Have you noticed an increase of vitriol in comments following online newspaper articles? Granted, I don’t know if there has been an increase per se––I don’t have any statistics to base this assumption on––but I have noticed the mudslinging. Now that my main source of news comes from the Vancouver Sun app on my iPad, a place where individuals can make comments, I am becoming increasingly concerned about people’s ability to communicate with each other in a civil manner. I am surprised by the one-dimensional vitriol. To scientists, vitriol is another name for sulphuric acid. What a perfect way to describe the comments––acidic. At first I wanted to know who these demented souls were and whence they came. Why must important issues get reduced to ad hominem attacks? While an assumption, surely readers of a newspaper would be well read enough to rise above above this. Then, after I thought about it, why the need to make them at all? Where did the decorum go?
“Why do important issues get reduced to ad hominem attacks?”
One of the advantages of reading news on a digital device is that anyone can post comments on articles. One of the disadvantages is that anyone can post comments on articles. In this new world of digital anonymity, people know they are protected by the “firewall” and don’t think twice about spewing acidic dialogue at others. Perhaps it is a consequence of the democratization of media. Either way, I can’t help but wonder if this is the new way of things––people slinging mud at each other, then retreating behind the wall of anonymity. In print form––and for good reason––the Vancouver Sun requires that people provide their full name and region when making contributions to the newspaper. But so far this is not done on the iPad version and other digital media. I was curious if my students ever engaged in this too and what it meant for them. While anonymity can provide some benefits, like honest responses, it also means that people will have less reason to reflect and carefully choose their wording, knowing that they can’t be scrutinized. Is this skill being lost? Hmmm. Hard to know.
After having read many comments on the Vancouver Sun app, I am reminded of the apparent degeneration of dialogue in American politics, particularly of late. In many ways it has become a war of words and personal attacks where neither party is really listening to the other. It’s unfortunate because when adults engage in this behaviour (as seen on TV) we model it to our youth, and then we run the risk of normalizing it. It’s not healthy nor is it productive. The message conveyed is that any response, no matter how crude, has equal value. While there is a button on the Vancouver Sun iPad app to “report abuse” it belies the reality that people feel the need to engage in this vitriol in the first place.
“There’s something about anonymity that draws out the worst in people.”
I was intrigued to know what my students considered to be that boundary when healthy debate enters into the zone of vitriol. Are they even aware of the “rules” of discourse and the need for it? I asked my grade 8 and 11 students if they had contributed to some form of negative comments online (Facebook, networked games, chat rooms, forums, Youtube, etc.). My results are hardly statistically significant, but this is what I found: boys in grade 8 tended to do this more often than girls of the same grade. Girls in grade 11 tended to do this more often than boys of the same grade. While there were apparent gender differences at the different grade levels, the percentages were roughly the same––about 50% contributed. More interestingly, however, they all voluntarily commented on how vicious the “honesty box” is on Facebook. The honesty box is (or was; I don’t know if Facebook has continued this option) allows for people to make comments anonymously. For my students, that line of decency was clearly crossed most every time––welcome to the world of cyber bullying. They were so disturbed by the responses that they quickly unchecked that option. There’s something about anonymity that draws out the worst in people. How do we get youth and adults alike to avoid being seduced by this and rise above the vitriol in the new world of anonymity?