Scholars have taken a range of positions on comments sections, ranging from discussions of whether they have democratizing, deliberative potential (Chen & Lu, 2017; Diakopoulos & Naaman, 2011; McCluskey & Hmielowski, 2011; Rowe, 2015; Ruiz et al., 2011; Waddell, 2018; Weber, 2013) to sounding the alarm about how comments sections are hostile to marginalized users, including women (Clinnin & Manthey, 2019; Løvlie, Inlebæk, & Larsson, 2018; McKee, 2002; Vie, Balzhiser, & Ralston, 2014; Wu & Atkin, 2017). Research has also considered a much broader range of topics related to online discourse than can be fully considered here, including the motivations behind commenting (Lee & Kim, 2015; Wu & Atkin, 2017), how and when users are likely to engage with one another (Cheng, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, & Leskovec, 2015; Ksiazek, Peer, & Lessard, 2016), the effect of moderation on the comments sections (Løvlie et al., 2018; Sherrick & Hoewe, 2016; Suh, Lee, Suh, Lee, & Lee, 2018), and more. Work on trolling also explores how behaviors that are framed as "harmless" and "fun" can have unintended and damaging consequences (see Phillips, 2015, 2019). Although this project does not look at comments as examples of trolling, Whitney Phillips (2015, 2019) has provided a useful perspective on how trolls mimic and exaggerate broader cultural issues.
A substantial body of work also focuses on quantitative analysis of comments sections (Cheng et al., 2015; Ksiazek, et al., 2016; Løvlie et al., 2018), while qualitative approaches like the one taken by this webtext and by Clinnin and Manthey (2019) add specific detail and depth to the discussion of what is happening within the comments. For example, while Thomas B. Ksiazek, Limor Peer, and Kevin Lessard (2016) found that commenters are more likely to respond to one another on less popular news videos on YouTube, the content and tenor of those comments are not explicitly discussed. Like Clinnin and Manthey (2019), I advocate for reading and analyzing comments themselves as a way of understanding the discussions as part of a "technological experience within a larger cultural, social, and political system" (p. 37).
While scholars still occasionally herald the comments sections as elements of a digital public sphere that can "facilitate highly deliberative political discussions" (Rowe, 2015, p. 540), a more complex picture of how comments sections function has also emerged. Brett Sherrick and Jennifer Hoewe (2016) found that comment moderation can signal bias and lead to a backlash in opinion against remaining comments and the article itself, while T. Franklin Waddell (2018) illustrated how incivility in comments decreased readers' sense of the importance of the issue and of the article's credibility. Gina Massulo Chen and Shuning Lu (2017) also found that disagreement between users in the comments, whether civil or uncivil, led to increases in negative feelings and aggressive intent, although only uncivil replies led to further incivility (p. 121). While the comments sections do provide a space for deliberation, as many scholars argue, the conversations are often riddled with incivility that can have a negative effect on participation.
Clinnin and Manthey (2019) have offered a rhetorical technofeminist response to what they call "toxic commenting culture," a culture in which off-topic responses, trolling, and outright harassment, abuse, and hate speech flourish (pp. 32–33). Other scholars have observed that women experience a greater degree of sexist responses to their posts in the comments sections and become less likely to participate (Løvlie et al., 2018), or describe the comments sections as "hotbeds for prejudice" (Wu & Atkin, 2017, p. 62). Despite the acknowledgment of how the comments sections can lead to the targeting of women and other marginalized users, there is little qualitative analysis of how (or if) commenters respond to sexist comments or replies, a gap that the present study attempts to address, in line with other scholars in rhetoric and writing studies who have engaged in qualitative analysis of comments sections.
Leigh Gruwell (2017), Heidi McKee (2002), and Stephanie Vie, Deb Balzhiser, and Devon Fitzgerald Ralston (2014) have all considered the role of online spaces in public discourse and the impact of harassment on deliberation and discussion. Gruwell (2017), although she does not focus on comments sections, warned educators to "avoid relying on a Habermasian understanding of the public sphere," especially when teaching writing courses that involve public networks (para. 5). Both McKee (2002) and Vie et al. (2014) have engaged in qualitative analysis of comments in context, and both of their studies acknowledged the shortcomings of comments sections as spaces of public discourse, particularly for marginalized participants. McKee's work explored misconceptions about flaming through an analysis of student discussion boards, wherein inflammatory posts were written in neutral-seeming language and replies challenging those stereotypes would, according to the usual scholarly definition, have been considered flames. McKee complicated our understanding of what constitutes hostility in written online discourse, while Vie et al. considered how comments sections themselvesparticipate in the construction of conversations.
