Monthly Archives: September 2013

On Comments, Trolls, and Transparency

Haters got to hate, and way too often in social media, that hate wins out.

In explaining why it is removing comments from its Web site, Popular Science  online content director Suzanne LaBarre takes the bold stand that “comments can be bad for science.”   LaBarre cites a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, which evaluate the persuasive effects of comments on a reader’s perception of a story.  Writing about the study in the New York Timesthe researchers noted that “comments from some readers . . . can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.”

It’s not the content of the comment that matters, so much as the tone, however.  “Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself,” the study’s authors reported.  “Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.”

And it’s this unbalancing affect that lead Popular Science to its decision to shut off comments.  “If you carry out those results to their logical end,” LaBarre writes, “commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

LaBarre goes on to cite the “politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise” and a complicit “media culture” that has allowed “a wide variety of scientifically validated topics . . . [to be] mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television.  And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”

Justification enough, one would think, for disarming readers of the tools to undermine the publications mission.

Still, Popular Science is just the latest victim of a much larger and long-running problem in online media: the Troll.

The Urban Dictionary defines a troll  as “one who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”  A further definition adds that with intent, a troll “purposely and deliberately (that purpose usually being self-amusement) starts an argument in a manner which attacks others.”

Write Brossard and Scheufele in the Times, “Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges — and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.”

“The genie,” they continue, “is out of the bottle. Reader interaction is part of what makes the Web the Web — and, for that matter, Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform what they are. This phenomenon will only gain momentum as we move deeper into a world of smart TVs and mobile devices where any type of content is immediately embedded in a constant stream of social context and commentary.”

The Troll Effect is not new; the earliest online services such as Compuserve wrestled with forum moderation as membership grew, and as members grew increasingly anonymous. Behind the veil of a pseudonymous user ID, many people abandoned all good manners and embraced their courser selves. It was a remarkable transformation. As the editor of the technology forum ZiffNet for Prodigy in the early 90s and with access to user account information, I made a habit of contacting vitriolic forum members by phone to offer an olive branch of customer service. Without exception, the heat of vituperative online comments gave way to a deep gulp at the other end of the phone line when an actual human being replaced the proxy forum manager ID. Mama, it turns out, taught them better.

Why then have the media not gotten a handle on this “forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation?”  Why, more than 20 years since the first troll lobbed a comment bomb at an unsuspecting online forum, do media sites still wrestle a binary on/off decision when it comes to comments? Why, really, has Popular Science taken the hard decision to remove comments all together?

The answer is simple: media properties abandoned best practices learned in traditional media when they transition to social and online platforms. The glare of the new blinded some to the validity and value of standard practices.

As I have made this deeper dive into credibility — and perhaps by extension, civility — in social media and news journalism, two themes recur: transparency and context. Both, it turns out, have always been the tools of good journalism and the “traditional social norms and self-regulation.”

Editors have long filled their letters columns with reader comment.  In most cases, those editors have demanded transparency at least in the form of a name and community of residence. Most editors have had no problem editing or excluding letters that did not comply with the “social norm” of the paper.    Letters added context to a continuing story, and editors published those comments to deliver a ranging perspective to their readers. Why, then, when faced with an unending digital page, do editors believe they must surrender transparency and context to a community of readers that can be, at the worst of times, a noxious mob?

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said of transparency, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” It turns out that it is also a highly effective way to send trolls scurrying back under whatever rock from which they crawled.  Asking someone to attach his name to a comment has the affect of a pause.  A pause to word a comment a bit more carefully.  A pause to delete the expletive. A pause, perhaps, to realize that the comment reflects on the commenter.

Anonymity is the enabler of bad behavior, and the vast majority of media blogs are the enabler of anonymity. You would no sooner allow a guest in your house to stand on the furniture, yet media sites enable visitors to their blogs to go wild with virtual impunity.  Admittedly, I am not flooded with the volume of comments as mainstream media sites, still, I am very clear about commenting: this is my house; you play by my rules.

Concluding their piece in the New York Times, Brossard and Scheufele write: “It’s possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more — with users shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivating civil debate instead.”

Rather than wait for readers to change, editors must establish and enforce house rules that cultivate true community and civil discourse.

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