“We’ve really tried to keep the discussion civil and delete comments that are inappropriate, but we are unable to keep up with the amount of incivility and rudeness so we are suspending comments for a while to reassess. The core mission for us is in providing as much up-to-the-minute news as possible.”

CT News Junkie, Nov. 18, 2015



At no time in the history of this country has public discourse been so uncivil. “Trolls” and “flamers” now populate the comment sections of news websites — including CT News Junkie — spewing hate and vitriol like America has never seen before.

But, then again . . .

“Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there,” writes Ann Gerhart of the Seattle Times, “rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration, and cultural upheaval.”

“From time to time, I go back to find the golden age of civility,” adds Michael Barone, lead author of the Almanac of American Politics, “and it has proved elusive.”

For example, the Rev. Charles Edward Coughlin, who initially supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, ultimately “turned on the president and depicted him as a tool of the devil in weekly radio addresses that reached 40 million people.”

Additionally, the most famous political dispute in American history began with some discourteous discourse between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.

“In 1804, Hamilton cost Burr the governorship of New York, and even may have gone so far as to have spread some salacious rumors about a supposed, and untrue, incestuous relationship between Burr and his beloved daughter, Theodosia. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and subsequently shot him, fatally wounding Hamilton in his lungs, at Weehawken, New Jersey.”

Thankfully, most political debates do not end so fatally, but coarseness in American discourse has always existed. As George Washington remarked, “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude. Every man will speak as he thinks, or more properly, without thinking.”

True to Washington’s words, the incivility in public discourse today has run decidedly amok. CT News Junkie is hardly the first news website to encounter so much hostility that it suspended its reader comments.

“Vox Media’s online news site The Verge said in July it was ‘turning off comments for a bit,’ noting that the tone was ‘getting a little too aggressive and negative,’” reports Yahoo. “The Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Beast, news website Re/code, the millennial-focused news site Mic, and Popular Science also have shut off comments.”

“Gawker Media founder Nick Denton claimed that 80 percent of reader comments on his properties were off topic or downright toxic, saying that reader commenting had become ‘a joke,’” according to Forbes.

“Beyond trolls, racism, sexism, flame wars, and other attacks, misinformed user comments can also have a dangerous effect on how we understand complex topics in the news. One study found that profanity and uncivil dialogue can have a profoundly polarizing effect on how readers understand an article.”

More than 1,000 participants in the study read a fictitious story online about a new technology, followed by fabricated comments.

“Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones,” explained authors of the study, “though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words.”

The result?

“Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

Apparently, what the Internet once promised as a dreamland of open dialogue has turned into a nightmare of venomous, misleading, and anonymous tirades.

“A study published [in 2013] showed staggering differences in the quality of comments on news websites when readers could post anonymously,” according to Psychology Today. “When comments were not anonymous, they were classified as ‘uncivil’ around 29% of the time. When comments were anonymous, that jumped to over 53%!”

Could this be the beginning of the end for online comment sections? Not necessarily, say many online news outlets holding fast to the spirit of the First Amendment.

CT News Junkie, for instance, is one of many news sites encouraging readers to “share [comments] on [their] social media accounts and have the discussion there.”

And the Coral Project, a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, aims to “give publishers a tool to help them better manage their roster of commenters and contributors, making it easier to highlight the best reader contributions.”

“The product will gather a mix of existing data points from readers of comments and other user contributions, such as likes, shares, and flags, and pair it with new data, such as ratings of commenters from users and editors, reporters, and community managers. The result will be a system that manages the reputations of users, allowing publishers to stratify their users by levels of trust.”

The Coral Project, in essence, is a technological solution to a problem exacerbated by technology. Only time will tell if this new tool can effectively weed out the trolls in favor of reasoned and mature dialogue.

Readers of this op-ed, meanwhile, are encouraged to share it for discussion on their own social media networks or to write me directly via e-mail. I expect nothing but articulate and respectful comments, of course!

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.