How not to drown in the comments section

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The toxicity of the comments section of web and social media pages is largely a problem of each side believing that the other is a victim of misperception (slurs and name-calling aside). Is this a problem of how we apparently believe everything we read in the internet?

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  As more citizens remain glued to their smartphones, the online space we call “the comments section” continues to engage anyone who might have a legitimate opinion, or just something to say. Try it for yourself: post a polarizing opinion (in your page, or if you don’t have a strong following, in the comments section of another post) and watch the likes, shares, and inevitably, the “trolls” fly in, like moths to a flame. In the story “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet,” published August 18, Time emphatically laments how trolls “are turning social media and comment boards into a giant locker room in a teen movie, with towel-snapping racial epithets and misogyny.”

In the Philippines, the battle of the comments section rages on. More often than not, the online brawls, taking place in both web and social media pages, are sparked by news or political articles reporting or expounding on the actions of the current administration or any political figure, which articles, given one or two hours, will most likely give birth to a galaxy of comments having a life of their own. While the fascinating content of the comments section (discussing just about any topic) is nothing new, in the Philippines, the phenomenon has been brewing for some time, and grew out of proportion in the thick of this year’s election season.

The local online landscape is now pronounced more than ever. You have your so-called opinion leaders, whose posts are fertile soil for eager commenters. You have the comments section itself, which on its own is a study on the state of the human condition (at least, online). You have independent political blogs (Thinking Pinoy, Get Real Philippines, Politiko, Filipino Freethinkers, and the like), presumably borne out of disappointments with mainstream media, each with their own loyal following. Finally, you have institutionalized news outlets, sometimes commended for reporting fairly, but also repeatedly scrutinized for alleged biased journalism if and when it happens. As of this writing, other species of news blogs or spaces for online commentary are being born. (At the same time, a troll who has too much time on his or her hands, not exercising enough restraint, might be calling someone names on the internet.)

angrycomments 2.jpg Far from its beginnings as an "online directory that connects people through social networks at Harvard," Facebook is now also a flexible platform to communicate just about any social or political statement. Photo from THE SOCIAL NETWORK / COLUMBIA PICTURES  

Any citizen who professes just the slightest love for country (and has an active social media presence) will not be able to help it: to dig through the news, go past the political commentary, and dive into the cesspool of comments, in order to look for answers. I tried it once, and had to keep my phone out of sight after arguing with a stranger who could not be persuaded and replied to most of my emphatic comments and inquiries with condescension. This stranger has no hold over me, but her comments were enough to silence, even temporarily.

The toxicity of the comments section is largely a problem of each side believing that the other is a victim of misperception (slurs and name-calling aside). Is this a problem of how we apparently believe everything we read in the internet? Or does it have something to do with the rise of independent, ideological political blogs, and the growing distrust for mainstream media sources?

Strictly speaking, no. Poynter.org cites a recent study, published August 4, 2016 by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, whose main thesis statement is this: “Exposure to ideological news websites promotes misperceptions by altering both what users know about relevant evidence and whether their personal beliefs are consistent with that knowledge,” with the important disclaimer that the authors are sceptical whether “biased news use will leave citizens unaware of the evidence.” Simply put: the problem is not that social media makes it easier to produce or access “fake news” or imagined facts, or that we somehow believe them, or that it facilitated the rise of independent blogs or any other source of news not coming from mainstream media. It’s just that the more exposed we are to content that is partisan or espouses a certain ideology at the outset — and we all subscribe to such sources — the more likely it is that our interpretation of facts may become skewed (perhaps to confirm a long-standing belief), even as we have read all the evidence with a few clicks of our fingertips.

It seems that the problem is not that we’re gullible, or god forbid, elitist or unintelligent — but rather, that we will almost always affirm ourselves in the face of reasonable interpretations (or misinterpretations) of what we know, which are plenty. This may be the most rational explanation why “fighting” with the comments section or (to put it formally) the beliefs of diversely opinionated people, may be slightly pointless.

 

The study goes on to make another important point: “Rather than contributing to unawareness, use of biased online news outlets is associated with seeing evidence in ways that are less threatening to the outlets' interests.” It seems that the problem is not that we’re gullible, or god forbid, elitist or unintelligent — but rather, that we will almost always affirm ourselves in the face of reasonable interpretations (or misinterpretations) of what we know, which are plenty. At this point, this may be the most rational explanation why “fighting” with the comments section or (to put it formally) the beliefs of diversely opinionated people, may be slightly pointless. Everyone knows what the facts are; everyone also has their own interpretation of them. We may be unwittingly arguing over interpretations of these facts (empowered by our own partisan sources), which makes refuting such arguments with facts, alone, a waste of time.

Psychology has a shorter explanation: confirmation bias, or “where individuals unconsciously misperceive or distort new information to support their current beliefs or attitudes on a subject.” The definition comes from a Guardian article written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of University College London, which elegantly states: “The internet provides a perfect information medium to validate your thoughts and opinions. This explains why trolling is so effective for enticing readers’ comments, but so ineffective for changing their viewpoints.”

As the number of comments grow and as more and more citizens feel empowered to post their two cents on social media, it may be worthwhile to revisit the various ways by which we think. If we breathe and live in an atmosphere of processed and regurgitated information, are our opinions even our own?