Vie et al. (2014) explored fat-shaming in the comments sections of Jezebel.com, YouTube, and Reddit. Their work provided a qualitative counterpart to the more quantitative analysis of comment moderation and guidelines from scholars such as Justin Cheng, Christian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Jure Leskovec (2015), Sherrick and Hoewe (2016), and Kil-Soo Suh, Seongwon Lee, Eung-Kyo Suh, Hoseong Lee, and Jaehoon Lee (2018). Oppression within comment threads occurs in complex ways determined, in part, by how comment sections are built and how closely social norms and terms of service are enforced. Clinnin and Manthey, Gruwell, McKee, and Vie et al. illustrated the need for qualitative analysis—and activism, in Clinnin and Manthey's case—around how oppression functions online; this webtext continues that work by directing our focus to gender in the comments and to users' rhetorical strategies in the face of gendered hostility.
Public perception of the comments also tends to be that they are hostile or toxic; many major news media publications have done away with their comments sections entirely in recent years (Finley, 2015). The internet is often conceptualized as an actively or potentially hostile space, as research into uninhibited online behavior flaming has shown (Herring et al., 2002; Jane, 2015; Kayany, 1998; Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses, & Geller, 1985; Lange, 2006; Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2012; Lea, O'Shea, Fung, & Spears, 1992; Lee, 2005; O'Sullivan & Flanagin, 2003). Research on the role of gender in shaping online interactions and hostility sheds additional light on why paying attention to sexism online—including in the comments sections—remains relevant.
Gendered online harassment has been an interdisciplinary area of focus within scholarship over the past decade, with numerous scholars from law, media and communications, social and political sciences, women's studies, and more considering what such harassment looks like and what effect it can have (Citron, 2009, 2014; Herring, 1999; Jane, 2014, 2015; Megarry, 2014). The combination of hostile sexism with its overt bigotry and violent threats with benevolent sexism and its covert bias and positive-sounding essentializing is a common focus of study, along with the effects of sexist abuse and its effects on women's presence and participation online. However, research on gendered online harassment has rarely looked at the role gender plays within the comments sections—and much research on gender online has had to be geared towards demonstrating there is a problem with harassment at all. Little scholarship has yet been attentive to how women respond to online sexism or the rhetorical strategies employed to create spaces for being heard.
Women's participation in discourse, online and off, is another thread of scholarship worth considering. Understanding the role of gender in shaping conversational norms has been a research problem for numerous scholars (Brescoll, 2011; James & Drakich, 1993; Sussman & Tyson, 2000). A major meta-analysis of research into who speaks more in mixed-gender discourse environments offline revealed that, despite the stereotype of women as chatterboxes, men tend to take control of conversations in nearly every scenario (James & Drakich, 1993). Further analysis by Victoria L. Brescoll (2011) provided insight into organizational gender imbalances. However, much of the existing research on such imbalances focuses only on face-to-face interactions.
Nan Sussman and Dianne H. Tyson (2000) provided an early challenge to the idea that the internet is a gender-neutral space, finding strong interactions between gender and power in shaping the amount of talk. Turning a similar lens to the comments sections of news articles can reveal whether or not such patterns persist in the discourse communities formed by user-generated interactions and contributions. As with much of the research on gendered online harassment, Sussman and Tyson's research was conducted in Web 1.0. Web 2.0 both enables and demands active engagement from users as readers, producers, and observers of content. Further studies on how communication and gender function in a Web 2.0 environment is therefore essential, given the radically different nature of the environment.
Research into the comments section, uninhibited behavior and flaming, gendered online harassment, and women's participation in discourse has been valuable, but remains incomplete. Studies of the comments sections paint a picture of the complex range of interactions that can happen in the spaces beneath news articles, but analysis of the rhetorical dimensions of responses to hostility remains necessary. Examinations of gendered online harassment have not looked specifically at how women engage with news and with other commenters. Women's participation, online and off, is undeniably shaped by sexism, gender roles and expectations, and the types of socializationexperienced by people regardless of gender. Few studies, therefore, have looked closely at how sexism can affect how women participate in discourse in the comments sections. This webtext is an attempt to draw attention to those gaps, and to begin shedding light on some of the rhetorical strategies women use when encountering sexismonline.