By Robert H. Porter

The seemingly ubiquitous ‘Comment Section’ is generally regarded as a place that Internet users should simply avoid. The unfortunate reaction by a large proportion of the online population is along the lines of: ‘abandon all hope those that enter here.’

While the reputation of comment sections is generally negative, how bad are they in practice?

Comment sections can be places to share interesting and invigorating discussion, but are typically marred by insults, trolling, and needless vitriol. The usual intolerance on display includes sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and general intolerance and ignorance – and that is only scratching the surface.

The Guardian recently published the results of a study of the 70 million comments left on its website since 2006. The study’s findings were not entirely surprising; the ten most abused Guardian writers included eight women and two racialized men. Out of the eight female writers, four were white, four were racialized women, and two identified as gay. Of the two men, one identified as gay.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ten least abused writers on the Guardian website were all men. However, in addition to the gender bias in terms of the number of abusive comments, the Guardian study found that articles written by women – no matter the subject – generate more abuse through the comment section than those written by men.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of this study is that is raises – with quantifiable data – the main issues concerning abuse garnered through public discourse online. The Guardian provides a behind-the-scenes-look at the methods of comment moderation – there is even a quiz section that allows the reader to compare their moderation decisions with those of the Guardian’s moderators.

In any discussion regarding abusive content in comment sections, issues related to moderation, or outright closing of comment sections are raised, but the existence of these sections is not the real issue. The real issue is how the air of infallible anonymity seems to encourage this kind of exchange, putting into sharp relief systemic discriminatory prejudices. While it is tempting to fall into a ‘never read the comments’ approach, or simply to shut down comment sections altogether (which is what the CBC has elected to do), neither approach is the answer. The Internet is unlikely to become a safer, less confrontational and threatening place until a much-needed fundamental shift toward equality is achieved. Educational and human rights-based approaches emphasizing respect for diversity and inclusion are necessary steps on the path to long-term social transformation.

On another level, ‘flame wars’ that occur throughout comment sections can appear to be absurd. One series of YouTube ‘flame wars’ re-enacted by distinguished British actors is at once a hilarious examination of the absurdity of some of these comment threads, but also a horrifying display of what some people will blatantly say to another human being, seemingly without care or thought.

The challenge presented to all of us Internet users is not only to build a more respectful and healthy Internet, but also to try to build a more respectful and healthy society. It will be a huge challenge, and will not be easy, but striving for equality – offline as well as online – is worth the effort.