Opinion
3 min

The power of the comments section

Deranged online comments are increasingly being presented as a barometer of public opinion

George Smitherman is comforted by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall.

While a recent Pew Research poll found that 80 percent of Canadians believe homosexuality should be accepted, you’d be forgiven for thinking the other 20 percent spend their time posting online comments. Such is the profusion of mean, homophobic comments accompanying many online news articles about us.

Gay people have, for the most part, won the right to be treated like heterosexuals in much of the “Western” world. Although the fight to enshrine these rights into law continues to be paramount, perhaps equally important is the battle against flagrant homophobia in schools, in the workplace and on the lips of our leaders. It’s one likely to go on interminably, but at least in Canada it’s no longer acceptable for homophobes to show their true colours in most places.

Of course, there remain exceptions, possibly none more insidious than the space below news stories where anonymous commenters can tell us what they really think of us. A friend recently emailed me a sample of the comments accompanying a Yahoo news story about the disappearance of former Ontario MPP George Smitherman’s husband. It was one giant, steaming pile of hatred. “Living a gay lifestyle is a moral sin . . .  allowing gay couples to adopt is an abomination,” said one commenter.

“What???? Who care [sic] about 2 fat, ugly faggots!!!” asked another. “This is not a marriage. Suspect foul play related to the issue of homosexuality,” said one budding gumshoe.

It’s easy for most rational people to ignore such displays — the online equivalent of averting our eyes when we encounter a raving, frenetic drunk on the subway. But while many of us respond to these characters by avoiding eye contact, hoping they’ll move on and find new people to harass, curiosity also often compels us to steal a glance just to see how bad it is.

It’s the same with deranged online comments, which are easily written off as the rantings of maladjusted trolls. The problem is that journalists are increasingly presenting such comments as a barometer of public opinion, even though we know they are not a true representation of society. In an era of cuts in mainstream media, journalists now rely on vox populi from Twitter, Facebook and, yes, anonymous commenters to fill space.

And even if journalists don’t report on the nastiest of comments, a recent study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found they have a profound effect on readers. “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself,” the study’s researchers recently wrote in The New York Times, noting that “simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment” was enough to change a reader’s mind about the story.

Another article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science cited an MIT study that found humans exhibit the same “herd behaviour” in the comments section as they do elsewhere. Researchers posted fake comments on an unnamed news site that allows readers to rank comments with a thumb up or down. Comments that researchers stacked with fake positive votes were 32 percent more likely to receive more positive votes from real commenters.

Turning back to the Smitherman comments, it appears this finding holds up — a majority of those who weighed in gave the crude comments a thumb up.

So what to do? The online troll has always seemed like a strange curiosity to be ignored. His repulsive comments often go unchallenged as we wonder why he sits all day at his computer commenting about things he despises. But now we know he may be on to something. Not only is he getting that attention he’s always so desired, he’s also possibly finding new converts to his illogical fallacies and hatred.

One solution is to moderate comments sections or get rid of them entirely. But for those who believe in freedom of speech and expression, the best solution may be to join the discussion and put up a fight. Strong leaders have stood up to homophobes in the halls of Canada’s parliaments and in the courts, we encourage our youth to confront haters and bullies on the playground, and many of us fight back against bigotry in our workplaces and communities. There is a new frontier in the struggle for gay rights, and it’s easier than ever to take part.