Online expression has made headlines in the UK recently for the wrong reasons – misogynistic death threats on Twitter, the suicide of a young girl after being bullied on Ask.fm – leading to calls for increased regulation of this as yet still unfamiliar field.
Indeed, free speech has undergone a revolution online, where anyone with internet access can have a public outlet for their opinions. Some may choose to create their own blog or other outlet, but many choose to express themselves on existing forums, which might be social networks, or could be the websites of news organisations.
For our report into online commenting on news websites, carried out in conjunction with the Open Society Foundations, we spoke to 104 online editors and community managers at news organisations from 63 countries around the world, seeking to understand how they manage online comment moderation, with the goal of producing a series of best practices.
Online comments are seen as a way to increase reader engagement and can be a fantastic resource for a news organisation: providing additional detail and insight to articles from informed readers who are passionate about the subject, offering a wide range of supplementary opinions, and giving newsrooms a window into how their readers see both their journalism and the wider world. A few examples of views from the report:
* “It's really what online is about. There is a generational gap from the paper. The paper talks to readers and online is so much more talking with readers. We allow the conversation to happen.” Adrian Ephraim, Mail & Guardian, South Africa
* “For every article there is at least one reader who will ask the right questions and find something that the article doesn’t answer but it should. Journalists are more on their toes when there are comments.” Sebastian Hörn, Die Zeit, Germany
* “Comments for me are very much part and parcel of adding value to what goes up in the first place. It's about enriching, bringing new perspectives, critiquing, debating, fleshing out, exploring, probing that content.” Sanjana Hattotuwa, Groundviews, Sri Lanka
But it’s not all a happy tale of educated readers offering wisdom and useful information via a democratic debate on the top issues of the day. News organisations are not immune to the sort of consequence-free behaviour and defiance of social norms that Twitter and Ask.fm have experienced on their sites: it is impossible to limit commenting to those who do have something constructive to say, and discussions frequently descend into torrents of insults that are utterly irrelevant to the original article.
As well as a great deal of enthusiasm about the value of online comments, we found waves of negativity, despondency, frustration and confusion over how to proceed. This is exacerbated by the fact that the numbers of comments on news sites are increasing fast, particularly in countries that are seeing massive growth in the use of digital media.
Several editors and managers believed that they lacked the resources to truly monitor online comments and engage most effectively, and many saw a lack of motivation from other members of staff in participating. Due to the unsavoury nature of some contributions, comments sections are often viewed with disdain. How to best protect their brand is one of a news organisation’s main concerns when approaching online comment moderation – this frequently seemed a greater motivation than engaging with readers. It can be extremely difficult to stop dedicated offenders, even with filters and moderators in place.
Unsurprisingly, our research didn’t point to an ideal strategy that would address all these problems, but it did highlight some interesting trends.
Some key findings:
* 97 out of the 104 publications accept comments
* 61 allow comments on all or almost all articles
* Politics articles attract the most comments
* An average of 11% of comments are deleted
* The main reason given for deleting or blocking comments was generally offensive content, followed by hate speech, profanity / bad language, personal attacks and spam. Racism was the most commonly-cited type of discrimination
* 78 publications had some kind of guidelines that are made available to their readers online
* 33 had dedicated in-house moderators, 13 outsourced moderation but at more than half the news organisations we spoke to, comments are moderated by journalists or other newsroom staff
Towards a civil conversation: key decisions
A significant choice that a publisher has to make is when to moderate: before or after publication? Our research showed a relatively even spread, with 42 publications choosing post-moderation, 38 pre-moderation and 16 a mixed system. One of the key factors in this decision is the legal status of publishers as intermediaries: in many parts of the world, there is little precedent for cases being brought against news organisations for the comments placed on their sites, and there is consequently a pervading lack of clarity about the precise level of liability that the news outlet shoulders. Interestingly, this leads some to moderate more actively, and others less.
