Like many people around me, I too get most of my daily news from the internet. It is a faster way of receiving, analysing, and discussing the more immediate happenings in the world than waiting for the morning newspaper or that friendly face at the roadside tea stall. Discussions on the internet are very productive, in my opinion, because a large number of voices that are involved eliminates the chances of bias trumping logic. These discussions are very important tools in shaping public opinion in today’s age of technology, but they are being plagued by a constant problem – the casual commenter.
A couple of days ago, I was a part of a live session on Instagram that was addressing the topics of sympathy, empathy and the importance of love and understanding. It was a very productive discussion, with people chipping in with comments as the person moderating it addressed them in a free, fair, and unbiased environment. However, in the middle of all this serious talk, people started popping up with random sleazy comments about the person moderating the session. Although these were handled well by all those present live, it somehow seemed to detract from the sanctity of the conversation that was taking place. At the end of it all, I found it unfair on the person presenting the session, as she was doing it voluntarily, and on all of us who joined in on it in order to have a fruitful and hopefully educational discussion, that the seriousness of it all would be taken away so easily by a couple of people who had no intention of productively contributing.
However, the casual commenter isn’t always so benign in internet discussions. In their most damning form, the casual commenters have one great power – the power to manufacture facts. Due to the internet’s guaranteed equality of expression, every person has equal rights to comment, share or post anything of their choice but the misuse of this power can have serious consequences. For example, as John Oliver mentioned in his show “Last Week Tonight” on February 12 this year, the accusation that the state of California has millions of undocumented and illegal voters, that is now part of a global discussion on election fraud, initially stemmed from one person on Twitter mentioning it without any supporting sources of information. This demonstrates the very real threat of a casual commenter being able to manufacture facts/news that could take up such an ominous form.
Lastly, it is important to address what we can do when we are faced with the bane of the casual commenter because ignoring it is no longer an option. We are slowly moving towards a time when the number of casual commenters approaches that of people actually looking for real information. One way we can counter this threat is to personally fact-check any piece of information that seems dubious with at least one internationally acclaimed secondary source. Additionally, as John Oliver points out in the video mentioned above, we should be doubly careful with news that matches our pre-existing bias as this is the kind of news that the casual commenters thrive on – the sort of thing we think and feel is true even if there is no evidence to back it up.
The internet is believed to be a safe space for all of us, where we can express our opinions and have conversations with people that may result in these opinions changing. It is up to all of us to keep this space safe, by keeping each other accountable. Of all the things that are wrong in this world today and that we can’t fix, this isn’t one of them. The problem of the casual commenter is very solvable if we decide to do so by large-scale accountability.