Are people who post on comment boards for real?

imagesJuly 14, 2014 – If you read news websites, you’re likely familiar with the comments section that accompanies most articles. Depending on the topic, you could make a case that the opinions left by readers are far more influential than the actual article.

Grammar aside, sometimes readers’ comments can be thoughtful and amusing, but most often they are negative ramblings that we can all do without. Always, they leave me scratching my head, wondering if the reader would state his or her opinion out loud in front of a crowd. Probably not, since it’s easier to cause a ruckus and hide behind the anonymity of social media.

Do the opinions on comment boards reflect how most people feel? If so, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for society. It’s gotten so bad that many are asking the question, is it time to kill the comments section?

Some news sources think so. For example, Popular Science recently shut down the comment section for all of its articles because they feel comments are “bad for science”. However, that’s not likely to happen with too many other news publications.

Jon Terbush, an associate editor at theweek.com, recently wrote about a study from the University of Wisconsin that found commenters can negatively influence a reader’s comprehension of the story. The study concluded, he writes, that “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.”

Of course, we don’t have to read comments, but human nature makes it difficult to look away. Here are a few examples of how negative comments can change the story, or at least cause readers to overlook the actual message behind it.

Last week news sites ran a story that focused on Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s opinions about Rosie O’Donnell coming back to “The View”. Former host Joy Behar jumped into the ring to add her two cents, and the comment boards went crazy. It’s not surprising that the debate was turned into a political argument, and political discussions can get heated. But most commenters didn’t focus on the politics. The majority attacked these women (or praised them) for the way they looked instead.  O’Donnell  was referred to as a fat, angry lesbian, and Hasselbeck a dumb blond, but one that was easy on the eyes, as if that should have any credibility. Behar fell into the former category with O’Donnell. She was also called an aging witch who grows older by the minute (don’t we all) with her sagging skin and wrinkles.

Here’s another example. Several months ago, I followed a story about Lena Dunham, the writer and star of HBO’s “Girls” that focused on how often she appears naked in an episode. Many shows on HBO tend to feature gratuitous nudity, yet no one seemed to take a stand until Dunham decided to disrobe. During a recent press conference, the media asked her about it, and she answered that it’s real life because, “sometimes people are naked.” I don’t recall this question ever posed to the writers, producers, or stars of “Boardwalk Empire”, “Sex in the City” or “Game of Thrones”.

If you’re familiar with Dunham, or the show, you know she’s not the typical model thin girl we’re used to seeing on television. In fact, she looks more like the typical American woman, and therein lies the problem. The comment boards teemed with people complaining about her nakedness, and many of the comments were downright cruel: “Seeing her naked made me want to vomit.” “Yikes, who would want to do that?” “Trust me; no one wants to see that girl naked!” “Why is this show still on? Especially when the star is so unattractive.” These are the milder PG-rated comments. Dunham, however, seems to have a healthy self-image, or at least she isn’t afraid to show her body. You have to give her credit for courage, especially when she knows she’ll be criticized.

If nudity disappeared in all television shows and movies, I wouldn’t miss it. From an artistic point of view, however, many believe, like Dunham, that it keeps the story real. The commenters, however, must believe nudity is provided purely for their enjoyment,  and if it doesn’t meet their standards of beauty, it is their duty to attack. I am willing to bet that Dunham looks better than most of the people who criticized her, and commenters that attack her for the way she looks are not doing anyone a favor by spewing their opinions.

So, let’s get back to the original question. Are those leaving these hurtful and unnecessary comments for real? Or, are they simply invented characters hiding behind an avatar, and looking for their 15 minutes of fame? Either way, why are they so angry?

Someone, please try to make sense of this and reassure me that we are not doomed.

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