I saw a message on our Facebook page today from an irate reader who was upset that we allow anonymous comments:
You guys really need to get a better commenting system on your website. The fact that someone writes a piece about being raped and that people can go on and be called sluts and that she totally deserved it is absolutely crazy. And wrong. You should make it mandatory for anyone who comments on your site to have Facebook and that their comments on your website pop up on their feed. It holds people more accountable. I guarantee half the people wouldn’t say what they say if they knew their friends could read their obnoxious comments.
The problem with this line of thinking is that ‘accountability’ really just means that you want people to express opinions that are socially acceptable.
Lots of opinions that are very, very wrong can be socially acceptable (Nazi Germany, Jim Crow South). Having an opinion that your friends agree with means nothing in terms of whether it is a good or bad opinion, or right or wrong.
A lot of online publishers are doing the Facebook comments thing. There’s less negative commenting for the exact reason the above Facebook message points out. It makes the website look classier because people aren’t fighting, but at the cost of earnest dialogue. People can still disagree, sure, but no one is going to argue an opinion that is deeply unpopular, regardless of whether or not they may actually be right.
Facebook-only commenting has one result — scaring people into agreement.
To be clear, they will not actually agree. The dissenters will just not voice their opinion, they will just go elsewhere or remain silent and no dialogue will occur. No one’s opinion will change. Media will go even farther in the direction of speaking only to an audience that is seeking confirmation of their preexisting beliefs.
Here are two powerful thoughts on this topic:
If Republicans are talking only with Republicans, if Democrats are talking primarily with Democrats, if members of the religious right speak mostly to each other, and if radical feminists talk largely to radical feminists, there is a potential for the development of different forms of extremism, and for profound mutual misunderstandings with individuals outside the group.
It is easy to criticize a sensationalist talk show for, say, giving a neo-Nazi a platform to voice hateful rhetoric. But by exposing these sorts of people rather than censoring them, these shows reveal the underlying inconsistencies in their doctrines. Instead of appearing frightening, these people’s platitudes appear as inane as they really are.
Trolling and name-calling happen when you allow anonymous commenting, but it’s a necessary evil. We need anonymous, unmoderated commenting if we care at all about critical thinking.
A hardcore feminist should be excited when a misogynist comments on her articles, and vice versa. If we truly care about the things we claim to, we want people to understand why and be open to our thoughts on the subject. We don’t want to bully them into agreement, we want to bring them into agreement in a way that actually changes the way they think, through dialogue.