Kick out the trolls – how to reclaim Comments

The Comments section of many newspaper sites have become virtual cesspools, full of bile, vitriol and aggression; a dark netherworld dominated by trolls, spammers and other digital low-life. But … it doesn’t need to be this way! As DiscussIt CEO Graham Davies tells James Evelegh, with the right approach and tools in place, Comments really can deliver all the incredible benefits that come from deeper reader engagement.

By James Evelegh

Over the past twelve months, a number of high profile publications, including The Word, Bloomberg Business, Reuters and Popular Science, have closed Comments on their sites. The reasons given have been a combination of: takeover by trolls and spammers, negativity of the discussions, resources needed to properly moderate and, lastly, that these discussions are better hosted on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn et al.

“This retreat is a mistake and they are throwing away all the benefits Comments offers; namely engagement, added knowledge, improved SEO, opportunity to wed your readership closer to the publication, a method of holding the reader to more frequent and longer page views, a guide to reader behaviour and a means to profile your readership with greater accuracy. Closing Comments because of trolls is definitely a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” says Graham Davies.

The move is also against the direction of digital travel, he continues. Over the last decade or so, news brands have been reinventing themselves as communities, moving away from the top-down editor-led, one-to-many broadcast model of publishing to a more inclusive collaborative approach. How does removing the ability of your readers to add their views to your content square with that? If thousands of people feel moved to comment on your articles, is it really better for those conversations to happen on someone else’s site? Whose community is it? Yours or theirs? It’s yours, of course, and you need to reclaim it.

But is it reclaimable? Can meaningful conversations and civil discourse take place on the web? “People being rude and abusive is the norm; there’s nothing we can do,” sums up the fatalistic mood at many publishers.

“There is a lot of muddled thinking and defeatism when it comes to Comments,” says Graham. “The important thing for publishers to understand is that it is fixable. The holy grail of an active, engaged and happy community is eminently achievable if publishers really want it. With the right technology and moderation strategies in place, the problems can be neutralised and the benefits delivered.”

Using a powerful moderating platform like DiscussIt is one part of the solution. DiscussIt plugs into a publisher’s existing Comments platform and enables intelligent, light touch moderation through analysis of both post and poster. It was developed for the Washington Post and Graham and his team are now set to roll the product out to other publishers in the US and UK.

What then, I ask Graham, apart from installing DiscussIt, should publishers do? He suggests an eleven point plan:

1. Embrace your community

“Recognise Comments for what it can and should be – a golden opportunity to deepen engagement with your readers and enhance the overall quality of your digital offering. If you hold your nose whenever you come into contact with your readers, it will show… and will undermine your efforts.”

2. Take responsibility

“It’s important to realise that what happens on your site is your responsibility and you can do something about it. If the discussion is overrun by trolls, then it’s the site owner’s fault for allowing it. Just as a pub landlord will evict the abusive drunk, so too must publishers deal with troublemakers on their sites.”

3. Appoint a community manager and dedicated moderators

“Comments occupies a large amount of site real estate and you’ve got to appoint someone good to manage it, and they need to have a team of moderators to help them. In the offline world, we don’t expect thousands of people to congregate in one place and for all of them to behave well, so why should we in the online world? Crowds need controlling; that’s what moderators are there for, and if you don’t have them, guess what – some people will behave badly and ruin it for everyone else.”

“Comments that don’t conform to your community guidelines should be deleted and repeat offenders banned (temporarily or permanently). There are well honed community control techniques which should be deployed if your Comments section is to be the type of place you want it to be. “

4. Publish community guidelines

“Decide what type of conversations you want to have on your site. Part of this is knowing your community and what interests them. How strict do you want to be with off-topic comments? Is name calling ever ok? What about swearing? Aggression?”

“Publish a set of easy-to-understand guidelines and communicate them, especially to new members of the community and troublemakers!”

5. Work smarter

“Moderating large communities is a big and ongoing task, so it’s important to make your life as easy as possible. Don’t get hung up on ‘freedom of speech’ issues – it’s up to you where and when you allow comments. Be selective. Your site is not a free-for-all; you set the rules.”

“You don’t need to allow Comments on all the content you publish. There will be articles on your site where you don’t want comments, either because it’s unlikely that anything meaningful could be added, or where the likelihood of gratuitous abuse is too high. In these cases, disable Comments. And why not close threads after a certain amount of time has lapsed.”

