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Comments in Online News: Public Discourse in The Computer Age

Note: Column was first published 1st, Sept. 2013.

Have you noticed the comments sections operated by news websites?  Those chat rooms that follow the articles in online papers, like The Globe and Mail, National Post, The CBC, Maclean’s Magazine, and The Toronto Star.  They are designed to stimulate traffic to their websites to impress advertisers.  Commenters are anonymous, though a few find sufficient courage to post their real names.  A war has erupted with censors who reflect the sensitivities of each newspaper and leave readers disgruntled.

The National Post uses Disqus, a company from California, to operate the comments as a separate news function.  Until recently, the paper allowed commenters the freedom to say just about anything with little censorship, until the bickering online between Liberal and Conservative posts became too ‘personal’ with hysterical accusations of bullying and retorts of lying becoming so numerous that rational thought became scarce.  It was absurd to read the battle of words between anonymous caricatures poking each other as they reached past their public, fake personas exchanging blows.  It was amusing, but frustrating, so the paper has instituted a censor, who rejects the most guilty culprits, and refuses to display comments with links to other papers or magazines.  At one time, being barred from his local pub was all a man had to fear in life.

Maclean’s Magazine uses Disqus too, and so far, has avoided censoring comments.  The articles about the legalisation of marijuana have provoked energetic debate, with so many anonymous radicals admitting that they are regular users and have a reefer going as they write.  Reefer, stick, joint, ganja, and spliff were all used with an abandon seldom seen in public, where a face and name might impart identity.

The Globe and Mail, has for most of the week, closed the comments sections while replacing it with something new, but beginning today, that paper has reopened comments with a new format that seems to irritate everyone.  Writers cannot edit their comments, after posting, which Disqus allows.  It is curious how the unknown commenters clamour for a ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ icon to express fatal judgement on the other side of the heated dispute.  The omnipotent sensor is an ever-present shadow over every word.

So, why do people do it?  Why do they cloak themselves and express thoughts that have so little intellectual substance, humour, or insight?  There are the fringe voters, who reflect radical ideology, and there are thinkers who have a solution, if only someone would listen, but most expressions are emotional drivel, coloured with a range of biases, outright prejudice and anger at any authority.  It is, at least, a creative process as each writer reaches for the right word, or phrase, that pokes ridicule, an opposing view, or condemns an idea or belief.  This is public discourse in the computer age.

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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