The Dumpster Fire of Online Comments Sections

When thinking about online publications one issue that presents itself that is not as prevalent in print publications is the role of the content creator and their responsibility or freedom to control, moderate, or even block annotations, comments, or marginalia on their work. This raises two very interesting questions; do online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious. These are two very different questions that online content creators are forced to consider when they publish their work. I don’t believe there is a clear right or wrong in this situation but that there are best practices.

Firstly, let’s start with considering should content creators be allowed to control things like comments on their publications or is this a form of censorship. Audrey Watters explains in her post about blocking hypothes.is that she has felt the need to block comments (including hypothes.is and genius) on her blog to avoid “having to wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas.” As someone who is has been creating YouTube videos in some capacity for nearly a decade I can understand the desire to keep your website, blog, or YouTube channel as your safe place. To make a comparison between the online world and meat space, if you thought of your website as your house you have the right to control who is allowed to enter your house and under what circumstances they would no longer be welcome. The concept of freedom of speech is complicated but in the comparison of your website being your house no sensible person would claim censorship if you kicked them out of your house after making violent threats towards you. Now the complicated part of this argument is if you consider a website a private space like a house or if by the very fact that it exists on the world wide web it is therefore a public space, and how is this complicated if you do not own the platform on which you are hosting your online content? I will not pretend that I have the answers to these questions, and any resolution that you come to is likely to upset one group or another. I am inclined to believe that your intellectual property is a private space that you can see to control in any way you see fit, even if you don’t own the platform on which you are posting. YouTube actually has built in capabilities to allow content creators to moderate the comment sections on their videos. This is done by allowing the creators to ban key words that frequently pop up in malicious comments, going through and being able to delete individual comments, or turning off the comment section all together. Controlling who can comment directly alongside your work does not prevent people from making comment about you on other platforms but it does provide content creators to have a sense of agency over their publications and the paratext that appears next to it.

This brings us to the complicated issue of content creators and their responsibility to control the comments, annotations, and marginalia so it is not malicious or filled with hate speech. It is unrealistic to expect an online content creator to manage a comments section consisting of thousands of comments, however if they are made aware of offending content and do not take action to remove it are they accountable. This is a similar logic to how copyright violations are often handled on platforms such as YouTube. It is reasonable to assume that there is content on YouTube that violates copyright, however it is unrealistic to expect YouTube to seek out every piece of violating content so an understanding has been made that once made aware YouTube must act or else they are held accountable for providing the platform for this content to be posted. Even if it is established that the online creator’s website is a public space and therefore not subject to private space regulation, there are limitations on freedom of speech and stipulate hate speech is not protected by the freedom of speech. Therefore expecting an online content creator to remove hate speech within their comments section is not forcing them to engage in censorship. While saying that a content creator removing hate speech from their comment section is not a form censorship it is still negotiable if it is their responsibility to be the moderator or not. An adjacent issue that I wanted to quickly touch on is the similar responsibility of content creators to control how their work is being used and consumed. A popular example is the Pepe the frog meme being adopted by Alt Right groups. This is an extreme example but it is relevant to think of how content can be manipulated by audiences.

These issues are considerations that online content creators must grapple with when publishing their content in online spaces. Again, while it is impossible to reach a right or wrong answer on whether online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious, these questions are important to consider and to come to individual conclusions that are defendable when deciding to publish online.

2 Replies to “The Dumpster Fire of Online Comments Sections”

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog, Ashley, and liked the title as well. “Dumpster fire” sounds about right when describing the comments on certain platforms. YouTube comments are notorious for inducing “Faith in Humanity Lost” memes. You pose two interesting points, about whether content creators get to determine who can interact with their content and whether they should control the misuse of their content. The obvious answer would seem yes, of course, they should have the right to do both. But things are not so black-and-white in the online sphere. Any attempt to control interaction would be impinging on people’s freedom of speech and attempts to block certain content can be interpreted as being litigious. The latter, especially, reminds me of the discussion we had in the class when you and Shirley led the discussion on copyright. There are people and companies who will move to ban content that they deem as defamatory, even though it is just a person voicing their opinion and offering constructive criticism. It’s a tough call to make. People should be allowed to comment online and voice their opinions, and yet the path to such freedom is a slippery slope.

    1. Absolutely. It’s very complicated. One thing that I do think is worth noting is that while blocking or deleting comments could be used to prevent people from voicing constructive criticism it does not prevent these people from going to other public online spaces to voice the same opinion or criticism. Sure the content creator is affecting where the person can express their opinion but they have not entirely taken away the right to comment about something.

Leave a Reply