Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Don’t open the comments section

We need to decrease our exposure to social media comment sections
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

In the half-second before opening a comments section, a voice in my head says, “I don’t think we’re going to like what we’re about to see.”

And it’s always right.

Still, I regularly scroll to the comments section. It’s usually out of curiosity, but I’ve done it so often that it’s become muscle memory at this point.

When the comments section opens, I can always count on nasty, cringe-inducing or otherwise negative messages to appear above the fold, and something tells me this is a universal experience. In the rare instance I don’t immediately see someone’s sneering remark, I feel notable surprise and relief.

As one of the marketing leads for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, I often see hate comments left on our website or social media posts. I wonder why there is such a high frequency of this behavior. Sure, there are trolls and nasty people in the real world who will say awful things anywhere, but those are few and far between. I’m mostly disappointed in the hate comments from those who would behave with relative civility in the real world. Why are comment sections the chosen platform for unleashing such hostility?

I know that face-to-face discourse doesn’t play out this way. Disagreements happen in the real world too — but there is a standard of civility when you cannot hide behind a username. In the real world, if you say something, everyone instantly knows it comes from you. If you have an unpleasant comment, you must have the audacity to be associated with it and own up to the consequences. Otherwise, you’re better off keeping it to yourself.

We have to remember that comment sections manufacture an artificially high level of incivility. They do not reflect real-life human discourse, so they do not deserve real-life influence or attention. While they will likely never be removed, I would urge my peers to disengage from them.

Users assume that their anonymity frees them from the consequences of their negativity. Mob mentality, dehumanization and the online disinhibition effect can explain this behavior, according to psychologist Arlin Cuncic.

Through the online disinhibition effect, the social norms of real-life discourse cease to exist. Cuncic states, “What would never be acceptable to do in person is somehow acceptable on the Internet.” Online, we lack the self-consciousness of normal human interactions.

As users shed their own sense of typical humanness, they perceive other users as non-human too. Cuncic writes, “Instead of perceiving each other as a person at the other end of the computer, we imagine we are commenting into the void.” Without the realization of a human target, users falsely believe that their aggression has no reason to be kept in check.

Finally, there’s the sheer magnitude of a comments section. For any individual post, there could be thousands of comments and replies. In the real world, we would never gather in thousand-person forums to collectively react to something. Comment sections simulate this phenomenon, thus creating a mob mentality. “When one person says something negative, this opens the floodgates for others to do the same,” Cuncic writes.

I am not an opponent of free speech. It is a slippery slope to allow tech giants and media companies to censor comments. Some hate comments are immediately obvious, but the line between hate and general disapproval or disagreement is a bit more subjective. Though a user cannot do much to change the nature of comment sections, it is their responsibility to disengage from them as needed.

I also understand the curiosity of reading a comments section, especially if the post appears controversial in some way. We all have an instinct to know what others are saying. We must realize, however, that the online opinions of others don’t deserve the clout we give them, as they are written under an abnormal set of constraints and social rules.

Even with this logic, it’s not easy to simply ignore negative comments or not let them affect you. For this reason, I urge my peers to disengage from the comments section as much as possible. It’s an act of self-care and good internet hygiene.

As you take time away from comment sections and reflect on their absurdity, don’t let them ruin your trust in civil human discourse. Remember that they were never designed for it in the first place.

Kelly McMahan can be reached at [email protected]

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  • M

    Mike MurphyNov 28, 2023 at 11:31 pm

    Great article.
    Why do we still allow anonymous comments?

    • E

      Ed Cutting -- EdD 2012Nov 29, 2023 at 3:04 pm

      We allow anonymous comments for the same reason that paper newspapers would print anonymous letters to the editor a century ago — and why the Federalist Papers were printed anonymously, although we now know who wrote each.

      Take UMass — if the Collegian prints a RA’s name, even without mentioning that the person is a RA and Housing (ResLife) doesn’t like what the person wrote, the RA would be fired. I’ve seen that happen.

      And often what the RA was writing was both true and of public interest — so the greater good is to let her (and anyone) comment anonymously.

      The other thing is the distinction between things that are truly hateful and those with which one merely disagrees — something increasingly blurred in a society where the personal and political are often commingled. For example, disagreeing with Donald Trump’s policy (on anything) is legitimate disagreement, while the balloon of him in a diaper is personal.

      There is a time when Democrats would have said that the balloon was inappropriate — that one could attack his policies all one wanted, but that one ought not attack him personally. There’s even a Latin expression for it — ad hominem. And the Republicans would say the same thing about ad hominem attacks on Biden.