The Political Impact of Online Commenting

Flame: “to insult someone electronically, or otherwise…” –Urbandictionary.com

As Leets’ 2001 article on hate sites discusses, the Internet is an unprecedented mode of communication. It has the potential to give a platform of communication to those traditionally denied one, to disseminate information and opinions immediately to thousands of people, and to provide endless forums for any opinions about any subjects to be heard.

Problems:

However, this promising discursive arena comes with several challenges, including issues of free speech. As our most recent reading explains, the Internet’s recent political involvement, especially in elections, has both benefits and challenges. One challenge is that user-driven content means campaigns have less control over candidates’ image and message. Although Gueorguieva’s article discusses specifically the problems that can arise when users create social networking profiles or video content on behalf of candidates, comments sections, especially on comment-driven websites like YouTube and news/blog websites, may also distort candidates’ images and political messages. Jesse Singal’s article, “Most Comments are Horrible—Sites Look for Ways to Make Them Better,” discusses the unfortunate prevalence of vitriolic comments online (i.e., flaming, defined above), and notes their presence on news websites like the Huffington Post.

Solutions: 

Singal suggests several methods websites can use to keep inappropriate comments under control. Although the Internet is hailed as a forum of free speech, comments are still subject to moderation policies by website owners, and so Singal proposes comment moderation as a costly, but effective, method. He notes that some major news providers, like NPR and The New York Times, already engage in comment moderation. Singal also suggests eliminating comments completely, and using a private form of communication like email in its place, or using a “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) comment structure like that on Reddit to allow users easy access to substantive comments even in the midst of dozens of inappropriate ones.

In considering whether or not online commenting, especially on YouTube and news websites, should be moderated at the cost of free speech and with the potential risk of moderator bias in what content is displayed, it may be useful to ask the question, “Can online commenting serve as a substantial source of misinformation, slander, or distorted political messages?”

If so, is moderation the appropriate response? And should campaigns have some say in whether or not clearly slanderous and false comments about candidates are displayed?

*It’s interesting to note that on YouTube, most Obama-related videos contain strictly supportive comments, whereas most Romney-related videos contain very mixed (esp., negative), and often inappropriate comments. This may be due to the fact that most of the Obama-related videos were posted by the official Obama page (and are therefore probably censored), whereas Romney seems to lack an official presence on YouTube. This puts Romney at a clear disadvantage on YouTube, a perhaps significant news source for people who do not take the time to follow campaigns, but still cast votes based upon a few video clips and hearsay.

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5 responses to “The Political Impact of Online Commenting

  1. It has been my experience that most internet comments are so full of logical fallacies and poor reasoning that they become painful to read.

    However, I certainly believe that a person’s political beliefs/perceptions can change as a result of reading another person’s comment.

    This semester I am enrolled in a political science iCourse and feel that this happens quite often in our online discussions. The ideas espoused by the first few posts seem to be often repeated by the posts that follow. In fact on one occassion I received a comment from someone agreeing with my argument that they had “never thought of before.” Later on, I saw them repeat my argument in response to another post without attributing it to me.

    This concept of mimicking or adopting ideas as our own is certainly popular and shows the immense power of political media and propaganda, even among something as harmless as a Youtube comment.

  2. You’ve mentioned here (and we all talked about this in class) that one of the main challenges with utilizing the media for a candidate’s campaign is the loss of control over what floods the internet and reaches potential voters. Coming from the candidates’ perspectives, I can see how this could totally be an issue. But from the view of the “people,” I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing that the campaign officials lose a little control over what is heard and read regarding their front runners. I’m not saying that slander over the web should be tolerated, and I agree with Tim that user generated comments and ideas serve as a huge influence to other participants, but I think this idea of users posting on the internet could be useful (again, maybe not the candidate himself, but to the voters) to be given a candid view from which an opinion can be formed. I mean, so often campaign officials try so hard to portray just the right man, so they omit certain things that I definitely think can sway my opinion of a person. Maybe it’s a good thing that it’s becoming harder and harder to only tell the people what they want to hear.

    Look at all the false information that’s already out on the internet — people aren’t making such a stink about that, they just chose whether or not to believe in it. The same is true for tabloids and magazines that give celebrities bad names. It’s part of mainstream media these days, I don’t think it should be covered up because now we’re talking about Wall Street instead of Hollywood now.

  3. It seems pretty clear that online commenting is a source of misinformation and slander in many cases. But that’s okay in my opinion. When people on Youtube post rants about Obama being some kind of Muslim-atheist-communist-nazi, people just laugh and ignore them. When someone posts a fair critique, an interesting discussion usually follows. Censorship, especially given that most content sources (or at least the moderators they employ) are at least slightly biased, can be a threat to free and informative discourse online. I personally prefer Reddit’s system, where people who post inappropriate comments get downvoted to hell, and most people don’t even see it (although this system can also be abused if too many users are close-minded). In sum, I think that if we want to cut down on the dissemination of misinformation by dumb people online, fact-checking is safer and more effective than censorship. Censorship is never a good idea.

  4. I’m sorry, your post reminded me of this: http://www.collegehumor.com/video/3980096/we-didnt-start-the-flame-war

    To answer your question, online commenting can be misleading and overly biased. As you mentioned, the users could also “flame” certain candidates without even looking at the issues. However, I believe having user-driven content is a double-edged sword. Users can also passionately show their support for one candidate over another, such as the case with the Obama supporters. To solve former issue, are online monitors and censorship really the only two available options?

    A solution I can think of might be to have three different comment sections under the main content: one for supporters, one for adversaries, and one for general comments. This way, users can identify points made from different sides of an argument and add their opinions towards the topic. However, some cons to this might be users not willing to participate or placing comments in the wrong sections. I suppose there still needs to be some form of moderation whether or not this is put into action.

    Another solution, although costly, might be to educate the entire community about forming logical arguments and identifying trolls. Unpractical as this sounds, most sites already require one to have an account in order to comment and participate in the forums. To obtain an account, one has to accept certain terms and conditions. If one doesn’t abide to them, they are usually kicked out of the community. Could the site designers also place further restrictions on the user such as having certain prerequisites before being allowed to join the community such as age, education, and the like? What I dislike about this approach is that it filters out people and may take away from some meaningful discussion.

    Whatever the answer, this is a really good topic to think about and something I believe should be further addressed in the future.

  5. I think that the language on these sites shouldn’t be censored unless the website itself makes that decision because engaging in these sites is a choice on the user and if the user wants to participate then they will need to follow the rules set in place. As far as the political information… I think that people have the right to express their opinions about the candidates. Web 2.0 technologies allow users to create content and engage with other people who agree or disagree with them and I don’t think that we should limit those rights. And Romney may be at a disadvantage on Youtube, but I know that he has an advantage on Facebook because a large amount of money from the campaign has been used on social networking sites. Romney is “sponsored” when you type Barrack Obama into the search bar. Just like the media is supposed to be the “watchdog” of politics, I think that the internet has allowed the general public to do the same to hold their government accountable.

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