The Missoulian newspaper website has disabled comments, depriving western Montana of its most reliable way to experience pure despair. Comments sections are bad. But the Missoulian comments were especially bad, combining the subliterate hatred of YouTube comments with the gravity of current events. And it always seemed to be getting worse. The paper turned off comments on obituaries a few years ago, after one became a public referendum on the character of the deceased, the circumstances of his death, and whether he had it coming. Last week, I am told, commenters on a crime story revealed the identity of a victim of sexual assault. That’s what prompted this editorial from Kathy Best, in which the new editor announces that comments on Facebook and Twitter will continue, but website comments are done indefinitely. I applaud this decision. It’s been a long time coming.
Statistically, you do not live in Missoula or care about our hometown newspaper. But among the residents of this quiet mountain town, Missoulian comments were infamous. They were the hate read par excellence, a way to immerse yourself in the awful ideas of your neighbors without ever knowing how representative they were.
This last problem was a central element of the experience. Even the occasional reader of Missoulian comments became familiar with a few prominent screen names: Mr Logic, Walter12, the heartless Miss Perfect. These people seemed to comment on every article. They were particularly interested in stories about homelessness and sex crimes, and consistently blamed the victims of both.
The one that made me resolve to stop reading comments was the story about an elderly woman in Hamilton who froze to death after she was evicted from her apartment. Dozens of comments agreed that she deserved it. To read them was to read unconscionable opinions poorly spelled and repeated, relentlessly, until they seemed to represent the general public. Think of the worst person you can, then go to the newspaper and see iterations of that person expressing hateful, false, or incoherent opinions about literally everything that happens. It’s a direct assault on your confidence in democracy.
The terror of this experience was sharpened by doubt. There was no way of knowing if the comments gave voice to cranks or to the secret heart of western Montana. Do comments reflect the general public, or do they only reflect the kind of people who comment on newspaper articles? Was each awful comment an awful person, or was there a small cluster of people so awful they operated multiple accounts?
Partly to protect my sanity, I subscribed to the second theory. It got some support three years ago, when defense attorneys in the Markus Kaarma murder trial cited Missoulian comments to argue for a change of venue. In refuting this argument, the prosecution demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of Missoulian comments came from a handful of people operating multiple accounts.
One person commented on a story about Kaarma’s arrest 34 times. Another commented 31 times. These comments were posted under different screen names, creating the illusion of a group of people alternately arguing and agreeing with one another. It was a convincing illusion, but there were holes. On sports stories, you could occasionally find commenters wagering screen names on the outcome of games. The result was a cacophonous mob of sock puppets that pit skepticism against despair. The reader couldn’t tell who these people were, but worse, he couldn’t tell how many they were.
Here lay the pernicious evil of the comments section. One always had a sense that it wasn’t a representative sample, but one never knew how far off it was. Missoulians couldn’t possibly think like the commenters on Missoulian.com, or the town would lay in ruins. People would be driving their cars directly into one another, shouting “go Griz!” before getting out to hunt panhandlers for sport. Clearly, the comments were a distorted reflection of the community—but how bent?
If the townsfolk were not half as vicious as the anonymous public comments on our newspaper, were they ten percent that way? Even a fraction of the vitriol and crowing, disdainful ignorance was too much. Reading the comments became a gut check on misanthropy. If you were in a good mood, they would put you in a bad one. If you were in a bad mood, they could convince you to give up on people, to abandon hope of making this town better in cooperation with other decent folks living in it.
This attitude was, itself, the perspective of the Missoulian commenter. Everyone was stupid and corrupt. City government was crooked. The mayor bussed in homeless people and refugees to get money from Obama’s secret Muslim government. The university was a scam. Downtown was a deadly slum, and Californians clogged the thoroughfares with Outbacks they bought by raising rents. The only good news was Grizzly football and drunk sluts getting what they deserved.
It was a hateful, ignorant worldview, and the comments section made it contagious. I applaud the Missoulian’s decision to shut it down. I think it bodes well for the direction of the paper under its new publisher and editor. A strange part of me is also sad to see the comments go, but that is the part I should have never indulged.