As someone who has spent almost the entirety of the last decade writing online, I’ve dedicated vast amounts of time trying to find a way to make the comments section of The Fix the sort of edifying conversation I always imagined it could be. And I am here to report that, at least when it comes to politics, comments section are not now (and likely won’t be any time soon) anywhere close to that ideal. In fact, eliminating comments entirely — a prospect I have always blanched at — may well be the best thing that could happen for the average reader of political news.
Multiple experiments have shown that perceptions of an article, its writer or its subject can be profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh. One group of researchers found that rude comments “not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” A digital analyst at Atlantic Media also discovered that people who read negative comments were more likely to judge that an article was of low quality and, regardless of the content, to doubt the truth of what it stated.