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There Will Be Trolls 

Online comments sections: Love 'em? Hate 'em? Need 'em?

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My name is Fillintha Blank and I'll be your commenter today.

Let me give you some choices right off the bat.

Choice #1: I just moved here from SoCal to trim weed. I'm hanging around until I save enough money to go back to school (I dropped out) and get a women's studies degree.

Choice #2: How did I end up reading this backwater rag? I have two master's and a PhD, so believe me when I say there is no serious journalism in this county. But there are three things I believe in: a well-turned phrase, meaningful debate and a heavily peated single-malt whiskey.

That was fiction and I'm not actually a fiction writer but a reporter. I do my best to be truthful and respectful. I sign my work with my real name. I am responsible for what I write. I welcome feedback. And because I like a good question, here is one for you: Should those of us who write for a living accept every comment we receive — not just as representative of the diversity of our audience — but also worthy of publication for all to consider?

"More Diatribe than Dialogue"

A growing number of news organizations across the country think not. They are either dropping — or revamping — their comment sections. The first major publication to do so was Popular Science in 2013. Since then, the list has grown significantly and includes Bloomberg, CNN, Reuters, The Chicago Sun-Times and — just recently — NPR. All either dropped their comment sections or moved them to social media. Most said the comment sections had become what former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard called "more diatribe than dialogue." Many staff and readers alike were becoming increasingly disgusted by rampant racism, misogyny and malicious threats. But what about journalists and readers in our area?

My first stop was the sauna at the Arcata Community Pool, where opinions are shared the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, with a real name attached and sometimes a touch of extra steam. I spoke with JoAnn, Eric and Tyler who asked me not use their last names (they didn't want to be targeted by trolls).

JoAnn: "I never look at the comment sections anymore. I don't like them because people are rude and disrespectful and they just say mean things."

Eric: "Sometimes I'm taken aback. Sometimes I'm shocked. But I learn a lot about what other citizens are thinking. And there's some value in knowing and appreciating the vast breadth of viewpoints in our community."

Tyler: "It's like this control thing. You can have this power online. But I could personally care less because it's just a bunch of arguments. A bunch of people trying to prove their point on the Internet. And who cares enough to prove their point to someone on the Internet?"

Apparently, not that many people — or, maybe better put — a small but vocal minority. NPR's website gets about 30 million unique viewers each month, but less than 1 percent make comments and a fraction of those comment regularly. Those small numbers are typical for most news sites. So if comments were dropped, would they even be missed?

Hank Sims thinks they would.

"Comments underline the fact you are dealing in an interactive medium. It's not somebody standing on a mountain preaching down from on high," says Sims, who has been editor of the hyper-local news website, the Lost Coast Outpost since its inception in the spring of 2011.

"I think having no comments would ignore the reality of how people communicate nowadays, which is that anybody can publish, anybody can have a popular following and anybody can talk to thousands or millions of other people very simply. That didn't exist before. It's more dialogue than it has been in the past."

But it was nastiness, not dialogue, that spurred Sims two years ago to develop a unique adaptation. He divided his comment section into three parts. He called one "Thunderdome," which he likens to a rugby scrum where pretty much anything goes and nothing is beyond ridicule. The second is called "The Country Club," which aspires to be more genteel. And then there's the satirical "Zen" section that has no comments whatsoever. It means readers don't just get to pick their poison, they pick their dosage.

So if comments could be considered content, then isn't moderating this content a slippery slope to censorship? Marcy Burstiner doesn't think so.

"Comments are content. Absolutely they are content. But if you have a newspaper or magazine or television station, you wouldn't just air anything," says Burstiner, chair of the journalism department at Humboldt State University, columnist for this paper and a devout First Amendment advocate. "Journalism is moderated conversation. ... When you don't moderate, then it's just public discussion, and there are lots of forums for public discussion."

The Price of Moderation

Many people consider the New York Times to have the best comment section in the country. By "best" they seem to mean it is dominated by articulate, thoughtful and seemingly well-educated commenters. But the Times only opens comment boards on about 15 to 20 articles a day, each of which usually receives more than 10,000 comments, each of which is reviewed by a team of 14 journalists. And readers can flag comments, as well, if they feel they are vulgar, off-topic, inflammatory or personal attacks. Flags are also reviewed. The workload of moderating comments has become so taxing that this winter, for the first time ever, the Times will employ software that will help screen comments based on moderators' choices in the past.

But most small news organizations don't have the resources of the New York Times. News groups in small markets like Humboldt County most often use a third-party comment system to help filter spam. Just like with your own personal email, the robot-driven mass emailings — usually dominated by dubious advertising — also target and clog comment sections. All the news groups interviewed by the North Coast Journal for this story also delete blatant harassment, profanity or criminal activity (though the Lost Coast Outpost is clearly the most laissez-faire). And they all require some form of registration. But commenters can remain anonymous simply by using screen names and generic email addresses.

