Web comments sections are affecting our public policy

Don’t know what a flame war is? Not voting for you.

It’s so obvious when you talk to, or watch the actions of someone who’s taking web comments too seriously. Typically these people don’t post very much, keep posting but ignore their fans and therefore never grow their audience, or worse, they get defensive in the face of all the criticism and just keep feeding the “haters.” I’ve seen all three scenarios play out in one way or another over different platforms, and in every case the ones who prevail are well-adjusted people who can take the heat and still keep doing what they’re doing, grow an audience and a swell of public support, and see their work be crafted into something even better. I love it, for instance, when iJustine makes fun of her hates all over her comments section, allowing horrible comments to sit at the top of her videos so everyone can see her ALL-CAPS SARCASTIC RESPONSES.

Not to say that it’s easy to keep your distance from the hate. It gets even harder when all that vitriol spills from one social platform to another, catching more people along the way who either really believe in the contrary point of view or are just in it for the lulz, and creating a real trend of people, who really believe in what they’re saying and are very vocal about it, but do not in any way represent the opinions of the majority of people on a particular issue. After all, the vast majority of people who watch a video or read an article or a blog post do not leave a comment at all.

Lately I’ve realized, as social media increasingly plays an important role in capturing the news cycle, this idea applies to people in public office. Some people get it: Mayor Corey Booker of Newark talked to Jon Stewart about his active and productive Twitter handle the other day, and how he deals with the usual hate. But damn is it frustrating when others in similar offices prefer to use the position of the vocal minority to justify what, to a statistical majority, just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t mean to blanket-label a vocal minority or say one side “isn’t doing enough.” I’m just remarking broadly how public policy is now being crafted on the groundswell of a social- and traditional-media message that is, by definition, easily manipulated by anyone with enough Twitter/Facebook followers, or anyone who news organizations deem worthy to listen to. You could argue that this is how Obama was elected by a younger, more-techno-savvy group of voters, while the older white men who voted for Romney could never take control of the media narrative unless Obama made a misstep like the first debate. I think you can apply this logic to the level of party platforms too. Thomas Feidman’s NYT column today talks about a GOP base who “denies global warming after Hurricane Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook — a base that would rather see every American’s taxes rise rather than increase taxes on millionaires.” And I’m left wondering…who are these people? Surely they exist, but surely the over 50% of Americans who voted for Barry O disagree.

The solution here is NOT to have Obama-supporters take to the internet and demand anything – that’s just going to force opponents to become more defensive, hold their ground more passionately, and create more gridlock (a.k.a…it’ll start a flame war). The solution is for all of us to learn to read your comments section and understand that even when the haters comment, they still watched your video. And they’ll probably even come back and watch more.

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