World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 1: The problem with comments

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World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 1: The problem with comments

In the three years since the launch of WAN-IFRA’s first online comment moderation report, dozens of news organisations have turned off their comments sections and many new digital start-ups, such as Vice’s new channel for women, Broadly, and Reddit’s aggregated site Upvoted, do not even include the function in their web designs from the onset.

NPR is the latest to shut down their comments. “We've concluded that the comment sections on stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users,”  Scott Montgomery, Managing Editor for NPR’s digital news said in anannouncement.

Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in South Africa, where three major news publishers closed their commenting section within months of each other last year due to online abuse.

The trend: turning off commenting 

“We were confronted with potential hate speech that was not in line with our editorial position and was turning away our readers,” said Andrew Trench, former Editor-in-Chief of News 24, the largest online news site in South Africa and first to turn off commenting last September.

“Instances of abuse in our comments section have become untenable,” wrote Adrian Ephraim, Managing Editor of the Independent Online, South Africa’s largest English publisher, in its announcement to shut its comment section a month after News24.

“We are suspending our comment section until such time as we can either moderate away those who feel entitled to spew hate speech on our property, or come up with some other solution that fosters genuine engagement rather than reductive trolling,” wrote the South Africa’s Daily Maverick in its editorial, ‘We tried, we really, really did’.

Globally, the number of news organisations shutting down readers’ comments continues to rise, as noted in a community post on the Coral Project, a collaboration between The Mozilla FoundationThe New York Times and The Washington Post. Funded by the Knight Foundation, the Coral Project aims to create open-source software to build better communities around journalism and improve communities on the web.

“Every newsroom is different, but everyone sees the value of audience and understands the idealism of comments as they were originally conceived,” observed Andrew Losowsky, project lead at the Coral Project, who has interviewed more than 150 news organisations in the US.

Our survey reflects that understanding. A large majority of participating organisations (82%) still allow commenting with half (53%) indicating that commenting “adds to the debate,” “provides idea and input for future stories” (53%) and “encourage diversity of opinions” (47%).

“But the current state of comment as a space is a problem and it’s a problem they don’t know how to solve, so the best case is to close them which is probably true,” said Losowsky.

The growing online culture of abuse and trolling

Online abuse, hate speech and trolling are not recent phenomena. They began as early as the Internet, but have intensified in recent years with the democratisation of publishing and the rise of social media. The harassment is particularly acute towards women and minorities, as The Guardianshowed in a major analysis of 70 million comments left on its site.

In 2014, Gamergate, which is an online harassment campaign by anonymous supporters, targeted several women game developers and journalists to the extent that police had to be involved. The media group Gawker was also flooded with invective and as a result lost significant advertising revenueGawker was sold and shut down in August. Last month, Time Magazine ran a cover story on ‘Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.’

Our study confirmed the trend: Of the news organisations surveyed that allow commenting, almost two thirds (65%) experienced trolling against their journalists.

This compares with a Pew Research Center survey published two years ago which found that 40% of internet users have personally experienced online harassment and roughly one-in-five (22%) internet users that have been victims of online harassment reported that their last experience occurred in the comments section of a website. For many commenters, posting online was never about the news article, but more about brandishing their opinions and many opine without even reading the article. 

Organised trolling is also on the rise as more interest groups, corporations and rich individuals form their own newsrooms to propagate their ideas and target journalists who write articles they do not like.

Trolling also happens across borders. Several Western news organisations from Finland to the US have reported abuse by Russian trolls. Immediately after The Hague Tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, the server of the Philippine Star was almost overwhelmed by the explosive increase in traffic generated by Chinese trolls.

Globally, our research showed opinion pieces receive the highest number of comments. Analytical pieces receive the best quality comments. Topics most likely to attract inflammatory comments differ by region.

In Europe, immigration tops the list, followed by politics. Russian trolls were so rampant across the continent that the European Union set up a weekly compendium of pro-Kremlin distortions and untruths. Sensitive topics such as the Ukraine crisis saw Russian trolls flooding the comments of Germany’s largest national paper, Süddeutsche Zeitungand led to the shutdown of its comment section.

In Africa, politics and race attract the most inflammatory comments, while in South America it’s politics. This summer in Brazil, the story of the gang rape of a teenage girl brought out waves of misogynistic comments that were so offensive, news organisations began to delete comments, only to have them pop up on other unrelated article threads.

Politics and religion are the most heated issues in Asia and the Middle East; and almost anything can stir up controversy in North America.

“Anything can be a basis for a high level of racial slurs,” said Nicholas Dawes, former Chief Editorial and Content Officer for Hindustan Times in India. “Even if you commented on bus quality, you will be pulled into a discussion on the prime minister which will become poisonous.”

