The Internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool, and one that has completely retooled the mechanisms of personal expression. Here on TUSB, it allows any student to join the campus and worldwide discussion. Free speech works most powerfully when all ideas are able to be brought to the fore, which is also why we have a “comments” section on articles to foster discussion. We began TUSB with a mind to encourage students to write about topics on which they feel strongly, regardless of whether they are critical, laudatory, or somewhere in between. Many times, important and justified criticism (or, for that matter, praise) can not only open up the discussion but actively work towards fixing the problems at stake. See Jon Stewart’s brilliant, impassioned segment on the Zadroga Bill that undoubtedly had a powerful influence on the bill’s recent passage.
But there is one problem: allowing for greater expression also results in expression that is not constructive. Perceived anonymity causes people to forget that they are, in fact, humans [for a great read on the topic, try Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, chpt. 13] and engage in oft-egregiously obnoxious ways.
At TUSB, we do not allow anonymous posting, but we do allow anonymous commenting, as outlined in our f.a.q. (which, to be fair, I wrote). As a result, we sometimes receive inflammatory ad hominem attacks in the comments section. If there’s a slightly more controversial article, there is the chance that the errant malevolent comment could incite a deluge of similar comments, resulting in what the CDC would label a “full IFS pandemic.” As TUSB became (and continues to become) more popular, it was only a matter of time before this happened.
We started to see glimpses of this on my article about Jim Harbaugh’s Salary and my follow-up piece on the same topic. However, those instances pale in comparison to the responses to a piece by one of our writers, Sasha, discussing the perpetuation of fraternity and sorority stereotypes by websites and lexical phrases like “Total Frat Move.” When the main site in question linked back to Sasha’s piece, the floodgates of vicious, aggressive, sexist, prejudiced, and demeaning comments opened up. While one could disagree with the conclusions of the article and take issue with the piece in a cogent, respectable way, the commenters chose instead to ignore the article itself and attack Sasha in ways that make human decency seem like an abstract concept.
begs raises the question: how should an author (and the blog itself) handle these situations? From an author’s perspective, I believe the best response is to ignore comments that add nothing to the substance of the conversation and try to respond and engage with those that do. To dignify the attacks is to give them more attention than they deserve (whether this article dignifies them by addressing them is certainly a possibility; perhaps it makes the most sense to utilize the comments section here to defile me as a worthless hypocrite. I hope I am not giving these malicious comments more than their due but rather addressing an important and undefined issue at stake in the world of student blogging). As an author, Sasha deserves enormous praise for taking the high road, attempting to clarify her points and offering a reasonable response. She (in conjunction with our editors) decided to not remove the inflammatory comments; if anything, she pointed out, they serve to prove her point exactly.
As a blog, TUSB is simply a compilation of individual authors and contributors. We try to support our authors as much as possible, but in the case of Internet commenters we are forced to balance between letting our authors stand up for themselves and being highly protective in the name of comfort. Until a pharmaceutical cure for IFS is found, we will likely face this situation again; we can only hope to make the right choices again in the future. If you have a deeply visceral and emotional reaction to a post, we do want you to respond–either via the comments section, a separate post (if you are a Stanford student), or contacting us and arranging some other option–but we hope that you will do it in a way that promotes thoughtful discussion as opposed to a way that debases the discussion and makes you look stupid. If worst comes to worst, post a link to an existing article or video and allow your points to shine through in that way: as long as it’s not something written by Ann Coulter, it will probably contribute positively to the debate.
Sasha and all of our writers have shown that TUSB is a place in which Stanford students are free to express themselves and stand up for what they believe, and that young writers can, and will, prove themselves to be independent, responsible, coherent, and thought-provoking. This is one of the main reasons why we brought TUSB into existence in the first place, and we hope it will only grow from here even in a world that can easily be overwhelmed by IFS.