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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Social Media Commentary


“Kill them all!” I was flabbergasted to see that this was the reaction of most people on the main newspaper’s website. “Damn cyclists always drive in the middle of the road, they should all be killed!”. “There is not enough room for bicycles on the road!”. By the fourth or fifth one, I could no longer read any more.

Around two years ago, one morning while drinking my coffee in my hometown Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, I was reading the latest news on my iPhone. Six cyclists had left their homes early that morning because they wanted to take advantage of their day off to bike around a town called Loiza. At 7am, unannounced, a drunk woman- whose breathalyzer test later marked .1888% level of alcohol- was driving down the same road as the bikers. Soon after, she lost control, smashed her car against a light post and went on to crash into the cyclists. One died in the act, the other four were severely injured. The story is unfortunate, but what follows, is worse.

I remember scrolling down the comment section of El Nuevo Día, the main newspaper in Puerto Rico that morning and feeling a mix of sorrow for the victims and a profound sense of disgust.

My proposal is simple. Eliminate social media commentary on the main and most prestigious newspapers of this country. Even though there is a lot of good, well thought, positive commentary out there, the truth of the fact is that a great deal of public comments is negative and harms our society. Just because the public is given the right of free speech and press does not allow anyone to exercise power, torture or spread hate through social media and public opinion. Handing over such a great deal of power to the masses by allowing them to speak and communicate freely (many times without filtering) is a great mistake of the digital era that only deepens and reflects the lack of empathy in our present days.

“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots”, said the Italian novelist and philosopher, Umberto Eco, a couple of years ago.

The rise and popularity of social media platforms and their impact around the world have been a historical phenomenon true of our times. A great part social media commentary, however, is negative, especially that posted with regards to current events. When considering the effects of social commentary, it is important to draw the line between the private use or sphere of social media- meaning platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, versus the public sphere- meaning the comment section in newspapers or digital news outlets.

Evidence suggests that the use of social media can be detrimental to mental health, especially with regards to commentary. For many, social media is an outlet used to create an image of the self and value with regards to others. In other instances, social media is used as a channel to fuel hate and reproduce passive-aggressive behaviors of online users hiding behind a keyboard or smartphone.

In recent days, we heard about Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide. Social media has played and continues playing a role in mental illness and how society perceives this alarming problem. For those unfamiliar with the topic, Anthony Bourdain was the host of the CNN travel and food show “Parts Unknown”, which has aired on CNN since 2013. Since then, he has won several Emmy Awards thanks to the show’s popularity and many people maintained an idea of Bourdain as one of the leading and most influential food journalists/ TV storytellers of our time. His death by suicide has shocked followers around the world and the manner in which social commentary has played a role in this case is worthy of noting.

Firstly, the number of online users open and willing to share their anti-suicidal conceptions is worrisome. It is common to find terms such as “selfish” or “cowardly” in social commentary when speaking about suicide. Asia Argento, the late chef and TV personality’s girlfriend has also been attacked recently on social media following the death of Bourdain, primarily because of the fact she was caught on camera in romantic poses with another man in Rome while Bourdain was filming one of his shows in France, before taking his own life. Many online users have expressed their disgust and even blame her for Bourdain’s death. During the past week she has been trolled on Twitter with accusations that she hastened the TV host’s death because of her actions.

Secondly, as a reaction, actress Rose McGowan has stood up to this negative commentary against her friend Asia Argento through a letter she wrote addressed to the media. In the lengthy letter received by ABC News, McGowan implores fellow users to not blame Argento for Bourdain’s death.  «Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame,» McGowan wrote. «Anthony’s internal war was his war, but now she’s been left on the battlefield to take the bullets. It is in no way fair or acceptable to blame [Argento] or anyone else, not even Anthony.»

Besides the lack of empathy on behalf of media owners who allow and often applaud free social commentary, what really worries me is handing over the right to anyone on the face of the earth who has access to the internet and digital media and believes he or she has something to say, to comment freely on whatever topic. Freedom of speech is one thing, but trolling and reproducing hate and intolerance is another. One’s rights end where another person’s begin and I firmly believe, that a person who abuses this power and utilizes social media commentary to merely produce hate speech, should have it taken away overall.

In my journalism courses, I always stress to my students the importance of social responsibility, ethics and how crucial it is for journalists to minimize (not maximize) harm.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes freedom of speech and expression as an international and inalienable right. Article 19 of the UDHR states that «everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference» and «everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice». 

However, it could be argued that the right of free speech and press have been abused in such a way that they have become a joke for many. Negative social commentary and hate speech have become a channel to ridicule and give wings to the most audacious ignorance. Worse of all it seems as though society encourages and feeds off of digital trolling. The man in the White House is a perfect personification of this phenomenon.

As media are trying to improve their engagement with their audience, a paradoxical trend has been emerging in the last three years; many news websites are closing their below-the-line comments sections. National Public Radio (NPR) is the latest to announce the shutdown of its own story-page section. After eight years spent experimenting with comments on its articles, the American public media decided it was not “providing a useful experience for the vast majority of [its] users”, wrote Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news.

Maybe it is time for other digital news outlets to follow in NPR’s path…

  • This op-ed piece was written as part of the Faculty Resource Network Seminar Social Media and Literacy in the College Classroom: New Pathways to Learning, held at New York University (June 11-15, 2018).
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