By Dan O’Connor


As serendipity sometimes dictates, one of this week’s news stories has helpfully confirmed the premise of one of last week’s. For the historically minded amongst you, here’s the timeline:


  • Sunday, 11th March: A SXSW event featured Anil Dash and Nick Denton discussing the question ‘Have internet comments failed?’
  • Tuesday, 13th March: A Commenter on an Atlantic article describes bioethicist Matt Liao as ‘more dangerous than the Hitlerian eugenicists’


Godwin’s law classically states that as an internet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler reaches one. It took less than four comments for ‘Attilashrugs’ to compare  Matt Liao to Hitler.


The internet, or at least the part of it constituted of below-the-line comments, has failed, ladies and gentlemen, and it is time for us all to acknowledge this sad fact.


Matt Liao was making the point that perhaps we should think about ways of altering human bodies as a method of combatting climate change. Matt Liao was at pains to say that he was not advocating this as a solution, and that any body modifcations would of course have to be voluntary. Matt Liao was merely suggesting that we think about a big problem in a new way.


Matt Liao, for this, is worse than Hitler.


Now, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I know Matt Liao. I’ve had a martini in a bar in Minnesota with Matt Liao. Matt Liao is my acquaintance. And Sir, Matt Liao is no Hitler.


I shouldn’t even have to write that, but because the internet – or at least the bottom half of it where the comments live – is full of awful, stupid people, it has become necessary to say that Matt Liao is not Hitler.


This is ridiculous.


And so I find myself in an odd position. As an academic researcher who works on the use of social media to exchange and create health information, I am frequently amazed and moved by the power of the internet to empower patients and their families to cope with illness by telling their stories and sharing their lay expertise in living with disease. I have no qualms about saying that, for many people living with chronic conditions, the informative, supportive and useful comments from blogs, forums and chat rooms can much improve their quality of life. Yet as a reader and consumer of internet content from big name news sources, such as the Guardian and Huffington Post, I increasingly find myself quite convinced that at least half of all user-generated comments (rising to 100% on any given Youtube video) are utterly, quiveringly, worthless. I have actually had to ban myself from reading below-the-line comments on any Guardian article about feminism, race or poverty because the the thin veil of red mist which descends across my eyes as I encounter the inevitable spew of sexist, racist, self-interested, pompous, I’m-alright-Jack effluent which passes for people’s opinions.


There’s an emerging notion that the smaller, more focused an online community is, and the more moderated or controlled entry to the community is, the less likely it is to fall victim to the curse of the cretinous idiot commentator. There is some truth to this, as specialist online disease communities such as Patients Like Me (where the trolls are conspicuous in their absence) seem to show.


But even if Matt Liao had been interviewed by, say, Obscure Ethics Monthly, instead of the well-known and popular Atlantic there is no guarantee that his intelligent, reasoned ideas would not have attracted the unwelcome attentions of the legions of brain-addled loons who populate the internet’s underbelly. As the almost unimaginably tiresome case of the post-birth abortion ‘debate’ indicates, even the most rarified of academic journals cannot expect to hide its ideas behind an ivory tower in the age of Twitter. If you have something complicated and complex to say, you can almost guarantee that someone of questionable motives, intelligence and genetic pedigree will take it, twist and make some lazy journalist’s day by creating a storm in a tweet-cup about it.


There is no solution to this. Matt Liao gave a rapid and convincing rebuttal of the various idiotic things of which he was accused, but still the trolls persisted in defaming, deriding and denouncing him.


But we need not despair.


As these ridiculous non-controversies become more and more frequent, people will (I fervently hope) come to realise that simply because some fool calls someone ‘Hitler’ it does not mean that we have to acknowledge the fool.


Time was when ‘disabling comments’ on a blogpost was at best an indication of arrogance and at worst an indication that the author was an anti-democratic elitist who did not value the opinions of his or her readers. It is time, I think, for us to accept that disabling or deleting idiot comments is no more anti-democratic or elitist than refusing to engage with a person harrassing you on the street. Just because everyone is allowed to have their say, it does not follow that the bilge they say is worth listening to.


I love the internet. I love social media. And the only way we will save them from themselves is by accepting that, more often than not, comments are rubbish. That way, when some wacko says Matt Liao is Hitler, it would not be necessary to say ‘no he’s not’, it would simply be enough to sigh and say, ‘oh, I see the comments are broken again.’


Dan O’Connor – Research Scientist, Faculty, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dan has two main research areas: the ethics of social media in healthcare and historicising the ethics of emerging diseases

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