Brace yourself, and scroll down to the comments

Jonah Lewis, a senior double-majoring in sociology and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

Many Internet users abide by one commandment: Don’t read the comments. They’re often bigoted and ignorant, and the image of the average Internet commentator has coalesced into an aggressive and bad-mouthed troll.

But I almost always break that rule, and I love reading the comments.

I recognize that they’re often disgusting and discouraging, but I usually skim the comments of almost every article I read. Surprisingly, there’s immense value in reading what everyone else assumes is useless content because it forces you to consume viewpoints you might not hear otherwise.

The Internet has changed what we consume, with news from hundreds of websites available at our fingers at any moment. This often leaves us trapped in a sort of echo chamber of think pieces. As a progressive person, almost everything I read is some echo or elaboration of views I already hold or at least seriously consider. But reading the comments has been my way of getting out of that bubble.

Of course, everyone knows there are points of view they would ignore no matter what. For example, as a gay man, I don’t feel the need to consume or see articles opposing same sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws because I’ll never be persuaded to vote against my own humanity.

But it’s important to remember that there are more extreme points of view out there in the world, beyond our Facebook timelines. In our daily lives, that can be easy to forget – especially at a politically and socially active school like GW.

That’s where reading wild Internet comments come in: to serve as a reminder. They range from the horrifyingly racist remarks on any article even tangentially about race to the befuddling conspiracy theories that persist about vaccines and autism. I’ve also seen more rants about Scripture and same-sex marriage than I can count.

Believe it or not, these things are written by real live people. While we don’t know much about them as individuals, we know many of them may vote in elections and generally care about social issues.

That’s scary. It reminds us of the harsh reality that there are many ignorant and uninformed people out there. If you’re stuck in your bubble of think pieces from The Atlantic and The New Republic, it can be easy to forget that there are people who will still blithely use the N-word and don’t care who reads it.

Since many commentators are anonymous, they’re more willing to share their real viewpoints of the world – meaning you get to see their most toxic opinions. Of course, these extreme commentators are not representative, and we have no idea how small of a minority they may be. But it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the depth and types of ignorance that are out there. Yes, most comments are largely surface-level and are often no more than ad hominem attacks. But they also reflect the reality of American political life.

People often avoid the comments because they don’t want to give them the benefit of their attention or validate their outright foulness in any way. But to read, digest and appreciate is much different than to bring attention to.

Though I’ve come across plenty of gems, I haven’t highlighted any specific comments here because I believe something very important: While these comments represent people’s true ideals and cannot be ignored, they still represent harmful ideologies that we should never spread.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.