“Enlist your community’s help by giving then ‘report abuse’ buttons and rating options.

Be imaginative! Publishing is a creative industry – there are countless ways to achieve the kind of Comments area you want.”

6. Use fit-for-purpose moderating tools

“Most of the commenting platforms come with some in-built moderating tools, of varying degrees of effectiveness. Some of these work fine for small numbers of comments, but really struggle when volumes increase, leaving moderating teams feeling swamped and out of control. DiscussIt simplifies the process of moderating high volumes of content.”

7. Require registrations

“Anonymous posters are the most likely ones to be abusive, so why make trouble for yourself by allowing them? Require everyone who wants to make comments to register. They do not have to use their real names, but the registration process gives another string to your moderator’s bow – it’s also a great opportunity to collect email addresses and other information from the user, which can be used for profiling purposes, and to serve up other content, like e-newsletters.”

8. Encourage your journalists to join in, early

“Research conducted by WAN-IFRA a couple of years ago found that the early involvement of journalists in a comment thread raised the whole tone of the resulting conversation and reduced the incidence of abusive behaviour. Some journalists have proved resistant but you are likely to have more success persuading them if they can see that your overall Comments strategy has been well thought through and implemented.”

9. Develop engagement strategies

“The more engaged your readers are, the better. Introduce ratings tools to allow community members to rate posts; highlight the best comments, perhaps bringing them up above the fold. Decide on key indicators for engagement (number of comments, likes, dwell time etc), measure them and then develop strategies for improving them.”

10. Share the data

“Moderating platforms like DiscussIt enable deep analysis of this valuable data and allow publishers to slice and dice it in highly visual ways. Give your journalists and editors a log-in so that they can see which stories are trending and which articles are getting the most comments. Give your commercial teams access too, because Comments is a data gold mine that can help inform and inspire new monetisation strategies.”

11. Manage expectations

“Even with clear guidelines, skilled moderators and the best tools, you won’t be able stop all the idiots all of the time. This is ok. What is totally achievable is to minimise and marginalise them, so that abusive comments become the exception not the rule.”

In short, publishers need to develop guidelines, allocate sufficient moderator resource and give themselves the most effective tools to do the job, a job which due to the large volumes can get out of hand very quickly. A recent Guardian story (‘Jeremy Corbyn faces backlash over women-only train carriages’) garnered 2,450 comments within two hours of publication.

DiscussIt’s tools enable community managers and moderators to keep control of high volumes. It automatically collects data on every post (passing it through a set of filters), and every poster – building and continually refining their ‘user reputation’, scoring them for ‘intelligence’, ‘aggression’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘spam’.

A highly customisable rules engine then allows you to use this information to set the parameters so that, typically, 90% of comments are handled algorithmically and 10% require human intervention.

DiscussIt can add real value by being plugged in to a publisher’s comment platform to give publishers a much greater degree of control and insight than they have at present.

The other area where the DiscussIt team can help is in sharing best practice. The reality is that, over the years, many publishers have under-resourced their community teams, resulting in a lack of in-house expertise in this crucial area.

“Our experience with the Washington Post, Advance Newspapers and E W Scripps, has given us real insight into how to develop successful moderation strategies for online newspapers and magazines, and we are looking to share that knowledge with other publishers.”

“If you are a publisher, pulling your hair out over the dire state of your Comments and despairing of what to do about it, then call me.”

“As we start to roll out version 3 of DiscussIt to other publishers, we are looking to set up no-obligation free trials. We meet with you to assess your needs and strategy; we plug DiscussIt in to your existing comments platform, show you how to get the best out of it, keep in regular touch to hand hold and discuss progress.”

“We know that after three months you will see real progress toward achieving the kind of user engagement you’ve always dreamed of. But, if you don’t… then we simply unplug and leave!”

“An engaged, proactive community is a priceless asset, well within the reach of newspaper publishers; don’t give up on it. Take control and make Comments work on your terms. Step one is to call me for a chat; I look forward to hearing from you,” says Graham Davies.


The Media Centre, 7 Northumberland Street, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, HD1 1RL

Graham Davies, Co Founder & CEO

020 8144 4940 / 07785 737 733