News organizations continue to grapple with the trolls under the bridge

Anika Gupta. Photo via LinkedIn.

Can comments on news platforms be salvaged? Hailed two decades ago as a forum for empowering what Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen called “the former audience,” they have in all too many cases devolved into an open sewer of lies, hate and racism. Remember the adage that “our audience knows more than we do”? Well, there may be something to that. But it turns out that scrolling through the comments is not the way to tap into that wisdom.

The Philadelphia Inquirer this week became the latest news organization to drop most of its comments. Closer to home, when my other employer, GBH News, ended comments a few years ago in the course of upgrading its content-management system, I didn’t hear about a single complaint.

On Thursday, Anika Gupta, the author of “How to Handle a Crowd: The Art of Creating Healthy and Dynamic Online Communities” (2020), offered some common-sense ideas that were aimed not only at news sites but also at the larger challenge of how to keep virtual discussions from spinning out of control.

In a talk via Zoom sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, Gupta discussed her study of Make America Dinner Again, started in 2016 by two women in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tria Chang and Justine Lee, to bring people with differing political perpectives together over food and conversation. It took off, and Facebook approached Chang and Lee with the idea of making it a Facebook group as well.

To the extent that it’s worked, Gupta said, it’s because the group has grown slowly (to date, there are still fewer than 1,000 members), with lots of personal intervention. Some of the steps they’ve taken include staying away from hot-button topics such as whether abortion should be legal or if teachers should have guns. Instead, they aim for “detailed, specific, ‘sideways’ questions,” as Gupta put it in her presentation. For instance, rather than asking about abortion rights, members were asked a lengthy question about how religious people justify a particular biblical quote.

They also implemented a “one-hour rule” that limits members to posting only one comment per thread per hour, which tends to keep the temperature down.

Some of the challenges they’ve faced, Gupta said, involve questions about what to do regarding members with false or offensive views. Their decision was to take aggressive action in such cases and encourage people to leave — a different approach compared to the one generally taken by the news business.

“A lot of news organizations are uncomfortable with this ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave’ attitude,” Gupta said.

I had a chance to ask Gupta about two issues that have bedeviled news organizations: Would requiring real names make a difference? And should comments be screened before they’re posted? Gupta’s take was that real names don’t matter all that much. Even in community online forums with real-names policies, she said, “you will be shocked about what people say about their neighbors.” (Actually, no, I wouldn’t.)

Moreover, insisting on real names can drive away people afraid of being harassed. That’s especially true with women, who, studies and anecdotal evidence show, are disproportionately singled out for online abuse.

Pre-screening, she added, is a problem because it is so labor-intensive, and it may not be realistic for larger media outlets. She also said pre-screening turns comments into something like letters to the editor, since commenters know their views are going to be read by someone at the news organization.

Although it can be difficult to find a news site that has healthy, productive comments, there are a few. One is the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit I wrote about in my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”

The Independent doesn’t require real names, but it does have a number of commenters who’ve used consistent pseudonyms over time, which Gupta said is helpful in maintaining civility. The site also screens every comment before it’s posted. The editor and founder, Paul Bass, believes that leads to more and higher-quality comments, since people who want to be constructive aren’t scared off.

Still, the Independent has had its glitches. As I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab a number of years ago, at one point an outbreak of sociopathy led Bass to shut down the comments temporarily. When they relaunched, commenters were required to register under their real names, though they could still post pseudonymously. That action put them on notice that they could be sued — Section 230, much discussed of late, protects the Independent, not the individuals who comment on the site.

Bass continues to see value in comments, writing in a public thread on Facebook this week:

Screening is essential. We screw up sometimes, and sometimes it gets toxic. But overall almost everyone involved with our site (readers, reporters, etc.) agrees that comments section is the best part. Lively, very wide range of points of view and racial/economic backgrounds; and some people who really know a lot more than we do! But occasionally it does feel like a sewer. I do feel comfortable zapping comments and banning people. Without our comments section, we would be more removed from readers, especially those who disagree with us. I learn so much from commenters!

I do wonder, though, if the Independent’s 2005 founding has something to do with Bass’ success with comments. Facebook was barely a thing at that time, and digital culture hadn’t become as toxic as it is today. By establishing expectations right from the start, Bass has been able to maintain a relatively civil environment for more than 15 years.

And I agree with Bass that screening — by humans — is essential. Anika Gupta said Thursday that screening by artificial intelligence isn’t going to be effective anytime soon, despite the efforts of Google to develop a system that would do just that.

At the local level, in particular, maintaining a useful comments platform is essential to keeping the audience engaged. Letting the trolls invade and taking action only after the damage has been done is exactly the wrong approach.

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Philly Inquirer kills comments

The Philadelphia Inquirer is getting rid of most of its comments. Why?

Commenting on Inquirer.com was long ago hijacked by a small group of trolls who traffic in racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This group comprises a tiny fraction of the Inquirer.com audience. But its impact is disproportionate and enduring.

A few years ago, after a content-management system upgrade, GBH News killed its comment sections. If anyone complained, I’m not aware of it. Every news organization should consider emulating the Inquirer — including The Boston Globe.