"It's not about the anonymity, it's about what it does to the conversation," says Thadeus Greenson, who has been news editor at the Journal for the past three years (and helped edit this article). Like most editors, he's noticed complete anonymity creates an open season for trolls. But a complex registration system can stifle participation.

"We really want to do as much as we can to facilitate a dialogue in the community about our stories and work," Greenson continues. "A strict policy that forbids any anonymity can really silence that discussion, especially around sensitive topics. So for us, this is the best compromise of having some accountability, but still allowing anonymity."

If small markets have the disadvantage of limited resources, then Kym Kemp and her Southern Humboldt news site, The Redheaded Blackbelt, shows how small markets can have the advantage of intimacy. Kemp's site gets well over a million views a month. She estimates anywhere from 20 to 50 comments per post, depending on how controversial the topic is. Not surprisingly, the more controversial the topic, the more comments are posted. And she has decided to jump into the fray, frequently joining the comment sections on more than half her posts.

"I certainly don't want to step on free speech," she says. "But I feel I am in a position of power and responsibility. I started this website to get our community to speak together, work together and understand each other. We don't need a rage mode of insults, slurs and allegations without facts. I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard."

It doesn't come easy. Kemp spends 50 to 70 hours each week writing for and participating on her website. She doesn't just moderate. She will occasionally debate with her readers and add her own opinion.

"Yeah, I have to be balanced in my reporting, but even reporters who are supposed to be neutral have opinions," she explains. "I think it's a sacred responsibility for me to behave also. And I think the end result has been a greater level of thoughtfulness and civility. I think we have built a sense of community. It's been rewarding. People like to be heard and I have to be fair and open minded ... and myself."

The Opposite of Civility

Those who believe comments on the Internet have gotten ugly have anecdotes and research on their side. Three months ago, Time magazine published a cover article entitled, "Why We are Losing The Internet to a Culture of Hate." Besides offering chilling examples — such as people mocking deaths on Facebook memorial pages, or a feminist writer receiving rape threats directed at her 5-year-old daughter, or more than two-thirds of teenagers reporting experiences with online harassment — the article mentions something called the "online disinhibition effect."

If you've ever heard someone say, "people say things online that they would never say face-to-face" then you know what the effect is about. It is composed of six behaviors with three of them probably being the most pervasive and compelling. First is dissociative anonymity. This is what allows us to adopt a less inhibited online persona and often act out and self-disclose more freely. Second, our Internet interactions are asynchronous; that is, they don't occur in real time, so we don't have to deal with immediate responses or consequences. Finally, there is a minimization of status and authority. In the real world, many of us will temper what we say if we fear rejection by those of status or punishment by those in authority. Sharing online often creates an illusion that we are all peers. The sum total of these behaviors is the opportunity to create an online version of ourselves that is uninhibited and even reckless. This may, in part, explain a 2014 University of Houston study, which found that 53 percent of anonymous commenters were judged to be uncivil, compared to just 30 percent of non-anonymous commenters.

Then there is something called the "nasty effect" which poses a significant threat to publishers who hope to generate meaningful dialogue between writers and their audiences. When researchers at the University of Wisconsin presented readers with a fairly innocuous and neutral topic, they discovered that uncivil comments — much more so than civil ones — tended to strengthen the preexisting opinions of most readers. In other words, incivility can polarize an audience and act as an impediment to open-minded discussion, especially with controversial topics.

And then there are the so-called "trolls," usually described as frequent commenters who intend to stir up discord and provoke other readers. One Canadian study found their most commonly shared trait is sadism. Other studies find boredom, revenge and attention-seeking are common motivations.

And it's not just unsavory commenters abusing each other. It's often directed at writers. The nearly 200-year-old British daily The Guardian analyzed more than 70 million comments between 2006 and 2017 to see which of its writers were the most abused. Even though the vast majority of the newspaper's staff is composed of white males, the paper found its 10 most abused writers to be eight women and two non-whites. And the paper reported that the topics which sparked the most vitriol were articles about rape, feminism and the Palestine-Israel conflict. In contrast, the topics that generated the most respectful feedback were jazz, crossword puzzles, cricket and horse racing.

Thorns on the Rose Bush

Can't we all just get along? No. Apparently not. There appears to be no cure for road rage, squeaky wheels, rubbernecking and the need to be right and to simply be heard. The trolls don't seem to need food or water, just attention. These are angry times. Believing has taken the place of knowing and the apocalypse is coming to a computer screen near you at 50 megabytes per second. Your only hope is to build a very tall soapbox, get a megaphone and a good pair of earplugs.

Or is it?

Although every journalist I spoke with had been attacked online, not a single one wanted to get rid of their comment section.

