Do comment forums boost democracy or spread poison?

opinion March 20, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Movie site takes unusual step to scrap online debate



The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) has taken off one of its most popular features, the comment board. The reason is that the forum was no longer productive, taken over by trolls and promoted hatred, racism and heresies. Fans have understandably complained about the move, but the decision has appeared definite, underlining the main dilemma facing those operating famous, interactive websites nowadays.

Comments in opinion forums online are always explosive. There are many factors contributing to that, but a major one is people don’t have to really show themselves while making online remarks. A vast majority of posters don’t have to show their real identity, which emboldens their stands, beliefs or ideologies. It means arguments online can get very heated and ugly.

The IMDB website’s now-defunct comment section was among those flooded by so-called “keyboard warriors”, many of whom armed with not just logical arguments but also rude or obscene verbal weapons. These posters have been making lives of web administrators very difficult. In fact, overwhelmed administrators were the main reason why many websites have to shut down their comment sections.

A few years ago, when the official Facebook page of the Bangkok-based American Embassy was attacked by angry Thais who thought its diplomats were politically biased against one side in the politically-divided Thailand, comments were disallowed. The somewhat ironic move by the embassy, which had been preaching freedom of expression, best epitomised one of the biggest dilemmas of the online age.

What are the differences between trolls and people simply wanting to put forth their opinions aggressively? Who are entitled to legitimately describe the differences anyway?

If the US Embassy’s move was political, the IMDB website’s was anything but. In fact, a lot of people were drawn to IMDB by the discussion board’s content. It used to be a place where ordinary people, not film critics using the kind of language and expressing ideas that only they can understand, came to share sincere opinions about all types of movies, from “worst of all time” to award-winning ones.

The nostalgia is hitting many IMDB visitors hard. People who cried at a movie would come to the board to check out if others did the same. Dog lovers would cram threads on films like ‘Marley and Me’ or ‘Hachi: a Dog’s Tale’. “Plot holes” spotters more often than not provided entertaining or eye-opening posts for the forum. When a film was too hard to understand, viewers would come to the board to seek clarifications, which they usually got.

The dark side was that disagreement over a film snowballed into bad insults or obscene language very fast. Those bad elements also stuck around for long periods, many times driving innocent visitors away. Worse, perhaps, was when debated films touched upon politics, race or religion. Many remarks spurred hatred and were out of control.

There seem to be two overlapping issues here. Should freedom of expression be scrutinised on the Internet? The answer is yes, not least because many websites have been doing so, including those most associated with the concept of “freedom”. As someone correctly says, don’t exercise your freedom of speech until you have exercised your freedom of thought.

But should IMDB give in to “excessive freedom” at the expense of one of its most valuable features? The answer is no. In this case, the usefulness of the opinion board was so obvious, it should have outweighed all the negatives. 

And, the surrender set a bad example that may give malicious minds some ideas about how to sabotage popular business-oriented websites where democracy flourishes.