What the Comments Section Says About America

October 29, 2012

Anyone who reads the comments on political websites knows they can quickly veer into hostile, even dark, territory. Angry denunciations, accusations of Nazism, and bitter sarcasm are common. Even with passions elevated so close to an election, it can be disturbing to think there is so much rhetorical poison in our political system. But a statistical perspective suggests it’s not as bad as it seems.

Some of the problem stems from the fact that many online readers frequent partisan news sources, particularly people who are involved enough in web culture to comment on an article or blog post. I’m fairly certain there are many more ideological sources online than balanced news outlets, so lots of these commenters are bathed in a daily dose of sheltered information. They hear facts and assertions weighted to their world view and when they encounter someone from the opposite side – say, in the form of a comment from someone who has been eating from an alternative ideological soup – there is a mutual shock. It’s like two different weather patterns meeting to cause a big storm.

That’s not enough, though, to explain the truly insulting and outlandish commentary you sometimes see. Are we really surprised, though, that there are millions of people in America who would engage in this sort of name-calling? I don't say that because I think we are a particularly harsh nation, but rather because there are over 300 million of us. If 95% of the people agreed on some fact, it would be considered an incredible national consensus – and that would still leave more than 15 million outliers. The same is true for almost any trait, desire, opinion, or behavior – all it takes is a few percent of the people to be a certain way and you've got millions of people in that category. Since the web is open to virtually everybody, it’s no surprise that there are enough rude wing-nuts (of every variety) to add toxic commentary to any site.

If you've ever wondered how there could be enough people willing to do any extreme activity – those fringes of society or corners of the Internet that seem that seem to be inexplicably over-run with your fellow Americans – just consider what a small percentage of us it would take to fill them up.

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year that 10% of Americans “have personally witnessed an alien spaceship.” Now, probably some of them were being funny with the pollster, but if even a third of them were serious that means 10 million people say they have seen spaceships from other worlds. Apparently these were either events so highly visible that large masses of people saw them, or an invasion-sized force of extraterrestrials have arrived without the rest of us noticing. So next time you’re alarmed about our political culture because of crazy online comments, remember that it may be mostly a function of a small percentage of people in a very big pool of potential typists.

Check here for daily observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.


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