In 2016, moving comments to Facebook seemed like a great idea. Now it’s a problem.

A little more than four years after turning off comments and directing everyone to Facebook, I’ve turned them back on. The move comes at a time when we’re all questioning our dependence on Facebook given the social-media giant’s role in spreading disinformation and subverting democracy across the world.

I will continue to post links on Facebook, and readers will be able to comment either there or here. But if you’d like to reduce your own use of the platform, I urge you to sign up for email delivery of Media Nation (click on “Follow This Blog” in the right-hand rail) and post your comments here. Your real name, first and last, is required.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

 

Tweaking comments: Moving away from a real-names policy

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’ve finally decided to implement it. I am taking a tactical step back from requiring real names in the comments section. I will continue to screen every comment before it’s posted, which I’ve come to realize is of much greater value than real names.

Since I first started requiring real names a few years ago, the online conversation has changed quite a bit. Comments at Media Nation and many other websites have dropped precipitously. At the same time, I post links to everything I write on Facebook, which often leads to in-depth, high-quality interactions. As you probably know, Facebook does require real names, and though not everyone goes along, most do. Here is my Facebook profile. We don’t need to be “friends,” since I post blog content to my public feed. In my opinion, the shift to Facebook is far more important than whether I require real names here.

The other reason I’m moving away from real names here is that several of my most regular commenters log in via WordPress under their screen names, forcing me to go in and change it to their real names. It’s a pain in the neck. Then, too, there are the excellent comments from people I don’t know who haven’t used their real names. I’ll often email them and ask them to resubmit under their real names. If I don’t hear from them, their comment goes unpublished.

As with everything in digital media, this is experimental. I may change my mind again or go in a completely different direction. Thank you for reading. If you want to comment here, be my guest, but I strongly recommend looking me up on Facebook.

Happy news breaks out at Media Nation

Tighter editing standards at Boston.com, improved online comments at the Boston Herald and well-deserved recognition for some first-rate political reporters. There’s so much good news on the local media front on this day-after-the-blizzard morning that it’s hard to know where to begin.

• Boston.com strives for civility. After a miserable stretch in which it falsely accused a Harvard Business School professor (and, gulp, lawyer) of sending a racist email to one of the owners of a Chinese restaurant and then mocked House Speaker John Boehner’s alleged drinking problem following an assassination threat, the folks at Boston.com sound determined to get it right.

In an interview with Benjamin Mullin at Poynter.org, Boston.com general manager Corey Gottlieb says he’s beefed up copy-editing and tightened standards in response to the two incidents. He tells Mullin:

We’ve made a pretty strong point about the fact that it’s OK to slow down. That we’d much rather not be first but get something right and be really thoughtful about it than rush to publish and bypass the discretion that should be required of any good content producer like ours.

The worst thing the Boston Globe-affiliated site could do is chase clicks. December turned out to be a boffo month for Boston.com, driven by its reporting on the Harvard professor’s harassment of the Chinese restaurant over a $4 overcharge — a righteous hit before it went off the rails. (T-shirts were involved, too.) According to Compete.com, Boston.com received nearly 3.7 million unique visits in December, way up from November’s 2.8 million. Compete’s numbers aren’t perfect by any means, but it’s safe to say Boston.com’s numbers were up a lot.

Yet quality matters. And according to Compete, BostonGlobe.com actually attracted more traffic than its free cousin in December, receiving more than 3.8 million unique visits — even though you have to pay a digital subscription fee to receive full access to the site (granted, free social sharing at BostonGlobe.com is pretty generous these days).

No doubt Gottlieb and company are going to stick with their plan to build a buzzy site with lots of viral content (here’s my alternative idea). But I’m glad to see that they understand what’s gone wrong and that they’re determined to do something about it.

One of Boston.com’s biggest problems is that it’s been flying without an editor (except for a few weeks last fall) since its relaunch last spring. That should be rectified as soon as possible.

• The Herald embraces Facebook. Online newspaper comments in general can make you despair for humanity. Over the years the Herald’s have been particularly loathsome. So kudos to publisher Pat Purcell and editor Joe Sciacca for switching to a Facebook-based commenting system.

Facebook isn’t perfect. Certainly there are issues with a news organization turning over its community platform to a giant corporation with its own agenda and priorities. But people are generally more civil and constructive when they’re on Facebook, in large measure because Facebook requires real names — and most people comply.

Check out the comments beneath Howie Carr’s ridiculous column on climate change today. Not bad at all. Only one of the first eight is pseudonymous. And if they’re not all exactly civil, they are less toxic than I’m accustomed to seeing at BostonHerald.com.

Can a real-names policy at BostonGlobe.com be far behind?

Massachusetts’ best political reporters. Chris Cillizza, who runs a political blog for The Washington Post called The Fix, has named nine Massachusetts political reporters as among the best in the country. (Disclosure: The list was based in part on a reader poll, and I voted for friend of Media Nation Jon Keller, who’s among the winners — but every one of these is worthy.)

