One of my favorite websites, Doubtful News, has joined many other websites in shutting down its comments section. While I’m a bit disappointed, I can’t really blame her for making that decision. Even non-controversial websites can be deluged with trolls, loonies, people who think that screaming, insults and making threats are a legitimate form of debate. A site like hers is like dangling a juicy worm in front of a hungry fish for people like that. I’ve been fortunate enough that GF is small enough and non-controversial enough that it doesn’t attract a great deal of that.
I occasionally enjoy the comments sections. Or did. Once upon a time you might find additional information about the story, or insightful comments, polite disagreement, well thought out arguments. But for the last couple of years or so I generally don’t bother any more. Those days of rational debate are long gone. (If they ever existed.) Now it seems that there is no topic so innocuous, no subject so non-controversial, no statement so utterly innocent, that it doesn’t cause a writer to be verbally abused by someone. Having an unmoderated comments section on almost any website these days is an invitation to descend into pure lunacy.
It is simply impossible to have a comments section without some kind of controls being placed that restricts that kind of behavior. But the simple act of refusing to publish the more outrageous comments is itself an excuse for further abuse. If you refuse to print even the most insane and abusive comments, someone, somewhere, will accuse you of somehow violating their right of “free speech”.
When it comes to that “right”, however, you don’t have one. At least not in those circumstances. The right to free speech applies really only to government control of the media. Privately owned magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. can publish or refuse to publish anything they wish. You may have the right to say whatever you want, but no one is under any obligation to give you a forum for your words.
So while I regret Sharon closed down the comments over at Doubtful News, I do not blame her in the slightest.