The Guardian takes a look at the problem of online comments, using an enviable database of 70 million comments, which they’ve dug into to try and tease out the sources of the conflicts. I have a database of a bit over 900,000 comments here (and another 800,000 at the sadly gutted comment database at scienceblogs), but unfortunately the way blocks are handled in wordpress means blocked comments are eventually completely purged, so I can’t compare them as the Guardian does. They report that about 2% of all comments are abusive, trolling, or otherwise blockworthy, which sounds about right — that’s probably in the high end of the ballpark of the percentage of filtered comments here. When you look at it through that lens, just the percentage of all discussions of all types that are abusive, you’re typically going to get a very small number.
It’s also the case, although the Guardian didn’t look at this, that the number of abusers is even smaller. There are a relatively small number of obsessive, dedicated individuals who do their damnedest to poison conversations all over the place — I see pretty much the same tiny rat’s nest of tedious trolls popping up in the sites I like to read — so it’s safe to say the majority of humanity is really decent online. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take many to wreck a discussion thread.
That’s especially true for the targets of abuse. Another thing the Guardian finds is that the trolls are focused: they tend to be racist and sexist.
Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.
And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
It’s an interesting series. They’ve made a good effort at identifying the problem, but then they go looking for a solution, and unfortunately, their answer is that they don’t have one. So they throw up their hands and ask their readers to leave a comment suggesting one. Unless that’s a trick to get some more comments to analyze, that doesn’t sound like a good approach. It’s a bit like polling a cancer to ask it how we can make our body a little more pleasant to live in.