The Comments Section: The Hidden Jackpot of Free Speech

Joanne Broder, PhD
Independent Consultant
jb@joannesumerson.com

“Don’t scroll down. You’re definitely going to get your feelings hurt,” were Beyonce’s words of wisdom regarding the Comments Section, the designated discussion space under an article, blog, or social media post for readers to share their reactions and feedback. As a public figure and user of social media, she disclosed she avoided the potentially mean-spirited comments as a form of self-care. To her point, the motto of Page Six, the entertainment section of the New York Post, is “If You Don’t Want it on Page Six, Don’t Do It,” meaning that whatever is put out to the public is open game for content and comments. 

The Comments Section in blogs and articles is a platform where fans and readers can provide feedback and participate in discussions about their topic of choice.  Data from a study conducted by Times Opinion and Sienna College indicated that 84% of the respondents said they do not speak freely for fear of criticism or retaliation and that 34% of Americans believed that all Americans participate in freedom of speech. The study also found that 46% and 35% felt less free to express their political opinions and race relations than 10 years ago. On the Internet, there is a news site for almost every topic such as politics, local, national, and international news, entertainment, sports, education, lifestyle, finance, weather, law, and technology where readers keep up with current events. Many sites previously had Comments Sections, but they are slowly and quietly fading away.

There is an assumption of good digital citizenship and civility even when there is a disagreement within the Comments Section. On one hand, it’s a good place to create an online community for people and fans to discuss their interests and causes. On the other hand, it allows anonymous, cowardly people to hide behind avatars and aliases to hurl hate-laced insults. Unfortunately, due to the cyberbullying and trolling, Comments Sections are included for some topics but omitted for others. Taking away the Comments Section is another way the media is suppressing freedom of speech.

According to the online disinhibition effect, people are more likely to participate in online risky behaviors (e.g., cyberbullying) when they are anonymous. How many people would actually look an athlete in the face and tell him/her/them how they really feel about that terrible play? Would the representatives of the Association of Body-Shaming tell pop stars how awful they look on the red carpet?

However, from an academic perspective, the Comments Section could be seen as a treasure chest of raw, unfiltered qualitative data from people expressing how they feel about a particular topic or issue. There is usually a question or conversation prompt that launches a digital focus group among users by directly addressing the question with likes, comments, and replies. Responses that are repeated and synonymous make it easy to draw big picture themes. Some commenters might provide additional perspectives without necessarily addressing the question. 

Why does it seem like some brands and personalities use the media to manipulate what is said about them? When there is  an article of praise, but with thousands of comments that challenge the message, it’s likely that the commenters are using their voice to contradict the promotion efforts. Another example is when there is a social media post where the comments are filtered out because they are likely to be unfavorable. What are they trying to hide?

Whether someone is a megastar like Beyonce or a budding influencer, they can consciously choose to ignore the posted comments, realizing their potential of toxicity and lack of value to one’s life. The reader/commenter/user also has the responsibility to be media literate enough to critically evaluate the content for authenticity, rather than at face value. At the time of this submission, Tesla billionaire Elon Musk is attempting to buy Twitter and seeking to revise the platform to encourage more free speech, but he is getting mixed reactions of support and controversy. It will be interesting to see how the changes are received by users.

The Comments Section is a place for users to share their voices and hear others. Our First Amendment calls for freedom of speech, which weighs in balance with backlash. Being a good consumer of content is like being a good consumer of food: both have the responsibility to learn to critically evaluate good and bad information, without relying on Big Tech to do their thinking for them.

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