How to comment on the internet
A brief reflection on my time as a comment moderator, and some thoughts on navigating the depths of comment sections
If the internet is a society, these are its proverbs: Don’t read the comments, don’t engage the trolls.
It’s advice I used to take seriously; I only ever commented on articles my friends had written, and only read comments on pages known for funny contributions.
Then in 2019 I got a job working from home as a comment moderator across a range of newspapers in Australia (owned by a certain mogul I shouldn’t name but it rhymes with Spurdock), and I could no longer avoid the bilious comment sections. The comments I read were worse than I had imagined. Knowing that something exists out there in Big Bad Internet Land is different to being confronted by it for 6-10 hours at a time, 5 days a week. I left that job quite a while ago, and I don’t miss it at all, but I spent two years in the trenches reading what ranged from mildly offensive to sometimes truly horrific opinions.
While it can often be upsetting to read such relentless venom (and yes, some shifts did leave me in tears at the sheer inhumanity of it), none of it was aimed at me personally. I was just one person in a fairly large and anonymous team, collectively known to the subscribers as “Free Speech Bleach” (my favourite) or “you wimpy censor c*nts,” amongst other fond endearments. (Sometimes when we rejected comments the readers lashed out, leaving comments aimed specifically at us, but we were hidden behind even more anonymity than they were, and we didn’t care that they were upset at not being allowed to say things like “the best vaccine for [redacted] is a nuke.”)
Stories abound of famous people leaving social media platforms, or even needing police protection, after becoming targets for online harassment. That’s not what this is about, as it doesn’t apply to me or the team I worked with. We were there mostly to protect the newspapers from being sued, and to protect the journalists from the worst of what their readers wanted to say. Most of the journalists left us to do our jobs, although some of them (who I would refer to as ‘columnists’ rather than ‘journalists’, as that title gives them too much credit) liked to go and approve the dog-whistles and nastiness we would never let through.
It seems an impossible ask to try and steer the beast of this online ship we’ve all created towards a healthier discourse. There is too much invested interest in controversy, and technology only further aids and abets the bad habits formed after decades of anonymous and consequence-free international conversation.
It would be easy to return to who I was before becoming a moderator: simply avoiding comment sections as they continue to plummet to new depths of toxicity. It’s harder to interact in a positive way, but since working as a comment moderator, I’ve been more convinced that participating in a beneficial way is the only possible way to combat the negative. Shine some light in the dark of the web, so to speak. (Is this piece heavy on metaphor because I, like many others, don’t really have an accurate frame of reference for what the internet really is? Yes.)
Our team of moderators worked across a handful of newspapers, almost around the clock, with several on shift at a time. The comments poured in by the hundreds, the thousands. When I tell you we worked fast? We read each comment and made decisions fast. Did we make mistakes? Of course. Sometimes people would email an editor to complain about their comment being rejected, or one of us would see a reply to an earlier comment that shouldn’t have got through, and we’d quietly remove it. As a team we had a group chat where we’d sometimes ask for opinions on comments we weren’t sure about, or update each other on the latest coded slur.
The most notable comments we moderators shared with each other in the group chat were the positive ones, because they were few and far between. The negative ones were just same-old-same-old. When someone posted something kind or reasonable, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. What I felt in that moment was gratitude that someone was motivated to contribute by something other than hatred, or fear, or basic attention-seeking.
I’ll include some tips below about how to comment on the internet in general, and specifically, how to get your comment past the moderators. Obviously every media site will have different guidelines and this is based on my personal experience, but this should stand you in fairly good stead as a contributing internet citizen.
The main thing I learned from my time as a moderator, is that for some people, this is their hobby. Maybe they had unfulfilled dreams of being a writer. Maybe their families are sick of their reckons and so they have resorted to paying for a subscription so they can have their own miniature soapboxes in the comments sections of newspaper articles. There were many subscribers who commented dozens of times a day, every day. It’s just what they did. There’s no chance they’ll stop, or that anything anyone else says will get through to them. They have thoughts about every gosh darn thing that’s ever happened and they insist on publicising them, gosh darn it!
We got to know these regulars and they got to know each other. If you’re in a place like that (e.g. a newspaper or a dedicated social media page or forum) it can get overwhelming to try and wade through all the misinformation and bigotry. It helped me to remember that this was an extremely small slice of the population, and part of the reason they were there was that no one would listen to them anywhere else.
In this attention economy, turning away is both hard and necessary. For those times when you can’t turn away, or feel you shouldn’t, here are some tips for interacting in a comment section.
If you come across something that isn't factual, simply saying "rubbish" or "only an idiot would believe that" won’t do anything. Moderators are unlikely to let it through, and if it does get through or if it’s on an unmoderated forum, no one is going to pay attention. You will never convince the person you are arguing with that they are wrong. That’s in bold because it’s the truest thing in this whole piece. You will never, ever convince the person you are arguing with online that they are wrong. You may influence someone quietly observing the thread, but even then people are less likely to trust what you say if you’re rude.
Refute their assertions without attacking them personally. Saying “that isn’t true, here’s what really happened” or “here’s what other media outlets say” or “that isn’t supported by any scientific research” is fine. Saying “I can’t believe you actually think that, what an idiot” is not. If you're allowed to provide a link to another source, do so, but don't just paste the link. People are unlikely to click on it. You can say, "the trend shows such-and-such, as you can see here." Across the papers I worked for, one didn't allow any links at all, and some allowed links to “reputable sites.” This generally means government agencies and established national and international media. We didn't allow links to social media, Wikipedia articles, Google searches, or independent blogs.
If you don’t like something in an article, don’t complain about it in the comments. It’ll just get deleted or ignored. Comment moderators get zero say in the editorial content and don’t have time to pass on your feedback. Email the editorial team directly. If you have a valid concern, they’ll listen. If you’re just trolling, they’ll bin your email just like we’d bin the comment.
If you don’t like a journalist, read something else. We wouldn’t publish ad hominem attacks on writers. It’s that simple.
If you don’t like a politician, vote and campaign for someone else. Go ahead and disagree with their policies as vociferously as you like, mock their gaffes, point out their inconsistencies, but don’t attack their families or make derogatory slurs about them.
If you want to critique the topic that’s being discussed in the article, go for it. Respectful debate is absolutely encouraged. Disrespectful attacks on the writers or the people they write about is absolutely not.
Of course, if you see something egregious, report it. If it’s on a moderated forum you can reply to it by simply stating “this is racist” or “this is transphobic”. It will come to the attention of the moderators who will check out the original comment and likely remove it. If it’s on the Facebook page of a media outlet, tag the page owner in the comment and/or send them a message to bring their attention to it.
Often we’re inclined to make noise about things that upset us, myself included, so these days I try to leave positive comments whenever I can. If I read a great essay or see a piece of great art, I say so. It means a lot to whoever wrote it or made it, trust me on that one! Writers, artists, and other creators put so much work into their projects. If I see something on TikTok that I really like, I say so. Even if it’s just a cry-laugh emoji (which apparently marks me as a millennial because the youth don’t use them? I don’t care; it’s my favourite emoji and they can pry it from my cold dead thumbs.) It doesn’t have to be a long comment, and it would take less time than it did to read or watch the thing you liked, and certainly far less time than it did for the creator to produce the content in the first place.
Combatting negativity online is mentally and emotionally draining, and has limited benefit, so these days I mostly just try to focus on increasing the goodness that’s out there in this very public and broadly accessible space. It’s a somewhat naive course of action, but it’s the best one available to me as an individual who uses the internet.