Closing Comments Sections

Newspapers and media web sites the world over are starting to close their comments sections. It is a sad commentary on our general inability to be civil to one another, and I think it is a move that is long overdue.

YouTube has a reputation for comments immediately turning into cesspools, but visit any newspaper website on any topic with any hint of controversy and you will see humanity’s lowest common denominator proudly announcing itself for the world to see.

Editors everywhere are lamenting the pitiful state of their comments sections. Popular Science shut off their comments in September of 2013. They were a little ahead of the curve. Writer Suzanne LaBarre wrote that trolls and spambots have diminished their ability to promote science, which makes the practice of open commenting contrary to their mission.

Being a proper science-based publication, Popular Science of course gave a citation for their thinking on this. It was a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication from February of 2013 which showed that “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” and the researchers titled it, “The Nasty Effect“.

The Guardian even published an article in their Science/Psychology section that posited that comments sections are poison, and need to be handled with much care and work or removed altogether, and called for a radical rethink on the usefulness or necessity of comments sections.

Then of course there is the misinformation that often gets spread in comments sections. The first example that comes to mind is any news site that publishes an article on climate change. The comment section rapidly fills with uneducated lunatics (or more nicely, “climate change denialists”) screaming about how it’s all a hoax, how it’s not real, how a cold day in February disproves climate change, and any number of conspiracy theories. Compounding this problem is that it is impossible to distinguish the legitimate lunatics from the commentors paid by the petroleum giants to spread misinformation, much like the misinformation specialists employed by tobacco companies all those years ago, and to a lesser extent still today. Open comment sections allow an open license to lobbyists from every sector. And yes, lobbyists do “load” comments sections.

In May of 2014, National Journal shut down comments on most of its articles, maintaining that it was a hotbed of untrustworthy information, ad hominem attacks, partisan feuding, racism, sexism and general abuse. Instead of putting the resources into moderating their busy comments section, they felt those resources would be better used bringing the public more of the high quality journalism the publication was known for instead.

Many media outlets had comments sections on their articles as an extension of the news gathering and reporting functions, by providing a forum for public debate that augments and provides further value and meaning to the reporting. However, time and time again we are seeing very little engagement in actual debate, and more trolling, abuse, broadcasting and grandstanding.

Freedom of Speech is a right, but a web site’s comments section is a privilege, and it is a privilege that has been mightily abused. In an ideal civilization, our technology to communicate would not outpace our ability to discourse responsibly. Unfortunately, we have demonstrated that there are still enough of us who would abuse such a thing, and as a whole we are not yet ready for that kind of openness in communication.

Before the Internet came along and news media moved their efforts to the online world, readers had their opportunity to exercise their freedom of speech. It was called the “Letters to the Editor” section. Freedom of speech was available to anyone who could voice their opinion within the word limit and afford a stamp and an envelope. Most newspapers would not publish a Letter to the Editor unless the letter was signed, and they could verify that the signatory did indeed write the letter. These were not unreasonable limitations on free speech.

I work on the Internet. In my course of work I encounter many people who work in public affairs, promotions, social media, image promotion and so on. They all have the same approach to comments sections. “We don’t want them on our site, don’t read them on other sites.” The online comments section is becoming a dinosaur and unmoderated comments sections are nearing extinction. Unmoderated comments sections allow what is called “uncontrolled content” on a web site. THe commentor borrows the reputation of the host site to say what they want to say.

Once considered the pinnacle of reader engagement, and offering the promise of civil discourse and the comments sections are proving themselves to be at best not necessary, and far more often harmful to the purpose of the content or site. The end result is a chilling effect, as growing numbers of readers associate the quality of a news source with the quality of the comments section. Those who continue to use a site in spite of a runaway comments section are increasingly reluctant to engage or even read the comments.

The comment policy on this blog has at times been open and anonymous posting to closed altogether, to now allowing moderated comments. The GenXMedia team debated at length the values of each policy every time we had to make a change. Our comments traffic is such that we can accommodate the resource of a moderator, and we want to keep our readers engaged. This system is working for us, and we have no immediate plans to change it.

But once moderators are involved, then you are committed to making judgement calls. On what criteria is a comment accepted or rejected? Moderation policies change from site to site. Some sites filter just for malicious links and libelous content. On this blog, we filter for those criteria and
whether the comment is on topic. While libel and defamation are serious considerations for many sites, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act identifies the relationship that a site or blog has with content submitted by commentors. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a very nice FAQ on the subject.

About the only value that unmoderated comments sections seem to provide is that of research material for university psychology departments. Many initiatives have sprung up to examine why, when given the opportunity to engage in open discussion and the free exchange of ideas, we too easily resort to flinging electronic poo at each other instead. The Engaging News Project is interested in finding ways to foster civil discourse, and eliminate incivility online.

Vice’s Motherboard in December of 2014 wrote an article on new research conducted by this “Engaging News Project” that is showing that a new approach might help rehabilitate comments sections – tackle the trolls head on. Their research showed that when an identified reporter (for example, the author of the article people were commenting on) engaged in discussion in the comments section, incivility marginally decreased (by 17%), and the quality of engaged discussion marginally increased (by 15%). The journalist’s presence may have slightly improved the quality of the comments section, but now your journalist is spending their time moderating a comments section and not doing journalism stuff. The article suggests that most trolls are there just to snark and often clam up once they receive a response. I wonder what web sites they were studying if that has been their experience with comment trolls and keyboard warriors.

Those studies are nice, and might give some insight into how we can reincorporate civil discourse in the future, but I think it is far too late to reform our approach to online comments sections as they exist today. The decision to close down comments sections, while disappointing in many ways, is really the only decision that many sites can make.

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