Nas­ti­ness threat­en­ing the on­line reader com­ments

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON: The In­ter­net was sup­posed to fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter ex­change be­tween the pub­lic and news me­dia. But vile and hate­ful com­ments changed all that. In the face of ris­ing vit­riol-at­tacks, big­otry and gen­eral nas­ti­ness-news or­ga­ni­za­tions are in­creas­ingly throw­ing in the towel on on­line com­ments. Last month, Vice Me­dia’s Mother­board news site turned off reader com­ments, say­ing “the scorched earth na­ture of com­ments sec­tions just sti­fles real con­ver­sa­tion.” It in­stead be­gan tak­ing “let­ters to the editor” to be screened by staff. Vox Me­dia’s on­line news site The Verge said in July it was “turn­ing off com­ments for a bit,” not­ing that the tone was “get­ting a lit­tle too ag­gres­sive and neg­a­tive.”

Blog­ging plat­form Medium this past week al­lowed its users to hide reader com­ments, ac­knowl­edg­ing that “some­times you may not want to get in a dis­cus­sion.” The Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Beast, news web­site Re/code, the mil­len­nial-fo­cused news site Mic and Pop­u­lar Sci­ence also have shut off com­ments. And launched last year with­out them, say­ing that “flame wars” turned read­ers off. “News­rooms are re­ally strug­gling with this,” said Jen­nifer Stromer-Gal­ley, a pro­fes­sor of in­for­ma­tion stud­ies at Syra­cuse Univer­sity.

“They like the idea of the com­ments be­cause it brings read­ers back, it cre­ates a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who are ded­i­cated and that’s good for ad­ver­tis­ing,” she said. “But the down­side is that when peo­ple see lots of vit­riol and at­tack, even if they are not us­ing bad lan­guage, it turns peo­ple off. The worry is that in­stead of fos­ter­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion, you lose read­ers.” Re­search this year by Univer­sity of Hous­ton pro­fes­sor Arthur Santana found anony­mous com­ments on on­line news sites can of­ten bring out the vilest of views, par­tic­u­larly on hot top­ics such as im­mi­gra­tion.

“Of­ten the tar­gets of the in­ci­vil­ity are marginal­ized groups, in­clud­ing racial mi­nori­ties,” Santana said in the News­pa­per Re­search Jour­nal. Santana found read­ers re­ferred to im­mi­grants as “cock­roaches, lo­custs, scum­bags, rats, bums, buz­zards, blood-suck­ing leeches, ver­min, slime, dogs, brown in­vaders, wet­backs,” among oth­ers.

Santana said that news­pa­pers “have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with ram­pant in­ci­vil­ity and ad hominem at­tacks in their com­ment­ing fo­rums,” but may also be hurt­ing their own rep­u­ta­tions by be­com­ing a place for mud-sling­ing.

The prob­lem is not lim­ited to US news sites: “Flame wars” have forced the shut­down of com­ments on South Africa’s largest on­line news pub­lisher and In­de­pen­dent On­line has done the same. Con­trol­ling on­line fo­rums can be es­pe­cially tricky in coun­tries where news or­ga­ni­za­tions may be held li­able for de­fam­ing con­tent from read­ers. Some news or­ga­ni­za­tions have sought to clamp down on in­ci­vil­ity by re­quir­ing reg­is­tra­tion and ban­ning anonymity.

One tool is from Face­book, whose plug-in ver­i­fies the iden­tity of those who post com­ments, re­quir­ing peo­ple to use their real names. Some ev­i­dence in­di­cates the Face­book plat­form and other tools have helped the tone.

A 2013 Univer­sity of Kent study found that by mak­ing users “ac­count­able,” the Face­book sys­tem makes them “less likely to en­gage in un­civil dis­cus­sion.”

But when The Huff­in­g­ton Post ended anony­mous com­ments and be­gan us­ing the Face­book plug-in, it sparked anger. By cre­at­ing ob­sta­cles to post­ing, “you lose a lot of com­menters,” said David Wolf­gang, a doc­toral re­searcher in jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri. Wolf­gang, who has been re­search­ing the state of on­line news com­ments, said many news­rooms were un­pre­pared for the del­uge of ac­ri­mony but should not give up. “If your lo­cal news or­ga­ni­za­tion isn’t go­ing to pro­vide a space for this con­ver­sa­tion, who will? It doesn’t al­ways work out the way we want, but that doesn’t mean we should throw it out,” he said.

Tech so­lu­tions?

Large news or­ga­ni­za­tion em­ploy teams of moder­a­tors, some­times with help from out­side con­trac­tors, to weed out in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments. But that’s not fea­si­ble for many bud­get-stretched news­rooms. Some are look­ing to tech­nol­ogy, to fil­ter out nas­ti­ness and high­light con­struc­tive con­ver­sa­tions from read­ers. Sev­eral pri­vate ven­dors of­fer soft­ware for this. The Wash­ing­ton Post and New York Times have joined forces on a project funded by the Knight Foundation to cre­ate open-source soft­ware that can be adapted for news web­sites to get a bet­ter han­dle on on­line dis­cus­sions.

Greg Bar­ber, di­rec­tor of dig­i­tal news projects at the Post and a mem­ber of the “Co­ral Project” team work­ing with the Mozilla Foundation, said the com­pet­ing dailies re­al­ized that “we had the same prob­lems and it made sense for us to work to­gether.” “Ci­vil­ity is a chal­lenge for ev­ery­one,” Bar­ber said, adding that the Post gets some eight mil­lion com­ments a year and strug­gles to keep a pos­i­tive tone with its own moder­a­tors and an out­side con­trac­tor. “When users come in and see a pie fight, they are likely to pick up a pie and throw it,” he said. “If they see a rea­soned dis­cus­sion, they will want to con­trib­ute in a rea­soned way.”

Project mem­bers have spo­ken with pub­lish­ers in 25 coun­tries in­ter­ested in try­ing the soft­ware, which will be of­fered free. News sites may use their own cri­te­ria to keep the di­a­logue on course, ac­cord­ing to Bar­ber. Bar­ber said the soft­ware, set to be re­leased for test­ing in Jan­uary, aims not only to fil­ter out the ug­li­ness but to iden­tify the “trusted” read­ers and dis­play con­struc­tive com­ments more promi­nently. “It’s not just to scrape the mud off our boots, but to find and high­light the valu­able con­tri­bu­tions,” he said.

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