digital schizophrenia, the comments area of websites is beginning to die. There is no turning back and, more than that, there will be no one shedding tears for the change.
The decision of several sites to get rid of the comment areas occurred a few weeks ago. Reuters, Mic and The Week were part of the first wave of organizations to take the measure. For Brazil, the discussion of the subject is still valid (perhaps even more so now). The political debate is acidic and the vast majority of more frequent debaters are those who do not like discussion, but aggression and applause. Debate is a foundation of democracy; trolling is an attitude of those who think they win a discussion by attacking the opponent. And this is the greater feeling in most newsrooms around the world.
The decision to silence the conversation seems authoritarian - except for those who were in it, or watching it around their product. Racism, hate speech, prejudice, sexism et al are at the core of a section that supposedly would make the audience participate in the news. Only in theory. Comment areas are rarely engaged. The input of comments is widely disregarded in most newsrooms and journalists and editors do not feel comfortable embracing this collaboration. Not without reason. The norm is that the "owners" of the comments are the worst in society.
New means have appeared to give voice to the audience. Social networks, digital image devices, mobile apps and other more traditional ones like forums, communities and email give the process greater responsibility and authorship. The most virulent discussion is left to social networks, which in turn have to deal with the problem of trolling. "The arena of this discussion has moved from publication to social networks," said the editor of an important technology site, Re/Code
The media has a part of the responsibility for the bankruptcy of the process because so far, the audience has been supported and is not seen as someone who has something to add. Journalists like to talk (or write) and not listen (or read) at any time other than the investigation of the story. The mass as a whole also doesn't do much to change this scenario, as Winston Churchill controversially opined. People individually are better or worse; when they group together, they are often dangerous.
The decision to remove the most significant comment section was that of NPR, a public radio network in the United States. A public service should seek the greatest amount of interaction possible, right? Well, here a reflection becomes important: the assessment of the public thing. Countries like Brazil tend to see the public thing, or the "res publica" (etymologically, origin of "republic") does not belong to anyone, and thus, from where one can and should take advantage. In Protestant-Germanic-Anglo-Saxon culture countries, the public thing is everyone's, and the responsibility for its maintenance is everyone's duty. NPR didn't "remove" an interaction channel, but blocked one that had been victimized by "digital squatters", a paramilitary militia of online bullying. Like Re/Code, NPR also sees other spheres for interaction and discussion.
In a deeper reflection, journalism and journalists need to reassess how sincere is the discourse of wanting to guarantee the audience a space in the command cabin. The reality is far from the practice in newsrooms and a considerable portion of professionals get irritated with public participation. This inheritance from the communication model in force until the end of the last century is not only exclusive to more experienced journalists. For millennia, communication in society has been absolutely kept under control by the elite (not necessarily economic). The untying of this model will be done over generations and not years.
Public participation in the journalistic process is neither optional nor dubious. Journalism exists if society benefits from it. If there is no benefit to society, it is not journalism. Note that in "benefit", it does not mean meeting the reader's desires, but rather, saying what he needs to know.
Tools like Hearken propose to do this, with tools that bring audience participation in the conception of content and not in the evaluation. It is still a tool that needs polishing. The way the public enters the conversation is still in an uncomfortable way of little natural. This is natural, since the work processes of the traditional model are being forcibly adapted. It's like you borrowing a piece of clothing from your neighbor 50kg fatter than you. It's still the clothing and he's still doing you a favor, but it's not that you feel good about it.
Most Brazilian sites (including this one) have a comment area because they don't think about it. It's more or less like building a house, where the architect doesn't think about whether it will have bathrooms or not, but how many. This trend to abolish the comment section should also spread in Brazil (and certainly on this site). Technology provides more and more resources to foster interaction from most groups - and not from the least of them, as it is today. Readers/listeners/users accustomed to venting their livers protected under the cold blanket of pusillanimity, get ready. You're going to drown alone in your pools of bile.