Should websites remove their comment sections?

Should websites remove their comment sections?

The widely-read science news site, Popular Science, recently decided to remove comment sections almost completely - save for a minority of articles. Online content director, Susan Labarre, explains: "Comments can be bad for science. That's why... we're shutting them off."

“It wasn't a decision we made lightly…we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

She importantly notes that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story”, which echoes sentiments I expressed recently.

LaBarre references the study about "the nasty effect", which demonstrated that a vitriolic comment section has a significant, tribalistic impact on what readers take away from even non-controversial articles.

Grabbing the mop from Pop Sci, YouTube has taken a large swipe at their infamously vile comment section, by enforcing Google+ registration - which, aside from LinkedIn, is a social network demanding the use of real, not pseudonymous, characteristics.

Both of these reactions to the famously hated "below-the-line" comments section should not be viewed the same way. Of course both are united in the justified goal of creating a safer, more inclusive and thoughtful space (i.e. a better Internet), but are different policies that must be critiqued differently.

Top down and Bottom Up Approaches

We can all – readers and content producers – do many things in response to comments sections, like simply ignore them. We can call this a “bottom up” approach, as opposed to entire organisations, like Popular Science and YouTube, taking active stances, which would be “top down”.

However, claims for a bottom-up approach misses a point behind content. We, as content creators, don’t simply create content that magically leaps into the minds of readers, perfectly packaged and comprehensible. We do so using language to the best of our ability (though with people like Ta-Nehisi Coates in existence, that proves difficult); we frame content with appropriate header images, titles, tags, and fonts that make it all into a package of ideas.

All of it goes toward what readers take away from the piece. A comment section, for some reason, has become part of that in today’s digital culture.

Readers have, to some extent, come to expect immediate, “on the ground” (on the same page/platform) participation, since digital tools allow for that – and allow for that in an easy way.

It’s precisely this entitlement that has many cry “censorship” or “fundamentalist” when comment sections are removed. Of course, this mistakes “freedom of speech” for – in one case – “giving readers a free platform”. Readers forget they have the entire Internet in which to call content creators “idiots” and “pricks”; they can participate and get viewership to their comments by virtue of quality, rather than automatic position beneath our own content.

Removing comments to obtain better comments might sound paradoxical, but it does work for many. But this is, of course, not the only way to do so. Creating microsites, like Boing Boing has done, or using a voting system like reddit are easy, top-down approaches. The Guardian employs entire teams to monitor their comment section, since they are currently one of the most-read sites in the world. (Comments on my last Guardian article, on suicide, was turned off due to moderators moving on.)

So there are approaches, all varied, all catering to different sites and different communities that one could take. However, what we should acknowledge are attempts to create better spaces for comments – whatever those steps might be. They could be bad or good, but we shouldn’t throw out the goal of creating less toxic spaces because one approach is problematic for one site. Indeed, that approach might work well elsewhere.

>No Comments, No Critiques

One of the main worries with no comments is that one could be writing in a vacuum. Your approach and arguments go forth unanswered and unchallenged, since you operate to a muted audience.

Again this misses an important point: Below the line comments are not the only comments or replies or critiques.

For example, plenty of disagreement has been mounted at me via emails, personal contact and so forth, about my pieces. If someone does offer good criticism, I have directed readers there with an update on the relevant post or via social media. (Further, I have a smaller and open blog – which I maintain because I can control btter, unlike here, on Big Think, where there aren’t 24/7 comment moderators and I don’t have control).

The point is the Internet by definition is a vast platform allowing for comments to exist – but there’s no reason to assume these should be below your content, nor that “below the line” is the best place to put them or foster a critical environment.

I agree: the danger of insulation is great. But again, that doesn’t mean below the line comment is the (only or best) solution.

The Few and the Many

Will Oremus penned a quite strong response to Pop Sci’s new policy.

Its editors seem to think of themselves as heralds trumpeting unimpeachable pronouncements from the castle tower to a crowd of subjects somewhere below. Allow the subjects to talk back, and some traitors to the cause of science are likely to foment rebellions that would threaten the integrity of the castle walls. LaBarre concedes that some commenters might contribute delightful, thought-provoking insights, yet concludes that “even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Better to cast them all beyond the pale.

Oremus is right that LaBarre’s original piece is somewhat flawed – lack of links, using little data, etc. – but I think he misses the point regarding how potent negative comments can be. Yes, it might be a few but, as he knows, all you need is a few to make up the majority of the nasty comments clogging up discussion.

He might be right that Pop Sci’s solution is incorrect: as I say, removing comments is not the only solution – better management in multiple ways should be considered too.

However, Oremus is incorrect to state all commenters are being tossed aside because of a few; rather, for the sake of better discussion, acknowledging the impact the few can have measured against whatever can be gained in other ways (response articles, emails and so forth), the editors came to their conclusion. Oremus also is sceptical of the religious-type language, which I can’t say I read much into, but it underscores his overall – and justified – worry (which we dealt with in the previous point) of a kind of evangelism.


In the end, discussions on how to handle comments need to be viewed with degrees: What is our role: top-down or bottom-up? Which would create better environments? Certainly “management” is required, but that is a broad term encompassing: the creation of micro-sites, moderation, removal, etc.

Primarily, we should recognise that the creation and packaging of content is not merely words or clips or sounds we create, but how they are conveyed to an audience. With that comes an open comment section (assuming you have one, of course).

We can’t throw up our hands and claim “that’s just the Internet” because we are the Internet; sites and organisations have taken steps to monitor and manage their comment sections, just as they manage their “above the line” comment sections.

To answer “Should we remove comment sections?” means answering in a way that isn’t generalised, but broken up according to various other questions.

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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Entangled drumheads.

Credit: Aalto University.
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