"I like hearing what people have to say, I like debate and I like people," says Sims. He thinks there are three good reasons to preserve comments.

"First, it would be silly and undemocratic to try and shut people up. Like trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Second, if a person is filled with rage I want to give them a place — within certain bounds — to express themselves. Finally, I think the comment section is useful to the public at large. Not just us."

Eric Teel manages programming and comments for Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon. Although he freely admits an aversion toward trolls who post inflammatory, off-topic remarks just to incite reactions, he also thinks comment sections are valuable to news groups.

"No matter how well developed your network may be as a journalist, there will always be additional folks out there who have insights and knowledge on a topic you didn't know existed. Comment sections can uncover tremendous detail or different ways to look at a story that might help inform or shape the story going forward."

J Warren Hockaday agrees. He's noticed the same benefit during his three years managing KIEM-3 television in Eureka. He asked his 16-year-old daughter for her take on comment sections.

"She gave me the analogy of a rose bush ... 'Yes, the flowers are beautiful. Yes, they smell nice. But you have to watch out for the thorns' ... I agree with that. And I think comments are something we should encourage. They're going to be part of the future of media across the board. So we better know how to deal with it and accept it. You just have to have thick skin some of the time."

Of note, although 75 percent of journalists think comments should not be anonymous, 40-percent of commenters say they would no longer comment unless they could remain anonymous. Further, according to a study by the American Press Institute, only one out of three Americans considers comment sections to be important.

A version of this story first appeared on www.ijpr.org. Michael Joyce is a freelance journalist who recently moved from Northern California to Minnesota.

What journalists are saying about comment sections

Kara Swisher | Recode

"Social media is just a better place to engage a smart audience that's not trolling."

Jamilah Lemieux | Ebony Magazine

"Burn them down ... with the exception of just a few webpages and blogs, comment sections seem to be little more than a microphone for the Internet's most despicable, cowardly and hateful personalities. It is in comment sections that trolls get a static space with a built-in audience, at which they can hurl the kind of shocking vitriol and bigotry most wouldn't dare express offline."

Niley Patel | The Verge

"I don't know that you can engineer around bad habits of a community. I just don't think that's gonna work. I think you actually have to establish norms of behavior that people will follow because they care about the space. We can roll out a million product tools to help us deal with bad actors, but what we actually need to do is build a community that doesn't allow bad actors to flourish in the first place."

Alicia Shepard | former NPR ombudsmen

"The goal is dialogue, but it's pretty clear that the debate between dialogue and diatribe is still being waged. From the view I've had for the last three years as NPR's ombudsman I'd say diatribe is winning — hands down."

Will Oremus | www.slate.com

"On balance I far prefer a mix of useful and useless comments to no comments at all. I can't begin to count the number of times I've been alerted to new developments, factual oversights, dissenting opinions and fresh story ideas by readers using the comments section below my stories and blog posts."

Jessica Valenti | The Guardian

"My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment — which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it's the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I'm sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too — but it's not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty."

What readers are saying about comment sections

(Unedited and sourced from the comment section of the website listed.)

"Cutting comments is an act of cowardice and betrays the insecurity and inferiority the author and website feel." (www.wired.com)

"The sites that do it right get high quality comments ... ultimately the knowledge needs to be in the article because the emotion, abuse, hate and everything else is going to be in the comments." (www.wired.com)

"Personally, I see comment sections as quintessentially American democracy happening in real time. The people want a voice, comment sections give them that voice." (www.niemenlab.com)

"I just get tired of the 'cesspool of banality'. Just report the news and tell everyone to shut their damn mouths about it." (www.techdirt.com)

"I don't buy the 'it's difficult to fend off splog and spam'. If I can do it on modest-sized sites with freely available tools, services and plugins, I have a suspicion this is a red herring argument. It's more like, 'we will tell you what to think, consumer, and you'll like it.'" (www.linkedin.com)

"The comment section of my local news media is littered with racist, bigoted, ignorant garbage." (www.techdirt.com)

"One of the main reasons, other than the excellent articles, that I have a subscription to the New York Times is because they do allow comments. I usually spend as much time reading the comments as I do the articles. I find that the people who comment on the NYT website are intelligent, have a lot to offer, and I find their comments thought provoking. It is one of the rare websites where comments are allowed and no trash gets published." (www.nytimes.com)

"Much of the problem I see in journalism, is the loss of objectivity. Many articles and news sites are extremely polarizing and biased towards causes/political leanings. This in turn causes critical and emotional comments vs. more calm intelligent discussion. Basically, many write for the purpose of eliciting a reaction for their view and/or to generate emotion from those in opposition. News sites/agencies have lost their way for the most part. It requires the reader to go to several different sites and read articles about the same event to attempt to glean what is truth. This, in my mind, is the real problem." (www.digiday.com)

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Michael Joyce

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