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Getting commenters to play nice

Venturing into the comments section can be a pretty gruesome experience. It can also be enlightening, educational and entertaining. What can publishers do to raise the level of online debate?

By James Evelegh

Getting commenters to play nice
Rosie Nixon.

In late 2019, in response to what it saw as an increasingly toxic environment on social media, Hello! magazine launched its #HelloToKindness campaign.

“Comments left under our posts – particularly any to do with Kate or Meghan – have become increasingly hostile – either towards the Duchesses or other users,” said Hello! editor-in-chief Rosie Nixon. “So, we’re asking people to think before they post and say #HelloToKindness. We want to make social media a more positive space for everyone to enjoy.”

Hello!’s online commercial content editor Carla Challis added: “It isn't acceptable to constantly pit women against each other. It isn't acceptable to post racist, sexist or threatening abuse on social platforms and it’s not acceptable to attack other users just because they disagree with you. We say it’s time to say goodbye to meanness and intolerance, and time to say #HelloToKindness. Join our movement and say #HelloToKindness by sharing a kind message, video or caption on Instagram.”

Speaking to InPublishing before Christmas, Rosie, who has just published her first non-fiction book, Be Kind, expanded on the theme of kindness: “Kindness can be a superpower if you remember to use it… Kindness and positivity have always been among our USPs; we wear our kindness as a badge of honour.”

Managing interactions with readers is not easy.

Some have stopped trying, at least when it comes to commenting sections. In 2016, famously, Vice stopped allowing reader comments.

“Website comments sections are rarely at their best,” wrote Vice’s then-editor-in-chief Jonathan Smith in a statement about the site’s decision to end online commenting. “Without moderators or fancy algorithms, they are prone to anarchy. Too often they devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise.”

Vice was by no means alone, and many news organisations have closed reader comments sections over the years, deciding they were not worth the effort.

But, reader interactions, if managed properly, are beneficial to publishers. It brings alternative views into play and brings fresh new content; it improves reader dwell time on the site and makes readers feel part of a community; they welcome the fact that they can air their views, even if most of them choose not to use it. And, last but by no means least, it improves the quality of your journalism.

Anjanette Delgado, the Detroit Free Press’ senior news director for digital, in 2019 said, “I know when I moderate comments, I’m a smarter, better journalist. I know what people are talking about, and you can start to see a lot of the ideas and theories that are resonating.”

But, clearly, reader interactions need managing, otherwise things can get out of control very quickly and damage your brand.

In part, this is a numbers game.

According to a 2019 study from the University of Texas at Austin, “Our research shows that audience members can handle some incivility when it does not dominate the comment stream. But when 75% of the comments are uncivil, people’s perceptions of the site and the commenting space were less favourable.” (Tenenboim, Masullo, Lu)

So, how do you keep the commenting show on the road. Here are nine tips:

  1. Decide on your strategy. Reader interactions should not simply be ‘on’ or ‘off’. You need to work out why you are doing it, what you hope to achieve, and what ‘good’ looks like.
  2. Create and publicise clear ‘terms of use’. This will help set the boundaries for both your readers and moderators.
  3. Allocate resource. You can’t leave it untended. You need moderators, but don’t pile it all onto one or two people. Burn out, fatigue, mental health are all real concerns, so spread the load.
  4. Manage the workload. It’s all too easy for moderators to get swamped, therefore you should consider proactively managing the workload. There are a number of tools at your disposal: not making comments available on all articles; closing comment threads to new comments after a certain amount of time; using the increasing number of AI tools to automatically detect problematic posts.
  5. Get posters to think twice. Again, AI to the rescue. There are tools that can detect potential abuse and prompt users to reconsider or rephrase before they post.
  6. Encourage your journalists to get involved. Posts by the author of the piece help raise the level of debate, show the users that the brand is invested in them and their presence encourages better behaviour. It “creates a sort of bond between the reader and the news organisation, where people feel less okay to say nasty things,” says Gina M Masullo, associate director of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
  7. Reward good behaviour. Find ways of acknowledging great comments and contributions, by elevating what you consider to be the best posts (the Guardian’s ‘Guardian Pick’) or helpful reader recommendations.
  8. Only allow comments from ‘signed in’ users. This will give you a greater degree of control.
  9. Block! Posts that fall outside your guidelines should be blocked as should users that repeatedly transgress them.

Ultimately, it’s all about safeguarding your brand. Rosie Nixon sees responsibility for the integrity of the Hello! brand as being central to her role. Toxic commenters don’t “have a place in our world”, so get blocked. “We’re very protective of our community.”

We’re asking people to think before they post and say #HelloToKindness.

You can hear Rosie Nixon being interviewed by James Evelegh on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Air Business, a leading supplier of distribution and subscription management services.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.