We just watched one of the best championship games in football history. In years past, I would be live tweeting it with my comments on the ads. This year I didn’t. It was a much better experience, and not because of the game.
Without my commentary, the game went on. Commercials aired one by one. Pundits continued to conjecture over who’s ads landed best and who whiffed on the big stage. In the end, I missed none of that by staying out of the conversation. And all that discussion was there for me to review once I wanted to come back to it.
That’s when it hit me. Not everything needs commentary. Some things should stand on their own merit. In fact, the proliferation of the comments section may just be one of the most deviously unnoticed threat to reality as we understand it.
How We Got Here
Before the advent of the internet, the news was a one-way street. You got your information from a source and that was it. You could question it to yourself and verify it from other sources, yet you lacked recourse for changing it. Eventually, you accepted the news as fact.
Since we’ve gone digital, articles have included and encouraged feedback from readers by way of a comments section at the end. Leave your thoughts, positive or negative, about what’s happening in the news. Now, everyone can be a social commentator, pontificating on the merits of every policy, every foreign development, even sports scores. All you need is broadband access.
Because of this, the news is no longer fact. You can openly question sources, call out authors, promote conspiracies and cast aspersions across entire industries. And it’s all public, on the record, and posted for the world to see. No fact checking. Little censorship. Entirely driven by the minds of the public.
The Comments Section Subverts the News
Despite these intentions, the comments section has a habit of completely derailing all conversation. Other people’s comments shape the story, acting as a prism through which the facts of the day are viewed. In fact, they become the story insomuch as perception becomes reality.
When you end up with competing theories on what is true, theories that are openly debated at the end of every article, it openly courts dissent and promotes zero-sum polarization. Increasing contentiousness in the face of unfounded criticism causes people to retrench their beliefs, which magnifies differences and fractures reality further.
In a way, this is how we’ve become so polarized. If everything on the internet is treated as contextually equivalent, the comment section is the breeding ground for open hostility and criticism, which can delegitimize entire organizations. Opinion is fact in this world, which takes away from the true power of facts.
Here’s the thing about facts, though. They’re true whether you like it or not. There’s no reason to debate whether or not water is wet and promote uncertainty around how blue the sky is. Yes, it’s up to us to figure out what’s important and what isn’t. Although, if we can’t agree on reality, as evidenced by the comments section, then what hope do we have to figure out how to react to it?
What’s Next for Digital Reporting
There’s an internet rule out there where every forum thread devolves into conversation about Nazis. Maybe we’d be better off if we limit that possibility by reigning in the comments section on every news article, photo and blog. Opinions are just that, and are sometimes best kept out of the public record, or at least clearly labeled as such and not treated as gospel alongside fact-checked information.
In the end, the news is the news. It should not be up for discussion.