It’s especially nice to see a couple of reporters outside the Greater Boston orbit win recognition — Jim Hand of Attleboro’s Sun Chronicle and Shira Schoenberg of The Republican in Springfield. Congratulations to all.

No change in comments for now

I recently floated the idea of morphing the real-names requirement into a registration requirement — you’d have to sign in with WordPress, Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook, which meant that you’d be posting under a verified identity but not necessarily a real name.

I’ve decided to leave things alone, at least for the time being. A few people really think the real-names requirement is something I ought to keep. And if I’m going to do that, then there’s no reason to require registration with a third-party service.

If WordPress.com ever makes it possible to add a service like Disqus or Open ID, I may revisit the issue. For now, those services can only be used with hosted blogs using WordPress.org.

What are your thoughts on tweaking comments?

I’m thinking of making a tweak to commenting on Media Nation. Rather than requiring real names, first and last, as I have since 2010, I might shift to requiring online verification instead.

There’s a function I can turn on that would require people to sign in using their Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or Google Plus account before commenting. I would still screen comments before posting them. But no longer would I be tracking people down to remind them to use their full names — something that causes me to lose a fair number of comments.

Most of the commenting energy has shifted to Facebook anyway. (If you don’t follow the conversation when I post a Media Nation link on Facebook, you’re missing a lot. You can follow my public feed by clicking here.) But I feel like I need to give the on-site comments a jolt.

A word about Facebook: If you comment on Media Nation using your Facebook account, your comment will not appear anywhere on Facebook. It’s simply a log-in mechanism. Still, I have no doubt that Facebook tracks you for its own internal advertising purposes.

As for the alternatives, logging in with WordPress is probably the most benign. WordPress is part of a nonprofit organization and it’s not a social network, at least not in the sense that the other three are. You can sign up for an account without having to start a blog. If you’re comfortable posting comments in public, then you shouldn’t have any problem registering with WordPress.

Thoughts?

Correction: WordPress.com’s owner, Automattic, is in fact a for-profit company. See this comment.

Using news site comments to build community

News site comments can be toxic. Yet, properly managed, they can be a tool for building media literacy, civic engagement and, ultimately, a news organization’s audience.

The following presentation incorporates some lessons I’ve learned over the years, many of them from researching my book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.”

I delivered a lecture based on this presentation earlier today in Professor Steve Burgard’s Journalism Ethics and Issues class at Northeastern.

The Eagle-Tribune joins the real-names brigade

The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated weeklies — The Andover Townsman, The Derry News and The Haverhill Gazette — have adopted a real-names policy for online comments. Editor Al White explains:

We tried hard to make our website’s comments feature a forum for the exchange of opinion and information.

We failed.

Sure, many commenters posted thoughtful remarks and adhered to the highest standards.

But far too many used the feature to spew vitriol, bigotry, obscenity, cheap shots and juvenile taunts, no matter how hard we worked to keep the conversation civil.

The Eagle-Tribune will let people register under their real names using either Facebook or Disqus.

White also raises an interesting issue — that news-site comments may have run their course, as much of the online conversation has shifted to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. “We have almost 8,000 Twitter followers, for example, 5,000 on our text alert service and more than 4,000 on Facebook,” he writes. “Those numbers are growing. I’d guess we have fewer than 100 ‘regulars’ commenting on Disqus, and that number appears to be shrinking.”

It’s a phenomenon I and many others have noticed. Comments on Media Nation posts have dropped off considerably in recent years. But when I link to a Media Nation post on Facebook, the responses roll in.

Some sites, like the New Haven Independent, have done a good job of integrating anonymous comments into the conversation. But a real-names policy can definitely be part of a well-tended comments garden. Good move on The Eagle-Tribune’s part.

Earlier: GateHouse papers ban anonymous comments (June 27).

GateHouse papers ban anonymous comments

Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy
Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy

Friday update: MetroWest Daily News columnist Julia Spitz offers her take.

Yet another major news organization is fighting back against the scourge of anonymous, hateful comments. GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, is now requiring readers to use their real names and log in via Facebook or LinkedIn. The new rules kick in today.

Here’s how the reason for the new policy was explained in the GateHouse-owned Patriot Ledger of Quincy earlier this week:

For some time, we’ve received complaints that the anonymous commenting system we’ve hosted on our online stories does little to enhance the conversation within our community. The criticism has been that some of the comments are hateful and sometimes, downright objectionable. We heard you and we agree.

Most of GateHouse’s Massachusetts papers are community weeklies, but there are also a few medium-size dailies — most prominently The Patriot Ledger, The Enterprise of Brockton, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and The Milford Daily News.

The new policy pertains to all of GateHouse’s properties, which include more than 300 daily and weekly papers, according to a tweet from Nicole Simmons, regional digital editor for GateHouse Media New England.

In discussing the new policy on Facebook this week, I’ve seen praise for the decision to banish anonymity and criticism for relying on third-party services such as Facebook and LinkedIn. My sense is that the new policy is a step in the right direction, and how well it works will depend on the willingness of local editors to engage with their audience.

In other words: better some places than others.