The troll down the hall: what do academic comment sections reveal about our colleagues?

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.


13 thoughts on “The troll down the hall: what do academic comment sections reveal about our colleagues?

  1. I’ve had this exact same thought. The comments section at CHE are some of the most frustrating I’ve ever come across. I’ve thought about wading in, so that things aren’t quite so overwhelmingly straight, white, middle-aged male. But I think without a concerted effort from numerous other voices there just wouldn’t be much point. It seems just too exhausting to fight that fight without knowing others will chime in.

    • I wonder if some kind if organized event would be worth it, to make a point? What would happen if we flooded a post with comments from non-white-guys?

      • I would certainly find it less daunting, knowing that there would be others on “my side”. But I also do not know how much benefit there would be. I doubt comments sections on CHE are going to change anyone’s mind, after all.

  2. I also prefer moderated comments to no comments.
    But, moderation can be quite a chore.
    I don’t think there’s any money in developing a good solution 😦
    But it seems to me that there are avenues which can be explored.

    A moderator-only score of a commenter: New commenters and “broken trust” commenters may have to wait longer to make it through moderation than trusted commenters. Yes, solutions like that would still be vulnerable to a biased moderator.

    Trusted commenters as well as moderators having “thumbs up/thumbs down” votes on comment replies to them.

    I’m sure that folks more creative than I could come up with some better ideas for making moderation efficient and a somewhat distributed task.

  3. I like the idea of a strong, well-moderated comments section but it’s true that it’s a lot of work. On the other hand, none of us would shirk at putting out a well-researched article because good research is a lot of work, or in fact being half hearted about any of our other tasks. It may be that in the future, the more we utilise the internet, the more that this extra task becomes a fact of life. Equally, people need to be more careful to make tone clear as it’s easy to accidentally upset someone and start a comments war (which is not how many of them start, I grant you, but those arguments that can be avoided, should be. More people should give the benefit of the doubt in comments (“Did they mean that to sound that difficult?”) I know I am particularly prone to sounding sharp and agressive, when I really didn’t mean to, and was just thinking about my point and typed it, which is another reason not to engage in the comments.

    Also, to be honest, I just don’t feel there is anything to be gained by engaging. No minds will be changed, and it’s such a minor thing, usually done by bored people. And I would end up with points, and counter points, and they would all have to be researched and supported, and all things considered, I have better things to do. Unless it’s my own research, and then it’s sort of my job to defend it.

  4. I’m not sure the trolls on CHE *are* mostly academic. Politically oriented trolls often target comments sections where they think they can influence academics. There are a few who constantly post comments on The Harvard Crimson, for example.

    Either way, I think moderators are the best solution. There’s a feedback loop – assholes dominate the comment section, other people lose interest in posting, assholes dominate the comment section more. It’s more convenient to appoint a moderator than for everyone to be more patient around assholes.

  5. I’m so scared of the internet that WordPress and Goodreads are about all I have. I also frequent the Chronicle, and I’ve noticed that a number of people in the comment section will point out that they are a student or that they went to college but are not working in academia. I think a lot of misunderstanding happens because of those groups, which I’ve noticed write inflammatory comments. Of course, this is not to say that profs aren’t getting crotchety and awful, too. I know some professors who blame everything on students and their danged ol’ technology. Erm, we’ve been saying that forever about students, like when they started writing instead of memorizing everything.

  6. N of 1, but I do recall a Nature News article about the “please get a male co-author” story where the most vicious commenters clearly had no idea what peer review even was. I have to believe they were non-academic interlopers. Regardless, these sites need to appreciate the need for greater moderation, especially when they should have enough experience by now to know what articles are going to generate heat.

  7. One criticism I’d make about this post is that with all the talk of “angry white men” it comes off as standing on the very ad hominem attacks that it identifies as divisive.

    The other thing that occurs to me is that it comes off as fearful of criticism.

    I’m sure neither of these messages was intended, but the post might be working at cross purposes with certain points of phrasing.

    • What you’re talking about is the tone argument, which I linked to in the piece above. I urge you to read more about it. Politeness has rarely gained any ground in any movement– suffragettes were not polite. The civil rights movement was not polite.

      Saying that a white man is a white man is not an ad hominem attack, and it’s definitely not comparable to, say, being called a “bitch,” or a “cunt.” It’s also not comparable with being told that our experiences don’t matter, that we’re embracing cultures of victimhood so we can benefit from them, or that we’re angry feminazis who suck at our jobs– these are the sorts of things that white men say to me, or others, in these kinds of forums.

      I get that people get defensive when confronted with the advantages conferred with being white and male in this country. I get that it’s uncomfortable reading about frustration and anger directed towards a general group when you’re in it, and that “angry white men” sounds like a broad brush. But it’s both important to point out that it’s 1) a short-hand for bad actors, and with racism and sexism at the institutional level, and 2) this anger is informed by decades of really bad treatment. We’ve got racism problems and sexism problems, and if we tiptoe around that by not talking explicitly about whiteness and maleness, then we don’t really make any progress.

      And before you make an argument about flies, honey, and vinegar, it’s also important to point out that this is a blog for women in academic to share our thoughts. That means it’s occasionally going to be a space where we vent our frustration about our lived experiences. It’s important to validate that and not take it personally.

      I’m not sure where you get the “fearful of criticism” sense, so I can’t comment on that. But perhaps it’s worth looking at the nature of the criticism — who does it, and why — and how that criticism is often biased to maintain a status quo that perpetuates inequality.

  8. 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.

    I find that while academics may vote for candidates on the left, their world view is often profoundly conservative. When you have a tenured position, why would you want anyone rocking the boat? The myth of the meritocracy is also very strong and many academics react negatively to any arguments about privilege, institutional roadblocks to underrepresented groups, etc.

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