What’s wrong with internet comments?

A person who has named himself COMMON SENSE calls for a sex criminal to be raped and murdered.

A person who named himself COMMON SENSE calls for a sex criminal to be raped and murdered.

First, the good news: the alleged pervert wanted in connection with nine Missoula lewdnesses since last summer has been named by the police. His name is James St. Goddard. If you see him, please call the police and then break line of sight so he doesn’t masturbate to you. Sexual assault is never funny. But I think we might agree that some of St. Goddard’s schemes muddled the line between crime and comedy:

During the sixth incident on Nov. 7, 2013, a female student was approached by the man as she was walking down the stairs in the Language Arts Building. Prosecutors allege St. Goddard offered to help her carry a box, but pretended to trip when he reached the bottom of the stairs. While he was on the ground, he allegedly looked up her skirt and grabbed her buttocks with one hand and her crotch with the other, while attempting to pull up her skirt.

At press time, this master criminal remains at large.

But let us not make light of these behaviors, which hurt the women involved and make all women feel less safe. Let us also not make light of St. Goddard, who is clearly at the mercy of his impulses. We need to catch him and punish him to do justice to the women he assaulted, and we also need to treat his evident problems. Or—and I’m borrowing this idea from someone else—we could have a larger, more violent sex criminal rape and murder him:

Worthless waste of skin scumbag. Clearly, he is looking for a sexual encounter. I hope he is convicted and sentenced to time in a nice penitentiary where he will have many sexual encounters with a 300 pound inmate named Big Daddy Bubba followed by an encounter with a shiv. Ah yes, there’s no justice like prison justice.

Take that, alleged masturbator! A person who named himself COMMON SENSE has used the comments section of Missoulian.com to suggest that you be sexually tortured and then killed. Now who’s fixated on women’s underwear?

We talked about Missoulian comments before, back when prosecutors noted that a single user commenter 34 times on an article related to the Markus Kaarma case, and another user commented 31 times. Based on this scientifically reliable sample of one anecdote, we can infer two things about internet comments sections:

1) They attract those members of society who are not accorded space in traditional media.

2) They amplify those members’ voices.

Inference (2) is not immediately apparent, but it follows. Our fellow citizen COMMON SENSE expends 57 words to argue that the sexual violence arising among prison inmates is superior to all known systems of justice. That’s just over 10% of the word count of the original story. If we define the product that Missoulian.com is distributing as the original story plus comments, the word count stands at 643 as of noon MDT today, with COMMON SENSE accounting for 8.9%.

Nine percent of a newspaper item is more than this quantum of opinion would get under any other circumstances. A person calling for the rape and murder of an alleged sex criminal would be shouted down at a city council meeting, expelled from court, flunked out of law school and narrowly beaten by Mitch McConnell in his primary. We have a whole democratic discourse in place to ensure that arguments get tested before they are thrust upon thousands of people.

Internet comments sections circumvent that system, which was supposed to be great. Surely, we thought seconds before inventing the internet, there are a lot of kind and intelligent people out there whose opinions are not heard. Now we know that we were wrong.

Discourse does not seem to function better when everyone gets a megaphone set to the same volume. That’s cacophony, not conversation. If COMMON SENSE wants to tell people how he would like to see James St. Goddard punished, let him tell his friends and political representatives. Let him write a guest opinion and pitch it to the Missoulian’s editor. Let him see how other adults respond when he says there’s no justice like prison justice.

The Missoulian now has the technology to let us all leave notes in one another’s newspapers. We built that machine. We know how it works. Why would we ever turn it on?

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  1. Comments sections would only be the “same volume” if anyone really read them. They’re little spaces for nutters to vent after reading, as we also do in a bar, in the wrong language, every time Dan is wrong about something. Or alone, to the wall. It’s pretty unlikely anyone will overhear.

  2. The family dinner table is more threatening to dissent the online comment. Dissent is valuable when someone suggests continuing a cycle of sexual violence.

    Dissent is not valuable in all conditions, though, such as dispassionate analysis or scientific conclusions. Those are the places where internet comments and the ease with which they demonstrate dissent are threatening to civilized society, not when they allow the crank to be heard.

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