The clear advantage to pre-publication moderation is that nothing that hasn’t been checked by a member of staff will be published, and many news organisations viewed this as essential. However, pre-moderation is labour-intensive and consequently expensive, which discouraged some, and has the disadvantage of slowing down the conversation due to the inevitable delay between submission and publication. In some countries, this kind of moderation also makes the publication more legally liable for the content.
Post-moderation, therefore, is preferred by many because it requires less staff time and allows for fast-paced back-and-forth conversations between readers: this is an important factor for several publishers. Another common motivation is that in some countries – including most of Europe – publications as intermediaries are protected from liability if they do not actively moderate comments and wait for readers to report those that offend them. However, it does mean that unsuitable comments might end up online for some time before being taken down, which can be damaging to a publication’s brand and this was a significant concern.
There are a couple of tactics that are generally agreed to increase the quality of conversation in online comments sections: enforcing real name policies for commenters, and staff participation in comment sections.
Our research showed that staff participation in comment threads was indeed perceived to up the ‘civility’ of the conversation. The editors who see journalists enter the conversation saw a distinct increase in the quality and tone of the conversation, and said that it leads to the best comments. It gives readers the sense that they are being appreciated and listened to.
“We know that having that staff presence early on in threads on our site dramatically increases the tone of the conversation that follows: it lessens the need for moderation as well because it sets a high barrier and gives people direction. It encourages people who have never commented before to take that leap of faith,” said Laura Oliver, Guardian, UK.
However, this isn’t happening at all news organisations: while some lament the lack of willingness from staff, others feel it isn’t appropriate for their journalists to enter what they see as the readers’ space.
Real names vs pseudonyms
Twenty news organisations we spoke to make a concerted effort to enforce real name policies, and have found that these not only cut down on the overall number of comments but also on the number of offensive ones. It’s not always an easy thing to enforce: the most straightforward way is to only allow users to sign in through Facebook or another social network. Several publications, mainly Latin American, require an official identity number from those who register.
On the other hand, there are news outlets that believe fiercely in the value of allowing anonymity in their online comment sections, recognising that it enables the expression of opinions that people might not be able to offer under their real names. Eighteen of the organisations we spoke to allow ‘guest’ comments, with no registration required, and a remaining 53 require registration but real names are not enforced.
At Haaretz, Israel, for example, where users are offered the choice to login through Facebook or to remain anonymous, 99% of the comments are anonymous. The Denver Post, US, encourages real name registration but doesn’t verify names. “You get more robust discussion if you allow pseudonyms,” Dan Petty said. “I think the key is consistency - if you use the same pseudonym all the time… We understand that anonymous commenting has its drawbacks but as long as it's consistent it's OK.”
Bringing out the best
Highlighting the best comments is an important part of making a comments section more accessible to readers who don’t comment as well as those who do. Around half (47) of the news organisations we spoke to had a way to distinguish the ‘best’ comments, generally through ‘like’ buttons or an editor’s picks section. As well as making the good comments more visible, this also serves to reward those commenters.
Helsingin Sanomat, Finland, has a rating system that allows users to say not only whether they agree or disagree, but also to say whether or not a comment was well-argued. Comments receive points based on both these factors, and readers can choose to display comments according to the level of points. BuzzFeed, US, enables editors to give comments badges to help guide the conversation. If, for example, a comment is not highly offensive but not constructive, an editor can give it a shaking head badge to discourage other readers from responding.
Best practices, in brief:
* Publish clear, thorough, transparent guidelines
* Hire a community manager as well as dedicated moderators
* Moderate to protect minority opinions
* Experiment with ways to surface most valuable comments
* Give your readers feedback: educate them on how to comment appropriately
* Encourage journalists to contribute to the conversation
* Ensure that staff have up-to-date legal awareness
Several interesting experiments are currently taking place, with comments being pulled out from below the fold and placed alongside the story at the New York Times, comments as annotations on articles at Project Syndicate, Medium and Quartz, and interactive apps being built to create new content out of user comments at the Washington Post, for example. These might be outliers for now, but they are all evidence of a growing trend to take user comments seriously and truly seek out their value to enhance a news publication’s digital offering.
The report is available for free download here.