If you listen very carefully today you can hear a strange, unsettling sound, very much like the muffled shrieking of a leprechaun inside a cooking pot with the lid fastened down with duct tape and the heat turned up. All his curses, imprecations and slightly indecipherable threats rattle around in there and redouble on themselves while good decent folk slowly back away from the pot, wondering when something’s going to give. There isn’t really an evil leprechaun in a pot, it’s just that today’s the day that News24 stops publishing comments on its news stories.
If you’ve never accidentally stepped into a News24 comments section, you’ve missed your chance but you’re the lucky one, because you’ve never had to spend the rest of the week scraping vileness and rank stupidity from your feet and soul. I don’t know where they found them – from all around us, I suppose, and from inside our own homes – but News24, in historically appealing to the baser instincts of what might very generously be termed the reading public, turned itself into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a kind of Mos Eisley cantina to which all the worst murky dregs of the South African id came to drink and vomit and wilfully misunderstand and ooze all over each other. It became a public cesspit where even non-trolls could go to have their fears and preconceptions confirmed: that white people are racist, that black people hate white people, that racists can’t spell.
I personally had a lucky escape. For the past several months I’ve been writing occasional pieces for Travel24, a side tentacle of the News24 octopus, and somehow I managed to reach the end of the comments era without having attracted the trolls. It was a peculiar feeling: it reminded me of going to the Fitzsimmons Snake Park on the Durban beachfront when I was little, and watching staff throw a bucket of live mice onto the snake island at feeding time. While the other mice ran around squeaking and being eaten, there was always one wise little fellow who survived by sitting absolutely still, not looking left or right at the holocaust uncoiling around him. That little mouse is me. Sometimes he’d make it all the way through until the hissing and biting stopped and the mambas and boomslangs settled down to their digestion, but you knew that night was coming, and that no matter how still he sat, sooner or later he would feel that slow heavy stirring in the undergrowth behind him, and a dozen tongues flickering at the air, and a dozen yellow eyes turning his way.
(I know that snakes don’t have yellow eyes, but when you’ve written for any period of time on a public forum with comments activated, you learn to avoid hot-button words like “black” and “white”.)
When the announcement was made on the News24 site, the comments section lit up like an MRI. It was like telling a roomful of toddlers that they wouldn’t get any more sweeties because the sugar causes them to get worked up and throw tantrums, then watching them throw a tantrum about it. In among the usual comic material – the bloviators and conspiracists and people incapable of spelling ANC – there was a heartwarming concern for freedom of speech, as though the constitution compels any media company to permanently and perpetually make available a wall of their building for mentally disturbed members of the public to walk up with cans of spray paint and scrawl invective on it.
Perhaps the most common worry about shutting down the News24 comments swamp is what will happen to all that sludgy rage. What if the comments were a release valve for the leprechaun’s cussing, and now we’ll be surrounded by legions of the fuming impotent, and they’ll start taking it out on their pets and children or hurling random disputatious contumely at strangers in the street? But despite the hours I’ve spent scalding my retina and saddening my heart by reading on comments sections, I have more belief in human beings than that,
I don’t think people actually are as toxic as we let ourselves become in certain environments. Expressing anger unconstructively makes anger grow; the anger doesn’t release, it multiplies. I don’t think those comments sections are pressure valves, I think they’re volcanic hydrothermal vents that let microbes and tubeworms grow where otherwise none might exist. I think angry loud fringe minorities anger themselves louder, and when they’re loud enough it can feel as though we’re all like that. We’re not all like that. Even those who are like that aren’t always so. Take away their petrie dish and dark, warm microclimate and some of the worst microbes have nowhere to grow. I still believe in people; without internet comments, it’s easier to believe.
The Times, 10 September 2015