Free Speech or Hatefest? The Online Comments Dilemma Continues

As news websites continue to combat vitriol in their comment sections, some look to alternative reader engagement techniques

In 2013, Suzanne LaBarre was the online content director for Popular Science, also known as PopSci, a monthly American magazine about current science and technology. In September that year, LaBarre and her team, fed up with the toxicity in reader comments under their news stories, decided to switch off comments altogether. LaBarre gave the reasoning in this much-shared letter, citing research showing that uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

LaBarre’s letter defended the magazine’s decision as “good for science,” stating that politically-motivated comments on hot-button issues such as climate change and evolution could undermine proven science and mislead other readers.

PopSci’s decision to prevent online vitriol was met with, not surprisingly, online vitriol. Soon, LaBarre’s inbox and social media accounts were inundated with reader backlash.

“I got really crazy emails where people were telling me I should go kill myself,” LaBarre, who left PopSci a few years ago and is now an editor at FastCompany, said on the phone. “People were really upset. Some of the commenters felt a sense of ownership over the site. They felt we were taking away their free speech.”

Problems with comment sections on news websites are well-documented. It doesn’t take discussions on seemingly benign news stories long to turn into battlegrounds where racism, sexism and bigotry rule supreme. And most readers, just as well as news organizations, are cognizant of this.

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Source: Twitter

PopSci isn’t alone. Reuters, The Daily Dot, and The Verge are some other news organizations that have pulled the plug on comments, choosing to shift engagement to social media. However, reader engagement continues to be important to news media leaders, making a complete do-away with comments a difficult choice for most. After all, more time spent by readers on websites means more clicks, and traditionally more ad revenue. So what made PopSci do it?

“We had been observing all these conversations going off the rail and felt they were undermining the quality of the work we were doing,” said LaBarre. “If you look at some of the other science websites, they have a strong commenter base, like Gawker. People who know what they’re talking about and have been (engaging) for a long time. We didn’t have that. And we didn’t have moderators.”

It so happened that PopSci had to switch its backend to a newer version of Drupal, which allowed the editors to turn off comments easily. The technological change opened up a conversation that the editorial team had been longing to have for a while.

Did they consider alternatives?

“We talked about it but ultimately we felt like we made the right decision. We felt there were so many outlets for people to comment. Facebook is a good example where people have to use their real name, so there’s a limit to how awful you’re going to be. We just didn’t want the comments to live with the article forever,” LaBarre said.

LaBarre says if they did lose some readers, they were not sorry.

“In the end, not all readers are created equal. We didn’t care if a troll was reading the site or not,” she said.

Reporters as commenters

The Engaging News Project, hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, conducts research on new techniques for engaging online audiences. It has researched ways to encourage more civility in reader comment sections. These include automated moderating technology, encouraging reporters to engage in comment sections, and restructuring comments by type. Professor Natalie J. Stroud heads the project.

“Based on our studies, the one we have most evidence to support is having a journalist interact in the comment sections,” Stroud said in a phone interview. “Journalists can get involved by answering or asking questions or providing more information. It doesn’t suddenly make the comment section a beautiful space, but our study showed that it did have an impact, reducing incivility by 17 percent.”, the online hub for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, was inspired by the ENP study to experiment with journalist engagement in its comments. In an interview to Poynter, Erica Palan, who is’s audience engagement manager said that a handful of the journalists for the Inquirer and Daily News had started engaging with readers and she felt it had been pretty successful. Palan told Poynter that she would encourage other news websites to try the same. She wasn’t available to comment for this article.

However, LaBarre said she thinks journalist engagement might be too much to expect from reporters who are already over-worked.

“Writers are working as hard as they can right now to write good quality stories,” she said. “If it’s between having them write another good story ad having them engage in comments, I’ll skew toward the story.”

Annemarie Dooling is the head of growth for the media and technology company, Vocativ. She helped develop best practices for community engagement at the highly interactive Salon and The Huffington Post, and has written extensively on community engagement. Dooling thinks reporter engagement is not a replacement for monitoring comments, though it is part of the equation.

“Reporters being active within their own comments has proven to change the tone of the comments entirely, but organizations that request that journalists dive into comments, but do nothing else to curate them will continue to have a very difficult time,” Dooling said in an email. “It’s dangerous to ask a journalist to engage with a group of people who might be attacking them unwarranted, particularly without giving them training or any tools to deal with offenders.”

Stroud agrees that journalist engagement may not be the right move for all news organizations, but she says there are misconceptions on how much time it really requires for reporters.

“For the reporter involved in our study, it wasn’t as if he was dedicating hours of time to this. He would make three to four comments and then let the discourse go on its own. News organizations should evaluate how much time is required and it might be something that can be sustained with editorial support. There has to be some buy-in from others in the newsroom for it to work,” Stroud said.

The research was conducted between December 2012 to April 2013 and analyzed 2408 comments left on 70 political posts on a local TV station’s website.

Policing the trolls

Another, rather controversial approach is stricter moderation. The New York Times has dedicated staff to moderation, and it shows. Its comment sections are almost shockingly civil. But some readers criticize stricter moderation as detrimental to free speech. Plus, not every newsroom has resources to hire moderators.

Screenshot. "When the Internet’s ‘Moderators’ Are Anything But." The New York Times. July 21, 2015.
Screenshot. “When the Internet’s ‘Moderators’ Are Anything But.” The New York Times. July 21, 2015.

More recently though, the Times has announced it would be moving toward more automated moderation and more reliance on “verified” commenters, namely readers who have been commenting for a long time and have established a “reputation.”

But can a civil comment section exist without moderation? Stroud says it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.

“There are some in-between points. You might turn comments off for some news articles, and turn on for selected ones. That’s what the New York Times does, too. That allows you to manage the flow,” she said.

Comments on the way out?

So is the realization of the problem deep enough for more news organizations to invest in technology to transform their comment sections?

One potential alternative is the Coral Project. A collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, The New York Times and the Washington Post, the project’s website states that it is creating open-source tools and resources for publishers of all sizes to build better communities around their journalism. It also plans to share tools to improve online communities.

But for smaller organizations like PopSci, clever ideas on managing comments can sometimes be hard to implement from a technological standpoint. LaBarre is unsure if they would have been able to try out something new even if they wanted to.

For such organizations, Dooling advises that they should ask themselves what kind of engagement they want with readers before making a move on the comments.

“Comments are a reaction to a story, which, in my opinion, isn’t the most connected a reader can be to your work,” Dooling said.

Among easier alternatives, Dooling suggests requesting personal essays from prominent community members, doing Q&A sessions, and asking readers for their take or photos from a specific event or theme. All involve readers on the creation level, not the reaction level.

In the end, there is no one remedy when it comes to building the best and most civil online news reader communities. In PopSci’s case, it was satisfied with limiting its community to social media so its reporting could stand on its own. In the case of New York Times and some others, careful moderation and verification seems the answer. But one thing seems imminent. And that’s the eventual departure of the age of the anonymous, polarizing toxicity run amok in comment sections.