As comments get too hot, one publication tries to cool things down

10/17/2013 3:00 AM

10/17/2013 12:47 PM

No offense, Popular Science said, but it doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. At least not on its Web page.

The science magazine’s online edition recently told readers that comments could be “bad for science.” Consequently, it was shutting them off.

The decision is one of many measures that online publications have taken to combat a growing problem: As news has become increasingly digital and discourse often is given over to commenters, spammers and trolls have diminished the value of these discussions.

“We’d like to believe that truth wins out over false and erroneous claims,” Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor of the history of science, said in an email. “But we live in a world where that is not necessarily the case. The Internet has become a forum for the spread of disinformation.”

Sites have responded with solutions that range from moderate to extreme – from embedding comments in stories to limiting or disabling them. A study out last week from a division of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers found a relatively even split between sites that moderate comments before publication and those that review them afterward.

Of the 104 news organizations that participated – from 63 countries – seven didn’t allow comments at all. That was largely because of the resources required – both financial and time – to permit them, the association said.

The organizations surveyed generally split into two camps: those that embrace comments and those that see them as a “necessary evil.”

As with other problems the online community faces, anonymity often gets the blame. A key finding from the online-comment report was that anonymity is “a divisive issue, with no consensus.”

“There are zero consequences” for commenters, explained Gayle Falkenthal, a veteran journalist who’s the president of a communications consulting firm in San Diego.

Falkenthal pointed out that before the Internet, anonymity wasn’t an option. Readers had to send in comments with names and addresses attached. An anonymous letter wasn’t likely to make it into the next “Letters to the Editor.”

“Why in the world did the same principles that have been used in newspapers for decades not bleed over into news publications online?” Falkenthal asked.

Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit international digital-rights group, championed the value of online anonymity, but she also said Popular Science had made a good call.

“I do think shutting down comments entirely is a better decision than requiring names,” York said. She said requiring names would be dangerous and ineffective. Allowing anonymity protects people with valuable insight who, because of their circumstances, can contribute only anonymously, she said, and it’s hard to prevent people from using fake names.

Falkenthal said journalists had a responsibility to make sure the discourse was on target and didn’t descend to vicious levels.

“It’s hard to know when it will cross the line,” Falkenthal said.

Most popular social media sites have at least some form of monitoring system for comments.

Facebook, for example, relies mostly on users to report activity that violates the user agreement. YouTube recently announced a plan to organize comments so that the most relevant – not just the newest – float to the top. Comments also will be linked with users’ Google Plus accounts, chipping away some of the anonymity.

At The New York Times, 13 professional journalists work full time as in-house moderators, reading and approving almost all submitted comments. For most articles, readers are required to have New York Times accounts to submit, said Bassey Etim, the community manager for The New York Times, who oversees the moderators.

Quartz Editor in Chief Kevin Delaney has fewer people to police comments but he said a small staff didn’t necessarily limit options. He and his 20-person editorial staff recently redesigned comments for the digital global business publication to appear as annotations.

Readers select specific paragraphs to comment on next to the article, rather than having all comments grouped below. There’s even a space for annotators to share links to other studies or articles.

“It takes some thought and effort in the beginning,” Delaney said. But his staff has been able to monitor the annotations along with its other obligations. Writers are responsible for keeping track of the annotations on their articles, and they have the option of promoting annotations they think are of higher quality.

Given the available options, why did Popular Science simply shut off comments?

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” Suzanne LaBarre of Popular Science wrote in her announcement. She wasn’t available for an interview with McClatchy. “If you carry out those results to their logical end – 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.”

Reactions from the blogosphere have been mixed. Slate, in a headline over staff writer Will Oremus’ piece, called the decision “lazy and wrong.” Others praised the site for putting its foot down and refusing to “empower trolls and the stupids,” as read a tweet that Popular Science featured in a post about readers’ reactions.

Even so, other publications with comparable content haven’t been driven to the same end.

David Grimm, the online news editor for the journal Science, said it had never seriously considered doing away with comments.

Although Science gets its fair share of extreme comments – especially on hot-button issues such as climate change – devoted readers tend to stand up for the articles. Grimm said such readers often commented back, asking where argumentative commenters got their information and providing them with new sources.

“It’s actually really nice to see that, which is one of the reasons we haven’t considered disabling commenters,” he said.

Popular Science encourages its readers to interact with it via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, email and live chats, a move that Grimm finds interesting.

“Our comments on Facebook tend to be more outlandish than they do on the website,” Grimm said. The publication’s Facebook page reaches a more general, wider audience than its website does. “That certainly wouldn’t be a solution to our problems.”

Quartz editor Delaney said social media were an important platform for discussion, and it was important to be open to that. A lot of issues websites have with comments are rooted in thinking about comments as they existed in 2003, instead of more broadly, Delaney said.

“If you think about commenting as just that section at the bottom of the articles,” he said, “I would argue that that is a pretty limited view.”

If the goal of Popular Science is to prevent comments from drastically changing how an article is received, the separation between articles and comments may be helpful.

LaBarre of Popular Science cited several studies in her announcement. One, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that uncivilized comments polarized readers and changed their perceptions of the story itself. LaBarre wrote that another study had found “that just firmly worded (but not uncivil) disagreements between commenters impacted readers’ perception of science.”

Studies such as these may make publications take an extra look at what content they allow to be posted.

Popular Science “is a private entity whose purpose involved educating the public about science,” science historian Oreskes said. “So for them, a bottom line might be: Is this conversation serving that goal? If the answer is no, then I think they have a legitimate and principled justification for shutting it down.”

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