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Ause Abdelhaq looks at the raucous online abuse that led to many media outlets disabling their comment sections.


IN 2011, mentalist Derren Brown placed thirty random people in an audience. He gave them masks and afforded them total control over one man’s life for an evening. Given two choices, one which would give the man joy and the other pain, the audience consistently and overwhelmingly voted in favour of the latter.

Over the course of the evening, the man was fired from his job, kicked out of his parents’ house and dumped by his girlfriend – all at the hands of the audience who were watching the events unfold. Eventually the audience chose to have the man kidnapped by a group of thugs but, as he broke free from the hired actors, he was hit by a van.

“the internet affords people an anonymity which they never would have had before.”

Brown, after leaving the audience stewing in guilt for some time explained that the evening had been an experiment to see how people behave under the guise of anonymity. Of course, as the man’s safety was confirmed there was visible relief, but more prominent was the overwhelming guilt which people clearly felt after realising what they had done.

This experiment’s relevancy in today’s society is undeniable. In a world dominated by online communication, the internet affords people an anonymity which they never would have had before. For the first time anybody can say anything they want, with little fear of repercussion. Anonymity provides distance from the person being affected. People on the internet have no reason to fear any backlash over what they post, especially when they’re just one voice in a thousand.

Recently, Vice announced that they’re removing the comments section from their website; this follows decisions by other media outlets such as USA Today and the Verge to do the same. In their justification for this move, the company argued that they “don’t have the time or desire” to continue monitoring a section which has devolved into “racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top.”

“Rather than being an open space where people continue a discussion, the comments section has become a cesspool of hatred”

The argument in favour of the comments section is an argument in favour of free speech; after all, comments sections are nothing more than modern-day equivalents to the traditional ‘letter to the editor’ section, which has featured in newspapers since the mid-18th century.

As Vice themselves put it, comments sections at their best, “can foster a productive community discussion around a particular story or topic, often providing insight or commentary that might have been missed otherwise.”

However, this is little more than idealistic jargon; the emergence of doxing (a practice whereby private information about the writer is broadcast publicly), death and rape threats, and commonplace hate speech means that comment threads have become major deterrents for people to produce content freely online.

In an in-depth study, published in the Guardian, detailing their own comment threads, found that there was a correlation between the number of blocked comments under a piece and the gender, sexuality or religion of the author. Of their ten most abused writers, eight were women, and also included gay, Muslim and Jewish writers. The ten least abused were all men.

The study included testimonies from writers who had been targeted by abuse; their accounts of being threatened and attacked are harrowing to read. Rather than being an open spaces where people continue a discussion, the comments section has become a cesspool of hatred where the victim is the very real person who gets abused.

Places of free speech are not a new idea. Forums of discussion, from town hall meeting to soap boxes have existed for centuries. Yet the kind of abuse felt online, however, is thus far unique to the internet – it’s thankfully rare for people to scream vitriolic hatred at one another in everyday life.

Some suggest the reason being that mob mentality can cause people to act differently. However, many are reluctant to stray from their values. The more likely reason for this behavioural gap is the anonymity the internet provides us.

In Brown’s experiment, the guilt that the audience felt when emerging from under their masks suggests that despite knowing that such actions were wrong, they did them anyway – this indicates that the anonymity allowed them to abandon their values until they saw with their own eyes the devastation they caused. Does this mean that if blocked commentators on the Guardian’s website saw the impact which they have on the writers they abuse, they might rethink their choices?

In any case, the sad reality at the moment is that whenever people are allowed to put on their masks, and hide behind usernames, they descend into a destructive state, forcing us to question how moral we really are as a society. Does our morality truly come from deeply held beliefs, or does it come from the peering eyes of those around us? The continuing censorship of our comments threads may provide the answer.

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