Over the last decade, online trolling has become an endemic feature of the internet. In some cases, entire publications have taken extreme measures, such as completely removing comment sections, to rid themselves of its scourge. But others have embraced the contentious and often personal style of commentary typical of online trolling. This raises questions concerning what if anything can be done. As always, it seems one man’s troll is another’s articulate advocate.
One of the inherent problems facing those who would do away with contentious commenting sections is a difficult reality that showmen the world over have known for centuries: Fights sell seats. As one website, such as the Nation, gets rid of its comment section or severely restricts who can and can’t leave comments, another site, like Buzzfeed, will pick up the slack.
As detailed in this article, many sites actually encourage these types of contentious comments because anger is one of the most potent drivers of traffic. But this kind of rage-fueled audience formation has serious drawbacks.
One overriding problem with mainstream media axing reader comments is that those readers then tend to gravitate toward sites that are less focused on providing fair and balanced coverage and more focused on racking up view counts. This has led to an increasingly factionalized citizenry, where people get caught in echo chambers, hearing and reading only those stories that reinforce the basic notions they already hold. This can lead to a breakdown in civil discourse and a collapse of healthy debate.
One of the ways in which the authors of a recent Pew Research study say that society may choose to deal with increasingly personal and uncivil discourse is by simply limiting speech. This has already been seen in some disturbing recent trends on college campuses where speakers were denied platforms. Other ways in which the authors of the study say that society may react is for government to increase its surveillance efforts on common citizens. None of these options are particularly desirable in a free society.
But the authors also warn that the alternative will be to let the trolls win, controlling all discourse and making the internet an intellectual mine field.