Wading into the wacky world of the internet commenter

Our comments section is a bit like a train wreck – it ain’t pretty, but you can’t help but look. So, what makes web commenters tick?

"Denmark sucks!” “Fuck you, you suck!” “The Holy Welfare State is a joke!” “Why don’t you go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here, arsehole?”

Anyone who has visited The Copenhagen Post’s website has probably seen the above dialogue, or one much like it, in the comments section below one of our stories. 

Any story. 

From the most complex political piece laboured over for days to a simple restaurant review, the comments start flying often before the digital ink is even dry. 

A few weeks ago, we asked readers to get in touch with us to talk about the comments section. Do they read them? Do they post there?  Do the comments add or detract from the story under discussion and The Copenhagen Post in general?

The anonymity of respondents was assured, so they could continue posting after this article was published with the same comfort level they enjoyed before.

One of the first female respondents wasted no time in saying that she felt that the comments are negative and depressing, and she extended that to the newspaper in general.

“The majority of the readers hate Denmark and are not shy about letting everyone know,” she said. “Many of the columnists do the same, and the whole newspaper often seems to be a forum on how to bash Denmark.”

She singled out one of our regular features for specific abuse.

“The Dating the Danes column makes me cringe,” she said.

She said that she had often considered not reading the paper but stuck around “for the drama”.

One reader, an Aussie that used to post regularly under the handle JCC, said that the unceasing negativity caused him to not only quit posting but to stop reading the comments completely.

“I haven’t posted in the comments section for the last couple of years due to the really aggressive and negative tone,” he said.

“I think that the tone of the debate has been hijacked by particular people who have dragged it in an increasingly negative, aggressive and abusive direction that often has nothing to do with the topic of the article and is used more as a space to attack and belittle other people.”

JCC said that the negativity reflected poorly on the newspaper.

“I am interested in the stories, and the comments section should be a space only for comments about the stories,” he said. “If people want to vent their personal grievances about Denmark, they can find somewhere else to do it.” 

JCC felt that the forum should be more heavily moderated and that off-topic posts be deleted.

His opinion that the comments section should be more heavily moderated was not shared by most of the regular contributors.

“On the one hand, moderating some of the more inflammatory and unrelated comments might encourage more people to participate in the dialogue,” said one woman. “On the other hand, many people would surely be offended by any type of censorship. It really just depends on what kind of space you value having more.”

For the record, The Copenhagen Post has decided to take a hands-off approach due to the small size of our operation. We simply don’t have the manpower to get involved in the comments section.

(Photo: Madison Phillips)

Anonymity fuels the rudeness 

Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, said that it is a combination of factors that lead to aggressive web behaviour. 

“Commenters who can remain anonymous can’t be held accountable for rudeness the way they would in face-to-face discussions,” said Markman. “It’s easier to insult an abstraction on the web than it is an actual human being, and it is easier to be nastier in writing than in speech.”

One of the more interesting responses came from an American woman named Kelly. She does not live in Denmark and has never been here, but she hopes to visit one day.

“As an outsider, it can be hard for me to tell sometimes when people are being serious or just trolling. If I were to read the same things on an American website, I would just assume people were venting,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that the discussion gets ugly sometimes. I’ve read a lot worse in the US.”

She said that the comments forum often feels like a closed club where a few regulars hold sway. That has discouraged her from jumping into the fray, so she has never posted.

“It is clear from the way some users comment that they are familiar with one another,” she said. “I worry about posting my thoughts on the articles, because I do not want to seem like an outsider who has no idea what is really going on.”

Kelly said that the forum has given her some food for thought about what she may encounter should she ever actually make it to Denmark.

“It is far worse in Poland”

Rivui is a Pole who lives in Denmark. He thinks the Post’s commenter forums are mild compared to those in his homeland.

“It is far worse in Poland,” he said. “The forums at the Post are quite moderate.”

Rivui said he reads the paper to better understand his adopted country, and that sometimes the paper itself brings out the worst in the forums by what it chooses to write about.

“Articles like ‘Businesses prefer eastern Europeans’ will of course spark comments that end up in the ‘Denmark is terrible’ category,” he said.

Rivui disagreed that the Post took a negative view of Denmark.

“Personally I think your paper is pretty balanced, which is not an easy thing to do,” he said.

One of the regulars

(Photo: Madison Phillips)

HeidiakaMissJibba is a regular. An American woman from Boston by way of Indiana, she isn’t shy about expressing her opinion in the forum. She enjoys the give and take and said that the comments section has helped her get to know some of the other readers better, but it can get annoying when the threads drift too far away from the original topic of the story. 

“There are histories between people which can get in the way and I can be guilty of it myself,” she admitted. “Sometimes it’s frustrating when comments take the emphasis away from a story that is more deserving of people’s attention. The Maori discussion did that, with huge numbers of New Zealanders duking it out. A lot of other stories got drowned out that week.”

HeidiakaMissJibba admitted that she sometimes used the forum to vent.

“Honestly, this paper is one of the few places that many of us have to actually be able to express less-than-glowing opinions of Denmark, without being told to leave or damaging our relationships with Danes,” she said.

She did not think that anything would be gained by heavily moderating the comments sections.

“Sure, delete abusive comments, but if it gets too heavy handed, you run the risk of people leaving,” she said.

More and more newspapers are beginning to require that commenters log in to the comments section via their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. They hope that the tendency for readers to use their real names on their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts will help to elevate the debate.

Copenhagen Post editor-in-chief Kevin McGwin said that the Post has no intention of dropping or over-moderating the forums. Although he joined some posters in hoping that the comments sections could grow into more of a dialogue between readers and the paper, he said they were still valuable in their current format.

“The comments are part of our social media profile, and they generate traffic,” he said. “Our reputation has to be protected, of course, but it is hard to know what is and isn’t too much when it comes to moderation.”

McGwin said that posters can self-police by flagging a comment they feel is offensive. He gets an email and then decides whether or not to remove the comment.

“I would prefer that the dialogue stay on track and not degenerate into another ‘Why I hate Denmark’ discussion, but I am not going to ban anyone for expressing an opinion,” he said.

McGwin said he had booted out only three or four people in the history of the forum.

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