It takes an awful lot of energy and despair to be cynical about Ayen Dong. The teenage student of St Pius X High School, Adamstown, a former refugee, used her Christmas holidays to travel to South Sudan to meet relatives and connect with her heritage. At this time, the Australian Government asked visitors to South Sudan to “reconsider their need to travel” but a headstrong, excited Ayen would be met by an aunt and be safe with family. Her worried mother relented, understanding her daughter’s connection to her homeland.
Ayen flew into chaos and death. A political power struggle had exploded and her destination plunged into ethnic massacre. Her aunt never arrived at the airport and has not been seen since, nor the two babies she took with her. They are presumed dead. Ayen made her way through streets littered with bodies to discover her grandmother and cousins in hiding. Her Australian passport gave her the opportunity to flee but she remained with her relatives – her family – eventually smuggling them into Uganda with financial assistance from Penola House and generous locals from our region.
When you add more detail to the story – nuns who won’t take no for an answer, backchannels to Juba, mimicked Australian accents at the border – you are left with a tale that sounds like a cross between The Sound of Music and The Bourne Identity. Whether young Ayen should have travelled to South Sudan or not, six people are now safe in Uganda because a teenage girl refused to put herself first. Her presence likely saved lives. Light now exists where otherwise there would be darkness.
According to the comment section of The Newcastle Herald, however, the girl is a charlatan – a pawn in a crooked game played by those who “sent her in there”. “I knew it would lead to bringing more in. Aunty will be on her way shortly”, said ‘David’. Ayen is “trying to invent a new back door for family reunions”, decried another poster. Somewhere near the bottom the argument strays to the NSW housing crisis and a “Load More Comments” button winks like a mocking dare. Of course, many good souls defend and congratulate Ayen but it all becomes a haze of white noise and cynicism. You trudge miserably to the Entertainment section.
As a student at a Catholic school, Ayen has probably been warned about the dangers of cyber bullying on Facebook and Twitter but here these comments sit forever, on a public website outside her control, to be Googled by her and her friends, beneath the dignified masthead of a community newspaper. Her community newspaper.
Ayen’s story is one example of many. A quick search of The Newcastle Herald reveals despairing, glib and inappropriate comments on stories about everything from beached whales to children’s funerals, from figs to football, Tinkler to trains.
Active comment sections are solid gold for a newspaper website and conveniently promote the noble goal of “giving a voice to the people”. Comments drive return visits to stories and increase web traffic which is great news for both author and advertiser. Modern tools such as those used by The Newcastle Herald can be administered from anywhere in the world (say, New Zealand) and allow advertisers to learn more about “commenters” than a normal web visitor, which promotes targeted marketing. A sense of community (even a toxic one) will draw people in and give a story “legs”, more than it may deserve. Stories can literally write themselves, with a paragraph or two of “comment bait” to get things started. Yet, in our increasingly divided city, at a time when information overload and cynicism can bring about anxiety, anger and helplessness, does “free and anonymous” comment do more harm than good? Does a newspaper that likes to be seen as bettering our community have an obligation to control that community’s faceless voice? And what happens when community service collides with desperately needed profit?
Coming from a Catholic magazine, this may sound like a reaction to some nasty remarks, but in fact this important debate has little to do with censorship and more to do with the power and motivation of news. When you next see a comment section, ask yourself why it is there and more importantly, why do some articles lack one? Who makes this judgement and for what reason? Why do some online papers include comments but a sister newspaper will run the same story without them? Before we dive in and bite the worm, we should first ask questions about the hook.
The Sydney Morning Herald, for example – the flagship of the Fairfax brand – uses reader comments only sparingly, reserving them instead for opinion pieces, blogs or “lighter” articles like entertainment and lifestyle news. You can’t even vent your spleen at pantomime sporting villains. The lack of comments would certainly come at a cost to the paper – they would lose valuable statistical information and fail to benefit from return visits and a sense of “conversation”. Yet the brand remains authoritative. News is clear and carries gravitas when it is not being drowned out by noise from the margins. Comment can cheapen the news, blurring any context and giving a microphone to causes unrelated or unworthy. Recent legislation has seemingly opened the door for bigotry and online newspapers may provide a stage and a spotlight.
A newspaper website is no democracy and engaging with one online is not expressing freedom of speech. There is a simple test for this: post a polite, well-worded comment that is critical of the online paper itself, perhaps questioning the appropriateness of allowing comments in the first place. You will likely see your “free speech” drift into cyberspace, never to return.