The Times of India’s toxic comment sections

The Times of India is India’s third largest selling newspaper, and the world’s largest English daily. While the newspaper isn’t necessarily known for the quality of its content, there is little doubt that it is extremely influential, mostly due to the sheer magnitude of its subscriber count.

This post is specifically about its website which, according to Alexa, is the 9th most visited website in the country. Technically, there’s a lot to criticize about the site. For example, the fact that sections of articles involving a ton of statistics are mere scans of what appeared in the print newspaper. Or that the website actually looks like a tabloid. But these are actually extremely trivial complaints compared to what I think are way more dangerous: the comments below the articles.

I think the comment sections below Times of India articles are toxic, period. When Tim Cook came out as gay, a substantial chunk of comments derided him for his “lifestyle choice” and told him to keep his “bedroom habits” to himself. When an article discussed making marital rape illegal, a majority of comments were against it because “women will take advantage of the law and there will be many false rape claims.”

I’ve barely scratched the surface here. The comment sections are filled with racism, xenophobia (read any article on Pakistan), misogyny, and in general, abject hatred. While these comments may seem innocuous to these random people under the mask of anonymity, who think they can spew whatever they like, the site becomes a much more depressing place for other people who avoid these comment sections like the plague.

This problem isn’t unique to the Times of India, obviously. Comment sections throughout the internet, if unmoderated, turn into vile, hateful cesspools. The key word here being, “unmoderated.” I’m not denying that it’s a hard problem to solve. It is. YouTube tried to cleanse its comment sections by tying YouTube accounts to a Google+ account (thus removing anonymity, and hopefully inspiring comments of better quality).

However, a lot of sites have succeeded (to some extent) in maintaining some standards of quality in their comment sections. For example, The Guardian maintains a set of community standards, and a bunch of people take active effort in removing any comments that violate those rules — in effect, maintaining a safe space on the site. Even reddit’s /r/creepypms does a better job of content moderation, and it’s managed completely by unpaid volunteers. Because they care. Because they want to make it more welcoming to everyone.

If Times of India is Times Group’s baby, why the complete apathy toward the kind of bullshit that gets spewed on their site and their Facebook page? TOI needs to be way more vocal regarding their stance on bigotry. It’s irresponsible to let such things happen on their platform, and to ignore it is akin to abetting it. I might be a little harsh, but if TOI has even the slightest idea how influential their paper is, they should know how big a problem this is.

Here are some examples of publications that HAVE stood up to their readers:

Another example: The Next Web has a xenophobe problem.

Excerpt from The Next Web article

It’s small things like these that make it clear that such comments aren’t welcome.

That said, it’s time to let go of the notion that these are just “trolls trolling.” To think that would be to run away from the problem. The problem lies way deeper than that. These are things that TOI readers think. A newspaper’s audience says a lot about the newspaper itself, so it’s in TOI’s best interest to get rid of the bigotry in its comment sections. One NEEDS to moderate comment sections. Otherwise, only the loudest and vilest voices will be heard. If moderation is too much work, one needs to get rid of the comment sections altogether.

As Tauriq Moosa wrote in the Guardian:

PopSci shut off its comments. Pacific Standard did, too. Both are doing fine. As indicated, nobody wants to enter comment sections that become poisoned with vitriol. It may seem populated, but often it’s populated by the very kinds of people making it poisoned in the first place. By removing comment sections altogether, you not only can get more audiences in terms of numbers, but more willing to return as they know it’s a safer space.

The Times of India has a choice to make: they can continue ignoring those trolls, or they can take active steps to curb the bigotry. And not doing anything effectively means that they’re part of the problem.