Not here for the comments – by Vice Arabia’s Ameer Daou

By Ameer Daou, associate director at Vice Arabia

You receive instant gratification when you check the comment section on social media. It’s a digital ritual for me; after consuming any piece of content, my instinctive next move is to jump straight down to read the comments.

These impulsive dives take me to some good jokes and much-needed affirmations and sometimes help give the complete story. But past the shallow waters and nice corals, you may find yourself in the darkness at the bottom of the ocean. There you sit with some intolerances, judgements, and truths that you know exist out there, but have never seen highlighted and praised before in an open forum.

As much as I try to go to the place of, “Hey, that’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it”, I find myself wanting to engage and fight back.

Consuming hate online is lonely. Emotions get stirred and unless you reply and converse – you feel voiceless, but the choice to disengage is a lonelier one.

But perhaps posting negatively online is also a lonely thing to do.

A group of psychiatrists have peeled back the onion on why people post negative comments online, and they found that those that participate in negativity online have lost a sense of responsibility and self-awareness – a process they call deindividuation – and their anonymity means that they don’t need to regulate their behaviour online, and be held accountable for it. That’s why the normal rules of social engagement are often lost in the mass interaction of social media.

According to data collected by Pew Center since 2015, there are demographic differences between “people who post and those who do not post to online comment sections.” There is an increased likelihood of posting comments on social media amongst men, the unmarried, and the unemployed. This group is only a portion of the masses and does not represent it. That’s why it’s healthy to differentiate between genuine public opinion in real life, versus online comments and discourse. Comments are essentially a reflection of what people who post online think, not the general opinion. This distinction is important.

People do not hold back in the comment section, and the fast-paced nature of social media can lead to impulsive posting and a lack of thought or consideration for the feelings of others. While we do get the genuine humour,

Some of the blame has to go to the platforms. The study Addiction by Design: Some Dimensions and Challenges of Excessive Social Media Use published last year surmised that addiction by design on the part of social media companies is fuelled by the “attention economy” business model in which revenue is earned from advertisements shown to platform users. A comment section that is designed to encourage back-and-forth feedback and illicit further arguments is a great catalyst for such a model.

Some platforms like Reddit, which have placed upvoting or downvoting systems, have successfully promoted the most useful or insightful content. And this might be a potential solution for Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. If these platforms implemented those simple voting systems, this would help move conversations on social media away from the emotional to more interesting, positive (and maybe hilarious) and helpful ones.

For users, one of the simplest ways forward is to tread ever so lightly with our thoughts in the comments sections and lower the leverage that these comments have on how they make us feel.

Ultimately, comments on social media are a powerful way of tapping into the very elements that make us human, with our preferences, passions, anxieties, and the constant quest to make our lives better – and let’s keep it that way.

When offline, negativity can be kept out of sight but online, it can become highly visible and all-consuming if you let it. It’s important to take the opinions in the comments section with a grain of salt and focus on the positivity that the online community can bring.