The Strange (And Disturbing) Logic Behind Racist Comments Online

NPR disabled online comments. Should more media outlets join them?
08/26/2016 06:33 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016
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Racist comments that users post to online media content are a real problem for some of the Internet’s most popular websites. 

Just last week, NPR.org announced that they have disabled online comments and are relying on user conversations to social media where the use of real names might foster more civil exchanges. Some have questioned whether doing so will hinders the “public” input that is a defining feature of National Public Radio. Others have argued that the negative implications of the “free hate” that is permitted in online comments outweigh the benefits of intelligent, productive conversations. NPR is just one of many media sites that are grappling with how to handle online comments.

Youtube.com’s comment section is known as being so outrageous that it prompted The Onion to publish a cynical news brief, “YouTube Reaches 1 Trillion Racist Comments” which joked that the creators “knew it had the potential to revolutionize the way people make highly offensive and insensitive remarks based purely on a stranger’s racial or ethnic characteristics.”

So we know racist comments are out there, but what purpose do they serve in the online world? Heather Hensman Kettrey, a Research Associate at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute, and I sought to answer this question via a research effort, in which we analyzed 2000 comments posted on YouTube.com. We selected the most recent comment threads posted on 20 top-viewed videos selected under our search criteria. Some of the videos were non-racial in content and others were pertinent to race. We kept comments organized by threads to allow us to analyze conversational dynamics between users.

We coded each comment for racist content and specified the type of racism: overt and/or colorblind racism. Overt racism includes biological racism (such as claims that people of color are inferior to whites based on innate biological differences) as well as the use of racial epithets and threats. Colorblind racism minimizes racism as a thing of the past or claims that racial inequality is based on something beside racism (i.e., it is a natural occurrence, a result of the cultural inferiority of people of color, or a result of individualized merit). We also noted whether each comment elicited a response, and whether that response contained overt racism, colorblind racism, and/or dissent against racism (i.e., comments that challenge overt or colorblind racism). Finally, we indicated whether users specified their racial identity.

Racism in Comments

We found that nearly 11 percent of the sampled comments contained racist content. Broken down by type, 6.40 percent of comments contained overt racism and 5.50 percent contained colorblind racism, with a small proportion containing both types. Dissent against racism, which we found in about 8 percent of all posts, was more prominent than both individual types of racism, but less frequent than overall racist posts.

Sometimes, comments included both overt and colorblind racism. For instance, one user wrote: “I want to kindly discourage white people from ever using the n-word. The n-word (n*gger) helps blacks frame themselves as victims. I do not hate blacks, but whites are the main victims of forced integration/ multiculturalism. Blacks are relatively unattractive: Oily, wooly hair. Swollen lips. Ultra wide noses. Very high crime rate. And crosscultural studies confirm that blacks, on average, have significantly lower IQ’s. I’m not making fun of them.” The overt racism is blatant here; the user claims blacks are physically unattractive, criminal, and unintelligent. The colorblind racism is more nuanced and covert: that racism is not a problem, but rather, blacks frame themselves as victims.

It became clear to us that some users freely posted racist content and that the content was both overt and colorblind in nature. To better understand what prompted racist comments, however, we needed to look at the conversational nature of the comments.

Overt Racism Used to Protect White Space

In doing so we asked: What predicts racist comments? One of the answers shocked us: identification as a person of color. That is, when users revealed that they were a person of color, the odds that another user would subsequently post an overt racist comment were nearly 5 times larger than if no racial identification were used. In rare instances, for example, a commenter would bait another user into revealing his or her race, and if that user identified as a person of color, there was an intensification of subsequent racial epithets, threats against people of color, or arguments rooted in biological racism.

We speculate that many users assume white identities and white space as the default; that white privilege allows them to do and say as they please in online spaces. And when threatened by the presence of a person of color, they use overt racism as a tool to push out non-white users and reclaim the space as theirs.

Colorblind Racism Hinders Anti-Racism Work

Although identifying as a person of color seemed to elicit overt racism from other users, it did not predict other users’ deployment of colorblind racism. Thus, understanding what prompted colorblind racism was a bit harder to pinpoint. This is actually not surprising given the veiled nature of colorblind racism.

For instance, comments with colorblind racism prompted dissent less frequently than comments with overt racism. We believe that the covert and obscure language embedded in colorblind racism lessens the amount of dissent offered against it. In fact, many people do not recognize it as racism at all – and our data suggest some users actually mistake colorblind racism for dissent.

We found that some commenters attempted to dissent against racism but in fact ended up perpetuating colorblind racism. For instance, in response to an overt racist comment, a user posted: “Dear Historians from the Year 3000 reading this: Please disregard [the above poster’s] comments. He is not a human being but is in fact a racist robot whose programming went haywire. Human beings… do not really believe this.” This user attempted to dissent against overt racism, but in doing so denied that racism is a contemporary problem that has real implications for people of color. In fact, many social scientists agree that colorblind racism is counterproductive in fighting against racial discrimination.

Altogether, our research suggests that both overt and colorblind racism play an important role in maintaining the racial divide on the “world white web.” Overt racism maintains racial boundaries by making the web an unsafe place for users of color, whereas colorblind racism convolutes the conversation and impedes the demolishment of racism.

Just Don’t Read the Comments?

Some creators of Youtube content have publicly stated they refuse to read users’ comments. Everyday Internet and social media users offer the encouragement, “don’t read the comments” when sharing links online. NPR.org joins the growing initiative to remove comment sections altogether. To some, the removal of comment sections means racist trolls have won, but to many columnists ignoring online comments is a form of self-protection. Others, such as the New York Times, use comment moderation as a solution. However, this can be expensive – and viewing countless racist comments can take a toll on the moderators.

What if we don’t close the tab before we get to the comments and, instead, take a stand to claim the space as interracial and conducive to meaningful conversation? Though a comment section flooded with #blacklivesmatter, #occupytheweb, or reasoned critiques of colorblind racism might discourage a few racist trolls, our research suggests it might actually agitate the most vicious.

So we have to ask (and please contribute in the comments below!): Are there other options?

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