Why angry comments online are like road rage

Why are abusive comments on news sites like road rage? And what does being online have to do with picking your nose in traffic? The connections may seem tenuous but, trust me, they’re there. Let me explain.

Leading South African news site, News24, is now requiring readers who wish to comment to sign in using their Facebook accounts. The move is a reminder of the pitfalls of online anonymity, and why the only way to guarantee good behaviour is the accountability that results from visibility. It’s sad that it has had to take this step, but necessary.

Ever since I first got sucked into the digital demimonde of the Mail & Guardian Forum more than ten years ago (when my boss used to make me stay at the office until midnight) I’ve been fascinated by how badly people behave online when they’re anonymous — and the closest analogy I’ve been able to find is the way we conduct ourselves when we’re driving.

Think about it. When we’re in our cars, our identity becomes subject to an interesting dichotomy. We’re out there in what we feel to be an extension of ourselves, the car we’re driving. When somebody cuts us off or goes out of turn at a traffic circle, we feel personally affronted. But at the same time, we also feel protected by all the metal and glass surrounding us, so we’re just that little bit cockier.

There’s no accountability because, out on the road, we think we’re anonymous. You can see how people forget that they’re visible in their cars when you see them picking their noses in traffic. In the same way, when we’re online, we take everything very personally — but because we’re not constrained by the accountability that comes with being known, we allow our basest impulses to come to the fore.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle holds that the act of observation impacts on the behaviour being observed, and this is just as true of people online as it is of subatomic particles. This is why in general, the standard of exchange on Twitter is much higher than it has been on South African news sites: In most cases, we know who people are — and they know that we know.

In contrast, News24 was famously awful, a cesspit of the vilest racism and every other -ism you could think of — but the most depressing site in my experience was always Moneyweb. If ever I felt especially masochistic, I’d wade into the fetid swamp of South Africa’s capitalist underbelly. There you saw South African males — very few women commented there — at their absolute worst. The Times was also terrible; I remember how upset a government client of mine used to get when they read the comments on stories about them. Instead of a comments facility, readers can now put their views (as well as news and poetry, heaven forbid) across on the iLive section.

Internationally, news websites have required registration for some time now. However, users are still effectively able to be anonymous, and it’s possible to see plenty of trolling in action on The Guardian, for example, despite community standards which advise people not to be “unpleasant”. The lowest standard of comments can usually be seen on YouTube, perhaps because many of the people commenting are young and immature.

Nonetheless, the histrionics I’ve seen displayed by adult males arguing over, for example, an Australian racehorse, defy rational explanation. Gawker has an interesting approach (and one I quite like): It regularly “executes” commenters, banning people who make sexist/ racist/ homophobic/ stupid comments from commenting again, sometimes permanently.

There’s a very small part of me — the part that is emotionally attached to the ooze at the bottom of the ponds in my garden — that wonders if we haven’t lost something. The Bizcommunity comments facility, for example, always the best place for industry skinner, has almost completely died now that anonymous comments are no longer allowed.

This is the price we have to pay for better behaviour, but overall I think it’s worth it. For too long, the comments facility on South African news sites has resembled a gathering of rival chimpanzees chucking faeces at each other. So the move by News24 is a good one. It will of course help to further entrench Facebook in South Africa but of all the options it had available it was the one that made the most sense. Accountability is something that’s always in short supply in this country, and anything that encourages it is to be lauded.

Remember this the next time you feel like picking your nose when you’re in traffic: People can see you. Now if only we could sort out the road rage.

Image: biblicone



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