Comments sections are often publicly vilified as "a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage," and more and more major publishers have decided against including comments on online articles at all (Valenti, 2015, para. 1). While scholars researching the comments sections tend to resist the impulse to close the comments, many openly acknowledge that the comments can be a hotbed of misogyny and other forms of bias and bigotry. In this article, I have argued that the comments sections might be spaces where harassment and hate are on display, but by paying closer attention to the conversations, we can also see how other users respond to, resist, and challenge hostility.
I began this project feeling much more aligned with Jessica Valenti (2015) and other writers who have advocated for the general closure of comments sections, and worried that I would leave my work with the comments sections feeling even more frustrated with the state of online discourse than I already did. Undeniably, I encountered a host of comments that left me feeling angry, disgusted, and enraged. The failure of large news websites to moderate their comments sections according to their own terms of service was disheartening, although not surprising. As I deepened my focus on the responses to hostility, however, I also found myself intrigued, hopeful, and even amused by the rhetorical creativity on display in resistance to hatred. Not everyone had abandoned the comments to the haters, and so neither could I.
The responses to hostility in the comments sections leave us with a number of conclusions and paths forward, including a better understanding of what kinds of conversations are actually happening in the comments sections, how we might use this knowledge to improve the comments, and what we might do with these categories as teachers to better prepare our students to engage in online discourse—including in spaces that might be hostile. Additionally, this project represents only the tip of the iceberg for research into the rhetorical work of marginalized writers within the comments sections.
Research has shown that the comments sections of news websites are active spaces of engagciteent and discourse, and that such discourse is often hostile; little research has addressed how other users respond to hostility. This project explored how users of the comments sections employed various rhetorical strategies to respond to sexism within the comments. The comments studied here shed light on how women and other commenters took advantage of the kairotic moment presented by the comments sections, and how commenters used strategies like polyvocality and validation, sarcasm, standpoint claims, and silence to reject and resist sexist remarks. Women's visible resistance to sexist comments challenges the notion that the comments sections are inherently toxic, while the need for such resistance reminds us that toxicity is certainly still a problem. The comments sections are part of the digital public sphere, but we still need to attend to who is welcome within that sphere and what types of discourse are rising to the top.
The rhetorical strategies identified in this project also align well with calls in scholarship to take an activist, technofeminist approach to studying and intervening in online discussion. Further study on how to foster comments sections that encourage deliberative discourse, discourage bias and hostility, and moderate discussions productively can help comments sections become the valuable contributors to the public sphere that so many scholars hope they are. Bridget Gelms and Dustin Edwards (2019) called for technofeminist research that attends to social inequalities, labor, material infrastructures, networks of support and activism, and lived experiences. Focusing on how social inequities, labor, support, and lived experience affect who speaks in the comments, what is said, who responds, and how can further deepen our understanding of how to improve discourse in online spaces like comments sections. Similarly, Kaitlin Clinnin and Katie Manthey (2019) advocated for rhetorical technofeminist activism, both within our classrooms and in the comments more broadly. The strategic uses of rhetoric outlined in this project can be productively paired with Clinnin and Manthey's suggestion for developing "rhetorical methods of engagement that resist dominant discursive practices," for example, and can contribute to a richly textured understanding of what types of conversations are happening in the comments sections and what types of interventions may be effective in encouraging greater deliberation (p. 38).
"Don't read the comments" has become a ubiquitous refrain for a reason; but, as I argue throughout this piece, reading the comments rhetorically can reveal patterns of discourse around and by women. Reading the comments with an understanding of the rhetorical moves discussed in this article (and others yet to be named) can help us as readers, scholars, and activists make more informed decisions about when and how we choose to read and respond. Paying attention to the rhetorical work already being done can help us consciously choose to engage in it ourselves—it can help us identify how validating another commenter's words can contribute to a challenge to sexism, or where our individual standpoint might add a valuable perspective to a discussion, or even when our silence might make the most powerful statement.
The rhetorical strategies used in the comments sections can also animate our pedagogical discussions. As instructors, we might look at the discussion boards we create within our learning management systems to see whether any of our students' voices are being marginalized and how (or if) they are pushing back. We can, as Heidi McKee (2002) recommended, "emphasize and model posts that invite dialogue" and foster conversations about how our students participate in public online discourse more broadly (p. 430). Such modeling and discussion about online conversations in our classrooms, especially classrooms where public writing is a requirement, is essential. As Leigh Gruwell (2017) argued in discussing the realities of teaching public writing when so many online spaces are plagued by hate, "Recognizing that online publics are not comprised of disinterested actors equips students with a more sophisticated framework for understanding internet publics and will ultimately empower them to make informed rhetorical choices about which public networks to enter" (para. 5). Having students identify, analyze, and practice multiple rhetorical strategies for online conversation—such as engaging in polyvocality or validation, being sarcastic, and making standpoint claims—will prepare them for the types of conversations they are likely to encounter across multiple types of platforms. Such work can help students become more attentive to their own rhetorical decisions as well as the rhetorical moves others are making.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, future interventions in the comments sections and research on rhetorical strategies demand analysis that takes additional intersections of abuse, identity, and response into consideration in a way that this initial exploration has not. Attention to how race, sexuality, and disability appear in the comments sections will enhance both the analysis as well as the interventions that can be applied to make comments sections safer and more productive sites of discourse. This project identified a range of rhetorical strategies employed in response to sexism; additional research can show us how similar or different rhetorical strategies areused to respond to homophobia, or racism, or to comments that employ multiple forms of bigotry at once. Such analysis will offer us a broader repertoire of potential rhetorical strategies to employ in our own writing, teaching, and research.
The work beginning here came from a desire to find light in a space that is often seen as producing mainly heat—and that light was there. My hope now is that we continue to turn to the work and writing that make up everyday resistance to bigotry online, that we continue to learn from and teach with that resistance in mind, and that we continue to pay attention to the power of rhetorical savvy in places where we might not expect to see it.
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Bailey Poland is a PhD candidate in the rhetoric and writing program at Bowling Green State University. She is the author of Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, and her research focus encompasses both digital discourses and archival research. She is grateful to Dr. Lee Nickoson and Travis B. Shaeffer for their support during the development of this project, as well as to Geoffrey Carter, Michael Trice, John Gallagher, and Daniel Anderson for their insightful feedback.