THE CLONE ARMY

Posted in Rants on December 22nd, 2013 by Ed

Look, we all know that comment sections on news websites are where hope goes to die. With sites like YouTube one at least has the small comfort of knowing that half of the commenters are under 16 and the other half samples liberally from the adult dregs of society. Sports websites arguably have a higher level of stupidity but at least we expect that from an army of meatheads and nerds ranting and smack-talking about grown men fighting for a ball. With news websites the crushing blow that we are dealt repeatedly by comment sections is due in part to the fact that some small part of our brain expects that the people reading news (which only about half of Americans claim to do, skewing heavily toward the higher ends of the socioeconomic scale) to be capable of saying something half-intelligent.

Alas, even if they are capable they do not choose to do so. We know that part of the problem is that anonymity and an audience tend to turn normal people into foul-mouthed lunatics; comment sections are the ideal breeding ground for this phenomenon. Another issue is self-selection – the vast majority of readers leave no comment, and the ones who do tend to be people with more extreme opinions, a high opinion of their own intelligence, and a fondness for arguing. Just for example, an average post on Gin and Tacos gets about 4000-5000 hits and 25-35 comments. On a major news website where they're raking in 100,000 hits per hour the ratio of lurkers-to-comments must be even higher.

What amazes me lately about these comment sections is how predictable they have become. The internet has matured as a medium (even if its users have not matured as humans) and we know what dynamics will play out in the comments as soon as we read the headline. Think about it; the next time there is a school shooting, do you not already know with disturbing, resigned precision exactly what the comment section following the story is going to look like? You could practically recite it in your sleep.

As an academic I see a phenomenal number of news items about education. They are passed along by friends or posted to Facebook by other teachers daily if not hourly. Nearly every story has the same comments making the same points using the same language in what seems like an instant after the post appears online. Recently the notoriously troubled city of Camden, NJ appeared in the news because only three students in the entire district rated "college ready" on the SAT test. I did not link to the story because I challenge you to find your own version – almost every major (and minor, for that matter) news source picked up the story. Look at the comment section. They're all exactly the same: blah blah government, blah blah Teachers Union, blah blah Obama, blah blah charter schools, blah blah liberal media. Go ahead and look, it doesn't matter where you go. Within the first few comments you'll see that, perhaps many times over.

It's some combination of impressive and terrifying to see how completely these people have internalized the talking points fed to them by the Echo Chamber / Shit Factory of AM radio, Fox News, forwarded emails, and the right wing blogosphere. They have not only committed it to memory but they have burned it into their subconscious so that it comes pouring out of them unthinkingly, reflexively. And no matter which of America's millions of old, bitter white men is typing the comment on a particular site it is virtually guaranteed to end up looking exactly the same as it would if he traded places with one of his brethren. The only variation comes from the spelling / grammar errors and the choice of anti-gay epithets.

You have to hand it to the noise machine, as it has succeeded likely beyond even the most optimistic expectations of the people who run it. There are a million old or aging people with nothing to do who are spamming every news story on the internet with identical salvos of rage and bad logic. And they do it automatically, without cognitive effort. You know, like trained seals. if a seal could be trained to be a xenophobic, provincial, small-minded, and bitter asshole with nothing better to do.

And yes, I know that the best thing to do is to avoid looking at the comments. What can I say? I'm like a guy picking at a scab.