2014 was a year of reckoning for online news media. Following increasingly fractious and aggressive behavior by users, a number of marquee organizations threw their collective hands up and shut down their comments sections. Within weeks of each other, Recode, The Week, USA Today and Reuters joined with Popular Science and The Chicago Sun-Times in announcing that they would be shuttering their public forums in favor of holding those discussions on other social channels.
"If I was painting a picture of a site we were gonna have, and then at the end I said, 'Oh, by the way, at the bottom of all our articles we're going to prominently let any pseudonymous avatar do and say whatever they want with no moderation' — if there was no convention of internet commenting, if it wasn't this thing that was accepted, you would think that was a crazy idea," Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of The Week, told Nieman Lab in 2015. In the half-decade since, comments sections have somehow persisted. But in an age of omnipresent Social Media, does the internet still need a comment section at all?
The comments section is, by definition, driven by the readers that use it to express their reactions and opinions to news articles, often via pseudonymous or fully anonymous accounts. This format works both to the advantage and detriment of news sites.
On one hand, it provides a forum for people who might feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions offline either due to social or legal repercussions, Dr. T Frank Waddell, an assistant professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, explained to Engadget.
On the other hand, "the online comments section sort of turned into the Wild West of people sharing their opinions," he continued. "And when these conversations turn negative, there can be detrimental consequences for the way that the news is being perceived, even though the comments section is totally separated from it."
A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found that incivility in the comments can have an outsized negative impact on the reader's perception, not only of the article itself but the news outlet as a whole -- AKA the Nasty Effect. Specifically, researchers found that people who read stories with nothing but negative comments "had less-positive attitudes toward the site and saw it as less valuable" as well as "felt less loyal to the site and less similar to the commenters." What's more, the order of the comments (whether you read a positive or negative one first) makes little difference, but there appears to be a saturation level of negativity that must be achieved.