Discourse - 1

Last year, the online publication Inside Higher Education decided to eliminate comment sections, joining a long list of publications that have dropped features that allowed readers to discuss and debate articles and editorials published on their web sites.

Arguments for elimination of comments sections zeroed in on their descent into “cesspools” of bigotry, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, where the shouting and most persistent drown out thoughtful conversation. Even with the addition of control mechanisms, such as human moderation, technology fixes, and rules that allow worst-offenders to be kicked out, managing online discussion became too much of a burden (or too much of a ding on brand) for many major publications to maintain.

Arguments against elimination of comment sections include claims that discussion boards represent public spaces that companies serving the public have a responsibility to maintain. This is an argument someone made in response to Inside Higher Education’s decision, but it can be found in letters to the editor in many publications that shut down their comment sections.

The fact that those who want to debate a news or opinion piece can easily do so on social media is used to support arguments in support of and against elimination of reader comments. For the pro-elimination side, this argument is meant to show that free speech has not been curtailed just because one of many platforms have been taken away from commenters free to go elsewhere. For anti-comment-eliminationists, the decision to cede conversation to places like Facebook and Twitter is one of the reasons news organizations have lost out to those platforms in the marketplace.

Readers who have been following this site should be able to pick out the premises and conclusions of the arguments in the linked articles above, organize them into a logical structures, and analyze them for strength and weakness. (If you haven’t been following along and don’t know what that last sentence means, feel free to go through this curriculum sequence to become a skilled logic-checker yourself.)

While that is a valuable exercise you are welcome to engage in, there is a meta-argument contained within this wider debate, or at least an important question that needs to be asked: why did discussion boards transform from places where interesting, if sometimes heated, conversations and debate could take place to swamps so nasty that many writers refuse to even read responses to their articles, much less respond to them?

If you want a sense of how rapidly public discourse disintegrated, recall that in 2008 then-candidate Barack Obama launched his own social media platform called MyBarackObama.com that allowed anyone to set up an account and say what they liked within the community.

Needless to say, the data from that site was “harvested” in support of the candidate’s successful fund-raising and get-out-the-vote drives (he wasn’t running a charity after all). And there were no doubt controls in place to ensure people didn’t show up just to shout slurs and expletives. But one of the reasons the campaign thought this was a good idea was that it assumed such vandalism would be a rare exception, rather than the rule. In other words, it didn’t occur to them that people would hijack the platform because it didn’t occur to most people that hijacking someone else’s platform was a thing to do.

If you want to get a sense of how much the online-discourse landscape has changed since then, imagine what would have happened if either candidate in last year’s presidential race tried to pull off something similar to MyBarackObama.com. Within hours, the site would be filled with hostile trolls and saboteurs who joined solely to harass and embarrass political enemies, rather than win debates with them (never mind getting to try to understand them).

So something must have happened in the twelve years since 2008 that turned a global commons that was supposed to bring out the best of us into a planet-spanning quagmire empowering our worst impulses.

It would be easy to lay blame for this problem on technological “advances” like YouTube or bots, or personalities like Twitter-happy politicians or conspiracy theorists hyper-connected through Facebook. But I’m going to claim (next time) that the problems I have been describing stem not from something we “gained,” but rather from something we lost: the ability to argue.

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