A central disruptive technology of our online world is the breaking down of unidirectional communication. In years past, newspapers and other media published articles without immediate feedback from readers. True, a few readers might telephone the editor’s desk, and the paper might print a select handful of “letters to the editor” in the next issue. But by and large: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” (A.J. Liebling, The New Yorker, May 14, 1960). The average person didn’t own a printing press.
Now, thanks to blogs, online forums, e-books and the like, anyone can publish. There is freedom of the press for the masses, but not necessarily an audience. The ubiquitous comments section in online media thus has a special place in the publishing ecosystem. Eyeballs are attracted to the professional publication, meanwhile public commentary hangs on its coattails, gaining readership it would not otherwise enjoy.
My local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has a free online version. The prolific public commentary is loosely moderated: some comments are deleted for personal attacks, obscenity, and the like. Nonetheless, an air of bravado, vigilantism, and snap judgment weaves through page after page of commentary. For example, an unfolding story about a fatal knifing following a baseball game attracts scores of comments with each new revelation. Readers decide the young men are “thugs,” argue over who likely started the fight, declare sports fans crazy and San Francisco as way too soft on crime. Some proclaim with certainty that self-defense justifies wielding a knife, others just as adamantly that it never does. There are 145 such comments today, adding to those from yesterday.
Does freedom to express an offhand opinion, and the privilege of having it seen by thousands of others, contribute to public discourse? On the one hand, a freewheeling marketplace of ideas arguably allows the best to prevail. Unfettered competition among different ideas, like competing products in a marketplace (or competing species in biological evolution) leads to survival of the fittest. Neighbors discussing issues of mutual concern over the proverbial backyard fence — isn’t this a cornerstone of democracy?
Popular Science takes a different view. The 141 year old publication this week announced it is ending online comments on its articles. They say a barrage of commentary that rejects well-established science, e.g., evolution and global climate change, creates controversy where none legitimately exists. They claim this serves neither science nor the society that depends on it. The announcement cites a Mother Jones piece that profiles and interviews a climate-change denying “troll”; notably, the 370 comments following that article run the gamut from thoughtful points about climate change to a heated debate about “mens’ rights activists” and “femi-nazis” that has nothing to do with the original post.
Meanwhile, back at the San Francisco Chronicle website, a column appeared last week about a young man with apparent psychiatric issues who “is proof that something isn’t working with the mental health care system.” He was picked up five times in recent months for bizarre, minor crimes — punching cars, climbing street signs, stripping naked in public, etc. Each time he was detained on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, after which he was released. Most recently he was atop a 40 foot ledge for nine hours, screaming and threatening passersby and police, all of which tied up dozens of first-responders, snarled traffic, and cost the city a lot of money. As a result he is now in the County Jail medical ward, booked on an array of felony and misdemeanor charges.
The 97 comments that follow this column largely decry this man’s repeated, rapid release from psychiatric custody. Here are a few excerpts:
• We need to get the laws in this country changed to make it possible to put people like this in longer-term hospitalization.
• Seriously what about some sanity, if your getting picked up repeatedly by the cops you need to be on long term hold.
• So basically some lucky person has to be injured or killed by this guy before anything will be done.
• Bring back psych hospitals. The pendulum has swung too far to an extreme in allowing the mentally ill to put themselves, and society, at risk on the streets. The social experiment has failed.
A few ideas quickly occurred to me. We don’t apply psychiatric holds based on how much “trouble” people stir up. He’s apparently not holdable — if he were, he would have been held. Maybe he clears quickly, as would be the case with a medical cause of bizarre behavior, or drug intoxication. He’s detained on criminal charges now, so he won’t be released in 72 hours this time unless he posts bail. But the main thing that occurred to me is how this commentary so glaringly contrasts with that on the psychiatry blogs I read. In these latter, narrow-focus forums, the predominant tone of the commentary is anti-psychiatric. No one argues for longer-term hospitalization or says the pendulum has swung too far in favor of patients’ rights.
Obviously, this is a matter of readership. For better or worse, Chronicle readers feel safer with psychiatrists than they do with the man in the news story, and they aren’t terribly sensitive about protecting the latter’s liberty. Anti-psychiatrists, in contrast, are a small but vocal minority who disproportionately flock to psychiatry blogs, just as those who reject science flock to the comment boards at Popular Science. Some of the blogs at Psychology Today also attract devoted critics, some of whom hotly object to the tone with which a sensitive topic has been discussed. (My blog is apparently not controversial enough to attract such vitriol.) Should psychiatrist bloggers and those at Psychology Today follow the lead of Popular Science? Should we disallow commentary, claiming that it creates controversy where none legitimately exists, and that this false controversy serves neither our professional work nor the society that depends on it?
In my view, the answer is captured by a variation of the Yerkes-Dodson law. That is, too little agreement is just as bad as too much. An echo chamber of unanimity brings conversation to a halt, as does a cage fight where everything offered is criticized in a hostile way. Discourse proceeds best when all parties and views are treated with respect, and when a substantial shared basis for discussion exists. In my opinion, commentary should be permitted on online forums. However, comments that reject the basic tenets of the discussion — the legitimacy of science in a science forum, mental health treatment in a psychiatry or psychology forum — should be disallowed. Speakers have a right to express such views, of course, just not by usurping the forums and readership of their opponents. Likewise, off-topic comments, whether commercial spam, political diatribes, or pet peeves, do not add to thoughtful discourse. Nor does overt contempt or name-calling. This means comment moderation is needed, which adds effort and expense to operating an online media outlet. But the situation as it is now does not serve public discourse very well. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to grab the microphone from the speaker’s hand and use it to shout to a crowd who came to hear someone else.