If you spend twenty minutes on the internet doing anything besides looking at videos of baby sloths getting baths, it’s almost impossible not to discover some kind of abuse, and odds are it’s going to be in a comments section. We know not to “feed the trolls” (a philosophy I actually find really unhelpful, because trolls are like asexual autotrophic amoebas that don’t need chum to reproduce). We remind ourselves and each other not to read the comments– to NEVER, EVER read the comments (and then we always do anyway). Because comments sections are cesspools where discussion and nuance and respect go to die, buried under a mountain of abuse and inanity.
As someone who works on climate change and biodiversity, and writes (and reads) a lot about feminism and sexism in academia — topics that get a lot of press but also invite a lot of vitriol — my experience with comments sections is less than awesome. I know, intuitively, that most readers aren’t commenting, and that commenters tend to be a vocal minority of trolls, and aren’t representative of the population. There’s a pervasive internet rumor that some commenters are even paid to flood online forums and manipulate public opinion. That makes it easier to ignore most comments sections (even as I wish we could do more to make the web safer for people who aren’t white dudes).
But what happens when the comment section is more of a representative cross section of your community? Since getting a faculty job, I’ve been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and other academic periodicals. There’s the occasional eye-rollingly bad post, which I could almost forgive because even bad ideas can spur good discussion. What’s been really bugging me, though, are the comments sections. Websites like CHE should, in theory, have a readership that’s almost exclusively academics. In other words, these aren’t basement trolls or Tea Party shills. These are my peers. Which means we have a serious problem.
Take this recent post on microaggression at CHE, something we’ve written about here before. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, including pitting the “culture of victimhood” against “honest inquiry.” If you missed it, it’s only really worth reading if you want to raise your blood pressure over lunch. And as obnoxious and privileged (two white dudes complaining about microaggressions as an idea) and inaccurate as it was, what really pissed me off was the comments. As of this post, there are over 400, with more trickling in, from dozens and dozens of people. Almost all of them are (in, uh, my opinion) smug, assinine tirades about PC culture run amuck.
This isn’t an anomaly. Read the comment section of any article on diversity in academia (again, I’m focusing here on websites like Science or Nature or CHE or IHE that should be mostly peers) and you’ll find the same thing — the vast majority of comments belittle problems facing women and underrepresented minorities, or are outright hostile to them. Any scholarship relevant to such study (e.g., all of the social sciences) is summarily dismissed.
When you read enough of these articles, it’s hard not to wonder how many of my colleagues hold toxic opinions espoused in comments sections. Do they resent me because they think I was a diversity hire? Do they think our sexual harassment policy is a joke? Do they think I have an easier time because of affirmative action policies implemented by journals or funding agencies? I worry that they see me as unequal, as weak, as capitalizing on the culture of victimhood because I have a vested interest. And what if comments sections are contributing to the diversity problem? Do young scholars see the relentless hostility and think, “NOPE!”?
There are assholes in academia just as there are assholes everywhere else. Just because academics tend toward liberal on average doesn’t mean we’re more enlightened when it comes to social justice, which I often forget. Maybe the comments sections on academic articles reflect the same 1% vocal minority as the rest of the internet, and the 99% of readers not commenting are great people. Maybe there’s a pervasive resentment of women and underrepresented minorities, and it’s only a fear of “PC culture” that’s keeping it in check except for secret cabals of cigar-chomping, poker-playing OWD’s plotting how to strengthen their death grip on power. Maybe I’m being maudlin and reality is somewhere in the middle. It’s like those games where someone in your group is secretly a werewolf or a murderer, except the game is my life and it’s not very fun. “Prof. Douche Canoe did it in the conference room with the candlestick.” I win again!
So, what do we do about it? There’s some compelling evidence that ad hominem attacks in comments sections polarizes readers and changes their opinion about the work being reported. Some online content producers are famously shutting down comments entirely (I don’t think this is the right answer, and I’m personally in favor of having strong, well-moderated comments sections over none at all). The flip side of moderting is that you might end up with people who shut down important conversations because they don’t like your tone. Angrily calling out sexism isn’t the same as saying something sexist, a distinction that may be missed by heavy-handed moderators.
Plus, moderation doesn’t change attitudes. Saying “I don’t think there’s a diversity problem in science” doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of abuse. Most of the comments on that CHE post are obnoxious, but most would fly under the radar of a comments policy (even ours). The real problems are 1) the attitudes, and 2) the lack of apparent diversity in the commenters. Because that’s the insidious thing about hostile comments sections; they’re creating spaces where anyone who is a target of that hostility doesn’t want to engage. If those spaces are dominated by angry white men (and I’d bet dollars to donuts that the majority of CHE commenters are white men), then they stay that way. As a consequence, it looks like the minority opinion rules. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything in the long run; but maybe it does (social scientists, can we get some research on this? Thanks!).
I think we should be having a serious conversation about how to make the internet safer people who aren’t white men. Making comments sections less like the Wild West may be one way to do that. In the meantime, at least we have Bingo cards and side-eye gifs.