Although you rarely hear racial insults on Main Street these days, there’s a place where unashamed bigotry is all too easy to find: tossed off in the comments sections of some of the Internet’s most popular websites, today’s virtual Main Street.
Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers. Racist messages are a small percentage of the wild and woolly web, but they stick out since they are rare in person — and they raise a host of questions.
Do these comments reflect a reversal of racial progress? Is that progress an illusion while racism thrives underground? What kind of harm are these statements doing? Could there be any value in such venting? And what, if anything, should a free society do about it?
“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families,” said Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star. “There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”
At the newspaper’s website, moderators delete individual racist comments that are brought to their attention, and will take down a whole thread if such comments persist. On some stories that are expected to provoke racism, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.
Cause for alarm
On a single day recently, racially offensive online remarks were not hard to find:
In a comment on a Yahoo News story about a black civil rights era photographer revealed to be an FBI informant, someone called blacks farm animals who “were not and are not wanted in this society.”
Another commenter wrote, “We all know who MADE America what it is today, and we also know which group is receiving hefty tax dollar pay outs... so until the tables turn the only thing you should be saying is ‘thank you’ to all the hard working (whites) who gave you the life you now take for granted.”
Black racism was evident, too. One person on the site wondered if the FBI beat information out of the photographer: “You know how white people do.” On a BlackVoices.com story about two black sisters jailed 20 years for an $11 robbery, someone used several crude epithets to suggest that the judge was a white racist.
Some believe such comments indicate that racism has not declined as much as people may think. Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, said a study he conducted of 626 white college students at 28 institutions revealed thousands of examples of racism in “backstage,” all-white settings.
Are these comments cause for alarm?
“Like the loudest ambulance siren you’ve ever heard,” Feagin replied. “All this stuff was already there. It’s just the Internet has opened a window into it that we normally would not have had.”
Racist comments may scare average people away from productive conversations about race — conversations that are moving rapidly into the digital domain from print publications, town halls, street corners and shopping malls.
“When there are forums about race, people flock there to do battle,” said Eric Deggans, a reporter and blogger for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Whenever he blogs about race, “about 20 percent of the comments will be straight-up racist. Another 20 percent are questionable.”
The racial comments and other personal attacks have made Deggans, who is black, feel more defensive, as if he’s always under attack: “It wears you down after a while.”
“I have to constantly coach myself to dial down the hurt and the anger, because you get three comments that are really hurtful and prejudiced, but the fourth is someone who wants to have a genuine conversation,” he said.
Some journalism observers believe real names should be required to post comments, some of which would never be chosen for publication in the traditional “letters to the editor” section.
“It astonishes me that they allow such blatant expressions,” said Robert Steele, a journalism scholar at DePauw University and The Poynter Institute.
The comments sections of media websites are meant to foster community discussion and keep people engaged with the site, which in turn generates revenue for an industry still struggling to make money online.
“Even if it’s legitimate to try and draw viewers to sites, is it legitimate to allow individuals who are swinging a sharp ax, and often doing so with a hood over their heads in anonymous fashion, to have this forum that can not only create harm but breed hatred?” Steele asked.
As champions of free speech and enemies of censorship, journalists take care to tailor any proposed limits.
“For me, all the problems of online anonymity and comments outweigh any imagined benefits,” said Herb Strentz, a retired journalism professor and dean at Drake University in Des Moines. “If people want to contribute thoughtful things, they should be willing to stand up for them and be quoted.”