Online Comments sections have become a notorious home for trolling, harassment and general idiocy. But while some news organizations have opted to shut down their Comments sections in disgust, The Guardian has decided to systematically sift through the 70 million comments left on its site since 2006, looking for answers. Bob talks to Mary Hamilton, Executive Editor for Audience at The Guardian, about her experience scraping the bottom of the barrel.
"The QCC Song" by Brontebiro
BOB GARFIELD: The accusations of misogyny and racism leveled by Correct The Record against Bernie Bros are, to be sure, darkly commonplace on the Internet. Sketchy paid political trolling, genuine agenda trolling, personal harassment, general idiocy and simply uninhibited id have found a natural habitat in comments sections, where they thrive. In such a hostile environment, some news organizations and social sites have opted to end their comments sections. Others, who see comment as part of their mission, have taken a different tack, among them, The Guardian, a media outlet that has done substantial research on the 70 million comments left on its site since 2006.
MARY HAMILTON: You think about the numbers of people who use the Internet, three-quarters of those people have experienced some sort of abuse on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD: Mary Hamilton, executive editor of Audience at The Guardian, says, it’s been quite an education.
MARY HAMILTON: This is a massive, massive thing which is affecting an awful lot of people, so the idea was to take this seriously as a journalistic subject, to look at it deeply.
BOB GARFIELD: It didn't take very long for some things to jump right out at you.
MARY HAMILTON: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: And one is that there were particular categories of writers on The Guardian site who were most victimized by abusive comments.
MARY HAMILTON: Yeah, that's right. What we found was that among the writers, of the ten regular writers who’d had the largest proportions of abusive comments, eight were women and two were black men. That’s quite stark. Of the ten writers who’d had the least abuse, all were white men. That’s also quite stark.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, under those circumstances, it's easy to understand why some news organizations, faced with the choice of an open fray or moderated comments or just no comments at all, just pulled the switch on this. I mean, that’s what On the Media did. We said the quality of the discourse is so low and it's used as an opportunity for people with dubious motives, why facilitate this kind of behavior?
MARY HAMILTON: I think it's fair to say that we do see tremendous value in the comments, as well as the difficult stuff. And as we’re leaning towards a strategy that relies on our readers and relationships with those readers, it doesn't really make sense to hand off one of the biggest ways that we have of having a conversation with our readers to external platforms like Facebook, where these conversations are already happening. We can't stop people from having conversations about our journalism but what we can do is give them a place to have those conversations and then try to make that place as productive as it can possibly be. Like when our readers take us to task for getting something wrong, that makes our journalism better. When our readers come into the thread and say, hey, I know about this, I experience this, we can talk to them, we can bring their experience into our work. That broadens what we do.
BOB GARFIELD: I had a column for a couple of years in your paper online and there were a lot of comments, and it, it struck me, more than anything else, to be a kind of social space –
MARY HAMILTON: Mm-hmm –
BOB GARFIELD: - where the usual suspects showed up and said their piece, often with only the most tenuous connection [LAUGHS] to the subject of my column. I’m not sure what value there was to it, but people seemed to have found a community.
MARY HAMILTON: Yeah, for example, we have a Quick Crosswords Community. They are some of my favorite commenters because they will log on at roughly the same time when the crossword is posted, and they have a real life meetup that happens once a year. They’ve written their own theme song.
QCC SINGERS: The Guardian’s grid is black and white, it’s red by day, it’s read by night.
[END CLIP][BOB LAUGHS]
MARY HAMILTON: There’s this beautiful little blossoming of people who found like-minded individuals through our platform. It’s usual for news organizations to think of ourselves only really as publishers, but they’re using The Guardian as a signal of the sorts of people that they want to have a conversation with. I think it’s hugely important that we enable that, at the same time as trying to address the darker side.
BOB GARFIELD: Because in addition to helping the crossworders collaborate on the day’s puzzle, it’s a platform for death threats, it’s a platform for some of the most racist and sexist rhetoric. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but clean up the water! MARY HAMILTON: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: How?
MARY HAMILTON: So, first off, I think it’s important to say The Guardian doesn’t see very much of that very extreme abuse that you’re talking about. It’s vanishingly rare on our platform. You know, we’re not Fortune. [?]
We’re not even YouTube. We don’t have the same kinds of problems in those spaces that some other organizations do. But this is something that takes work. I find it really interesting that when people talk about spam being a problem there’s this real sense of understanding that yeah, spam is a problem, it degrades the user experience, it’s something that every open platform has to deal with at some point in its growth cycle; it has to start to address the problem of people abusing their platform to send messages that other uses don’t want to receive. And that is literally the definition of some of this abuse and harassment.
So, if much as our conversations now or a huge number of them are happening online mediated through text-based platforms, that changes how we talk. And this is gonna be a process that The Guardian can’t solve on its own, but it is something where we have a responsibility, I think, to start to lead the way.
BOB GARFIELD: Europe happens to be at a point in history where the refugee crisis and Islamophobia and economic problems have given rise to very robust far-right parties in almost every country in Western Europe, and the rhetoric from politicians is itself sketchy. How do you enforce the conversation among the civilians, if you have truly inflammatory speech coming from the mouth of the politicians?
MARY HAMILTON: I think that’s a really interesting question. How do you moderate a comment thread when the range of acceptable discourse has shifted a long way away from the conversation that we as an organization might want to host and might want to have? It’s really genuinely tricky because it puts you in the position of saying, is it ever acceptable to have a comment thread in which the basic humanity of a group of people is denigrated because that's the conversation that the politicians are having?
For The Guardian, what we have tried to do is narrow the topic of conversation so that it’s very clear what is under discussion and that that's not the basic humanity of refugees, for example. I think one of the impacts of having unmoderated spaces on the Internet is that the people with the largest axes to grind are the people who get to have their voice heard. If you have somebody who is perfectly happy to copy/paste the same response 100 times in a comment thread, that person is going to appear as though their voice has more weight than the one person who wrote one very, very carefully considered comment.
So what we’re trying to look at is how do we unpick that, how do we give these voices equal weight and equal understanding?
BOB GARFIELD: Mary, many thanks.
MARY HAMILTON: You're very welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Mary Hamilton is executive editor of Audience at The Guardian
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