Saturday, January 16

Rising vitriol threatens online reader comments

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WASHINGTON: The Internet was supposed to facilitate better exchange between the public and news media. But vile and hateful comments changed all that.

In the face of rising vitriol – attacks, bigotry and general nastiness – news organisations are increasingly throwing in the towel on online comments.

Last month, Vice Media’s Motherboard news site turned off reader comments, saying “the scorched earth nature of comments sections just stifles real conversation.”

It instead began taking ‘letters to the editor’ to be screened by staff.

Vox Media’s online news site The Verge said in July it was “turning off comments for a bit,” noting that the tone was “getting a little too aggressive and negative.”

Blogging platform Medium this past week allowed its users to hide reader comments, acknowledging that “sometimes you may not want to get in a discussion”.

The Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Beast, news website Re/code, the millennial-focused news site Mic and Popular Science also have shut off comments.

And Vox.com launched last year without them, saying that “flame wars” turned readers off.

“Newsrooms are really struggling with this,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University.

“They like the idea of the comments because it brings readers back, it creates a community of people who are dedicated and that’s good for advertising,” she told AFP.

“But the downside is that when people see lots of vitriol and attack, even if they are not using bad language, it turns people off. The worry is that instead of fostering communication, you lose readers.”

Research this year by University of Houston professor Arthur Santana found anonymous comments on online news sites can often bring out the vilest of views, particularly on hot topics such as immigration.

“Often the targets of the incivility are marginalised groups, including racial minorities,” Santana said in the Newspaper Research Journal.

Santana found readers referred to immigrants as “cockroaches, locusts, scumbags, rats, bums, buzzards, blood-sucking leeches, vermin, slime, dogs, brown invaders, wetbacks,” among others.

Santana said that newspapers “have expressed frustration with rampant incivility and ad hominem attacks in their commenting forums,” but may also be hurting their own reputations by becoming a place for mud-slinging.

The problem is not limited to US news sites: ‘flame wars’ have forced the shutdown of comments on South Africa’s largest online news publisher 24.com and Independent Online has done the same.

Controlling online forums can be especially tricky in countries where news organisations might be held liable for defaming content from readers.

Some news organisations have sought to clamp down on incivility by requiring registration and banning anonymity.

One tool is from Facebook, whose plug-in verifies the identity of those who post comments, requiring people to use their real names.

Some evidence indicates the Facebook platform and other tools have helped the tone.

A 2013 University of Kent study found that by making users ‘accountable’, the Facebook system makes them “less likely to engage in uncivil discussion.”

But when The Huffington Post ended anonymous comments and began using the Facebook plug-in, it sparked anger. — AFP