Whenever I read a news article that has an open comments section, especially the ones that lets you reply to other comments, I always see at least a few voices which kind of reduces a possibly good opportunity for discussion to a meaningless rants filled with irrational and unjustified thoughts. These commenters mainly boil down to three types; the hater, the satirical, and the uninformed.
The hater simply seeks any and all excuses to take a dump on the government or the companies they dislike. Article about hottest day on record for Melbourne? Our government sucks! Roger Federer voices support for gay marriage? Our government sucks! Taxi driver allegedly stalks a girl on Tinder? Our government sucks!
The satirical are a bit different; they seek to elevate themselves above their peers by making a snide remark or comment about a news item referencing other 'popular' opinions regarding individuals, businesses and/or government. They enjoy pre-emptively mocking the situation, and inadvertantly dismiss people who may differ in their views, leaving little opportunity for learning anything or helping others gain an understanding.
The uninformed are those who judge a situation without knowing all the facts, and simply take what is reported on face value without tracing the genesis of why things are the way they are. They would look at a Lance Armstrong's doping story and think that he is a disgrace to the pro cycling community, when in actuality most pro cyclers routinely use performance enhancers, and a few others who have publically admitted to it too.
I'm bringing this up because we have all encountered comments that fall in one of those three categories. Hell, we may very well be one of these types of commenters at times. The Internet coupled with the ability to comment anonymously has made it so convenient for people to speak without filters or barriers or thought. At first you would think that the faceless crowd would represent the public's true sentiments and views regarding various social issues, but the problem is that what we observe is heavily biased on so many levels.
Firstly, most people don't care enough to make comments on every news article, so the pool of published comments is already a poor sample of the population. But those that do comment tend to dictate the range of permissible sentiments and ideological postures; left-leaning, libertarian, pro-equality, anti-rich and anti-government (at least that's the current trend). It is okay to be apathetic, but if your views don't align with the supposed majority, you will be better off silent or risk being crucified or have your comments be knocked down by a shower of down-votes.
Secondly, commenting, especially in the forms described above, often requires us to cast the first stone. They make us judge a situation before it has finished playing out, leaving no chance for the automatically-labelled antagonists to eventually come out as the unexpected hero or a sympathy-worthy victim. People don't apologise when they get their facts wrong and make hurtful accusations, and seldom do they give second chances to individuals or organisations that have probably done plenty of good and only had one or two failings in recent times. Obviously some news outlets share in the blame by having attention-bait titles and article abstracts that predispose readers to a certain conclusion regardless of what actually happened. They rarely apologise for unbalanced or incorrect reporting, thus leaving the public none the wiser about their misjudgement or misinterpretation of a situation until it's too late to remedy anything. The commenters have already picked their side and chiselled their sentencing in stone.
Just as a rock along the pavement can be picked up and thrown by anyone, commenting is also a free-for-all, free-to-use projectile weapon in the uncensored parts of the Internet. With anonymity largely shielding the stone casters from real life repercussions, they are often the most visible part of many online communities, and often cause the most frustration and divisions in, ironically, the very communities they often claim to be fighting for and hoping to unite. They don't apply the same level of scrutiny to themselves as they do to their targets, and they don't take responsibility for any damage they cause to others, especially those who don't share in their in their views. Of course this happens in real life too with grassroot protests that unintentionally disrupt businesses and vibrancy of the neighbourhoods of their protest sites, but it's worse on the Internet. Even if an account gets banned for breaking the rules of the community, the person behind it can quite easily whip up another account and continue their war against whatever.
I have never been a 100% advocate of the freedom of speech for this reason. If it's not okay to express yourself by punching someone in the face, you shouldn't be doing it with words of insults and slander either. Verbal assault can be as harmful as anything else we can use to stab or shoot at someone else. Just because a lot of others are doing it with you doesn't make it a fair or decent act. Our forefathers fought historical wars to grant us freedom, but what have we done to deserve it? All we know to do is point fingers at others saying they're not good enough, but are we? What solutions can we provide and contribute to for the issues we complain about? Is our written thoughts and rebellious attitude all that will be recorded in digital history? And most importantly, are we ready to put our real selves on the line?
Now having said that, I would be first to acknowledge that there are plenty of reasonable, intelligent people online that who comment with a well thought out explanation for their views or sentiments. This is why I enjoy Reddit a lot; it is filled with more educated, intelligent and most importantly mature users than any other massive online communities I've been a part of. They are users that are interested in having discussions and collaborative research/sharing of ideas rather than simply spitting out one-liners and hate rants (which still happens, but proportionally less than other forums). Instead of casting stones at each other they stay focused on the issue rather than make personal attacks, name calling and other unhelpful remarks.
The biblical scene of casting of the first stone is one of my favourite. It is symbolic of fairness, sympathy, maturity and forgiveness, things that make people and societies better. It depicts what righteousness looks like; the ability to refrain oneself from both physically and mentally fixating on the sins of others. We should all be more mindful of what we write in comments, which in itself is not a sinful or illegal act. If we abuse our Internet freedom it will be taken away from us in one form or another; there is no such thing as sustainable freedom without limits. Remember that whatever frustration or anger or hatred we illuminate through our words may be read by the very people and organisations we complain about, and they too are real humans who can also be frustrated, angered and filled with hatred, and have the ability to reply, possibly in a way that hurts you even more deeply.
Avoid casting the first stone, or one day that stone may come flying back at you.