The Comment Section: An Exploration of Negative Remarks on the Huffington Post Series About Asexuality

Last year, the Huffington Post ran a series of six articles on asexuality.  It was one of the most in-depth and comprehensive explorations about what asexuality is and what asexuals go through.  It went further than most articles, which are largely limited to “There’s these people called asexuals that exist”, and was free of the judgmental claims of “Aren’t they weird?” that permeate most things writing on the subject.  All-in-all, an excellent series. Except, it’s on the Internet and had a comment section. Comment sections are designed to be a place for readers to interact with authors, a place where ideas can be discussed and debated, a place where the curious can learn more about the topic at hand.  Unfortunately, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to stumble into a comment section, you’ll find that they’re often a cesspool of unapologetic ignorance, random political accusations, and general negativity. The comments on the Huffington Post series on asexuality were no exception.  While marginally less toxic than the comments on most pieces about asexuality, they were still filled with negative comments. Shortly after the series was published, I realized that the volume of comments would make it a good candidate for a case study on the classes and categories of negativity that people spout when they’re faced with asexuality.  I wanted to explore what people say, expose why it’s hurtful or wrong, and hopefully give people tools to deal with the same sorts of comments in the future.

Methodology:

I started by pulling down all of the comments from the six articles in the series.  In order to do this, I wrote a custom application that would download all of the comments.  This was done by reverse engineering the AJAX browser requests made to the server when navigating the comments.  Then, I made synthetic requests to the server, in order to download all of the comments.  In the end, I extracted almost all of the comments from all of the stories.  The number of comments I downloaded for each article didn’t quite match the number of comments reported by the site, but it was close enough that I didn’t feel it would be worth spending more time in an attempt to figure out if there was a bug in my code or if the site itself was reporting numbers incorrectly.  In the end, I had gathered 2917 comments. Once I had all of the comments, I read each one and attempted to categorize the sentiments expressed.  Each comment could potentially include multiple negative sentiments, so a comment would be counted separately under each one.  I did not attempt an overall accounting of positive vs. negative vs. neutral comments.  At the end, I came up with 178 different categories of negative remarks. The classification was clearly subjective and arbitrary.  Additionally, I only performed a single pass of the comments, so it is possible that some comments were overlooked.  There were also some times where I got tired of reading the same troll repeat the same thing over and over and over that I stopped counting every transgression.  On the other side of things, there were several cases where I discovered a new classification, one which I knew had been used several times previously.  In those cases, instead of reviewing every comment up to that point in order to determine whether or not they fit, I simply estimated the number of times it had been used. Because of these shortcuts, I will not be reporting the numbers of my final tallies.  Certainly, there would be some benefit to reviewing and classifying these comments with a more strict and rigorous approach, but my goal was not to produce a peer-reviewed scientific paper that crunched the numbers.  Instead, I wanted to write about the comments themselves, and the admittedly loose data gathering process does not impact the validity of those findings. The raw data is available here:

Full Comment Set For All Articles (combined HTML)

Negative Comment Classification (tsv, dots represent individual comments)

About the Results:

What I found is that the comments were a mix of invalidation, marginalization, territoriality, outright trolling, disbelief, and general negativity.  (Big surprise there.)  Pretty much every derailing tactic was on display, and I could have filled up dozens of Asexual Bingo cards.  And, of course, there was plenty of whining and intrusive questions. The publisher of the articles is notable, as it likely had a hand in the makeup of some of the themes that I saw.  The Huffington Post is a prominent outlet that focuses primarily on left-leaning political news.  As a result, virtually every article on the site will get negative comments from right-leaning people who disagree with everything that was said, whether or not the article is about politics.  Additionally, the articles were featured in a section called “Gay Voices”, which lead to a lot of people openly questioning why an article on asexuality belonged there.  I did not attempt to filter out or correct for these sorts of comments.  On the other hand, it is likely that being published here reduced the overall number of negative remarks, as the primary audience for a “Gay Voices” section of a liberal website will be people who are regularly exposed to and accepting of non-heteronormative orientations. While analyzing the comments for this series, there were a couple of high profile GSRM-related stories that hit the news.  First, Facebook announced that they had expanded their gender selections beyond just “Male” and “Female”, to include a number of trans and non-binary identities, as well.  Second, Ellen Page made a coming out speech.  I read the comment sections on articles about both of those events, and was struck by the similarity to what had been posted to the asexuality series.  In many cases, they were the same dismissive and hateful nonsensical remarks, almost exactly word-for-word.  While I had originally intended to write this for asexual people who have to deal with comments like these, it has become clear that what I’m about to discuss is likely to have wider relevance. It’s important to note that I am not claiming that every negative comment is just as bad as another.  Some, like the comments that implied that not telling anyone that you’re asexual would prevent corrective rape, are repugnant and disgusting, while the countless “Asexuality? lol It’s called being married!” jokes are more tiring and annoying than hostile.  In this series, I will be discussing the entire spectrum of remarks. Although I do provide some possible responses to the comments, they are by no means the only right answer.  There will undoubtedly be many other ways to respond.  Also, understand that in many cases, you should not expect to change the mind of the commenter.  In most cases, you’ll find that they’re a close-minded jackass with no interest in being correct, they’re just there to get the last word in an argument, no matter how inaccurate that last word is.  So, for the most part, you’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for everyone else who may be reading the comments, people whose minds have not yet been thoroughly enveloped by ignorance.  And be willing to walk away.  Trolls are generally psychopathic sadists who get off on attacking people, so if you walk away, they lose. And finally, when I quote some of the actual comments, they’re an example of what was said for context.  Do not track down the people who wrote them.  That’s not what this is for.  If you somehow think that spreading hate in response to hate is a good idea, then you’ve completely missed my point. After the initial classification, I grouped the comments into larger themes, which I will be writing about in the posts of this series.  The themes are as follows:

 

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