Flat White

Why comments should be free again

16 July 2018

7:57 AM

16 July 2018

7:57 AM

‘Comment is free,’ The Guardian’s opinion page still proudly declares, quoting C P Scott, a former editor of the newspaper. And yet nowadays the phrase is something of an exaggeration, if not an out-and-out fib. The Guardian has in fact severely limited the comments sections below its articles over the past few years, heavy-handedly moderating comments on some articles, and removing comments entirely for especially controversial pieces.

The Guardian, of course, isn’t the only outlet that’s clamped down on comments. The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, Vice – these and many other sites have consigned comments to the dustbin. Strikingly, it’s supposedly liberal publications – the Guardian foremost among them – that have led the charge.

Right-leaning publications, like The Telegraph and The Spectator, have taken a different tack, allowing comments, but only to registered or subscribed members (who often have to pay a fee). That makes commenting less accessible, to be sure. But it doesn’t make it impossible. Nor does it constitute a turn away from the whole idea of readers commenting freely on articles.

So why close the comments sections? The most commonly-cited reason is because people post things that others find offensive. The Guardian itself claimed that ‘Sometimes there is so much rage that a mature debate is impossible.’ But one person’s ‘rage’ is another’s justified indignation. And what some see as a ‘mature debate’ may strike others as a stage-managed discussion that stifles alternative viewpoints.

Does that mean that civility shouldn’t be encouraged? Not at all. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging commenters to be polite or to focus on analysing the arguments at hand rather than hurling abuse at opponents. But neither of these admirable aims are furthered by shutting down comments sections entirely. Doing that may only give people fewer opportunities to learn and practice the norms and habits that make for productive discussions.

Which brings us to another common argument. Closing down or moderating comments doesn’t limit free speech, it’s claimed, because stopping you posting a comment on one site doesn’t prevent you from having your say – you just have to do it elsewhere. But that’s like telling someone at a meeting that they’re welcome to advocate for a particular view as long as they do it outside.

In any case, even if it’s often true that there’s somewhere else where people can discuss things, why are news and politics sites now in the business of reducing the number of spaces we have for discussions of the issues of the day? Surely providing and protecting democratic forums of that sort should be one of their main purposes.

But here there’s a final argument that’s worth spending a bit more time on. This is the argument that, in order for a forum to be truly democratic, everyone should have a fair chance of having their say. And ensuring that everyone has a fair say might mean clamping down on the kind of abuse that can prevent certain people from speaking up.

The ideal that everyone should get a fair say is as old as democracy itself. The ancient Greeks even had a word for it: isēgoria, or ‘equality of speech.’ But if we really want to honour this ideal, it’s not clear how closing comments sections down helps. Most people don’t get the chance to publish a whole article under their name; the best they can do is post a comment below it. How does denying them even that help ensure a fair say for all?

One answer is ‘Because it stops them saying abusive things that might put other people off.’ Even if comments sections remain open, the argument runs, they should be carefully monitored and moderated to ensure that everyone feels comfortable. After all, if certain people are copping a disproportionate amount of abuse just for taking part, that makes it harder for them to put their opinions out there.

But it’s not clear that certain people are getting significantly more flak than others. The often-repeated claim that women get a lot more abuse than men, for instance, is questionable: a recent study by the Pew Research Institute found that men are the subjects of more online harassment than women. And is it really true that online abuse is driving people from cyberspace? Apparently not: for all the to do about the ‘toxic’ online environment, the number of people on social media continues to grow.

What about certain people crowding others out of the conversation simply by talking too much? There is some research that suggests that men talk more than women in group discussions. Isn’t that a reason to moderate comments sections in itself, to cut down on mansplaining?

Here it’s useful to introduce a distinction from economics. Economists talk about rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. A rivalrous good is one that you have to have less of if I have more. The classic example is a pie: if I gobble up three-quarters of it, there’ll only be a quarter of it left for you. A non-rivalrous good, conversely, is one that you don’t have to have less of if I take more. Air is like that: if I take a deep breath, I’m not depriving you of oxygen – or anybody else, for that matter.

Men talking more in meetings might well be a problem because in a one-hour meeting, speech is a rivalrous good. If I spend half an hour talking about owls in a seminar, that’ll cut down on your opportunity to raise the points you wanted to discuss. But outside a scheduled meeting or seminar, speech tends to be non-rivalrous. My going on about rugby to my friend in one part of town doesn’t stop you talking to your friend about football somewhere else.

Comments sections under online articles are, as it happens, a perfect example of a context in which speech is non-rivalrous. No matter how many times I comment, you still have exactly the same capacity to comment yourself. Even if I post a thousand-word rant, that won’t decrease the number of words you can write in reply. The way that comments sections work makes it virtually impossible for one person to crowd out anybody else.

That, I would argue, is a wonderful thing. As is the role comments can play in ensuring more people have their say on public issues, in helping us practice the habits that make for good discussions, and in allowing alternative ideas to be expressed and criticized.

But comments can only play these roles if we let them. Sites like Quillette and Spiked! have shown that largely unregulated comments sections are still possible. Other sites should follow their lead and help make comment free again.

James Kierstead is senior lecturer in classics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where his research focuses on ancient Greek democracy. He tweets at @Kleisthenes2.

Illustration: National Archives.

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