The Political Impact of Online Commenting

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

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.


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.


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.