Published September 11, 2020
When I began working as an editor-in-chief at The Reykjavík Grapevine in 2017, my news editor asked me a simple question: What’s my opinion of news article comment sections?
My answer was not simple. But the most simple answer I could give her was, it’s complicated. I hate them, but in some odd way, I like the freedom they give the readers. An active comment section can keep the media on its toes. Reader comments have even helped me before, when working as a journalist, to add more information to the story.
We had a simple discussion about it, where we weighed the importance of the comment section on grapevine.is and our considerations centred around two questions: Do the comments add something to the stories we are publishing? And, more importantly, are we able to actively moderate the comment section? The answer to both questions was ‘no.’ So, we decided to close the comment section as an experiment and see what would happen. In short, nothing happened. Readers were still free to comment on articles on the Grapevine’s Facebook page, but the distinction was that we were not the hosts of the party in the same way as if the comments were directly on Grapevine.is. We do moderate Facebook comments, though; we do not allow racism or hate speech. It’s a simple rule to follow.
The reason I bring this up is because of two girls that were flung into the British and Icelandic media recently when two England footballers invited them to their Reykjavík hotel room, breaking lcelandic quarantine laws. The players were fined 250.000 ISK (around 1,300 GBP) and, though they weren’t breaking any rules, the girls were viciously slut-shamed in the comment sections of Icelandic and British media.
This was revealing. Sexism is still very much alive, if anyone was wondering. But it also revealed, at least in Iceland, that the Icelandic comment sections are largely unregulated. This turned out to be the hardest part for the Icelandic girls.
We have seen instances of public shaming again and again, as well as all other kinds of bullying. And a lot of it is hosted by respectable media organisations. The comment section, perhaps, had its use in the beginning, but things have changed. There is no one left in these comment sections that has anything remotely intelligent to say. Although we value some of the opinions, they are largely outnumbered by hate, over-hasty judgment and often, just basic stupidity.
It’s easy to tell people to ignore it, but it’s still the inflammatory comments that stand out even after reading what could well be an intelligent and balanced article. It drags everything down. I’m not saying we should abolish the comment sections, but if the media wants to be taken seriously, it needs to put more stock into closely moderating comments and, more importantly, follow their own guideline.
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