Given that negative comments have been shown to reduce the credibility of journalism and subsequently affect the perception of the media brand, it’s no wonder that many news organisations are taking action to protect themselves.

Concern about costs

In addition to potential brand damage, managing online comments is simply not a priority for many news organisations. Despite the fact that having dedicated moderation staff is a proven way of ensuring a civil conversation, as indicated by the best practice guide in WEF’s 2013 report, many news organisations simply do not have sufficient staff to manage an overwhelming flow of comments, especially if they are filled with messages from trolls.

Before shutting down commenting, Trench of News24 considered pre-moderation for tighter control but he did not have sufficient resources. The site was receiving 5,000 comments a day and the volume was simply too much to handle. In fact, “lack of resources” is the second most cited reason for discontinuing online comments after “concern about offensive content”, according to the most recent survey by WEF.

“I would close everything [commenting], and use those people for another part of the newspaper,” said Marcelo Rech, Editorial Vice President of the Grupo RBS, one of the largest media groups in Brazil owning eight papers, 18 TV stations and 24 radio stations.

"I think it is a waste of resources. So much is needed to write stories that are more useful and connected to our needs, than to read and delete dozens of offensive comments and then having to deal with people complaining. It’s not a reasonable function for a newspaper,” said Rech.

As a solution, some news organisations close down comment threads or outsource the commenting function to external suppliers. Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, did the latter four years ago when it shipped out its entire moderating function to a third-party provider.  What persuaded Helsingin Sanomat? “It was money. It was so much cheaper than having to own your own staff,” said Jarkko Rahkonen, the paper’s Head of News Archive and Moderating.

It is not the only one. The Financial Times has a team of moderators based in the Philippines, which works with a community manager in London. For years, companies such as Facebook and YouTube have hired low-cost temporary staff, often in other countries where labour is cheaper, to moderate content for them.

It did not help that last year the newspaper sector had perhaps its worst year since the recession, with circulation falling 7%, marking the greatest decline since 2010. With the emergence of ad-blockers, total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies declined nearly 8%, including losses not just in print, but in digital as well, according to the Pew Research Center.

As more and more news organisations abandon their own commenting platforms, some are voicing concern. “It’s a symptom of something fundamentally wrong,” said Emanuel Karlsten, a Swedish journalist and digital strategy consultant who has worked with Expressen and Aftonbladet. He observed that many Swedish media houses have either shut down commenting, minimised the function or outsourced it completely to external companies.

“[Outsourcing comment] makes journalists and the news organisations less interested in what readers are commenting on and it makes readers feel disconnected, which is the fundamental of our industry; we are supposed to be the servants of the community,” said Karlsten.

Legal and societal constraints

Aside from the cost factor, legal concerns were cited as another reason why News24 did not attempt pre-moderation as an alternative. According to South African law, if you do not pre-moderate, you have the defence that you are just providing a platform. As soon as you do moderate, then all liability transfers to publishers. “With 180K-200K comments a month, with the resources we had, it was not an option,” said Trench. “Bear in mind there were liability issues, so we couldn’t just get interns, we had to get experienced editors.”

In many countries, rules and regulations surrounding online harassment and liability for abusive comments don’t exist or are still in the process of being formulated. As a result, news organisations often have to shoulder additional responsibility, which limits the way they approach online commenting.

A similar trend appears to be emerging in Brazil where recently a newspaper was fined heavily because of a comment posted on its site that was not true. “The Supreme Court considered newspapers have to, in essence, serve the public appropriate content to consume,” said RBS’s Rech of the ruling. If the ruling becomes a trend, it could have a chilling effect on the future of news commenting in the country.

In Europe, it is still unclear as to whether or not publishers bear legal responsibility for reader comments. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights decided an Estonian online news portal, Delfi, was liable for offensive comments posted by its readers. But this year, the same court reversed that decision in a lawsuit lodged by two Hungarian and MTE.

While a publisher has yet to be fined in Pakistan, the country’s largest English-language paper Dawn takes a very careful and tightly controlled approach to online commenting for fear of blasphemy.  Pakistan’s three-year blockage of YouTube as a result of anti-Muslim content that it did not produce, resulted in publishers exercising extra caution with regard to content. “We need to keep it restrictive,” said Jahanzaib Haque, Chief Digital Strategist and Editor at

In Kenya, the Nation Media Group was fined $60,000 for “not exercising control in removing the defamatory comments posted by the public.” Churchill Otieno, the group’s Digital Managing Editor, explained: “the aggrieved party (current president) was not named in the story but a reader named him in the comments section.’’

In Australia, which has particularly punishing defamation and contempt laws, publishers are frequently sued. “We have not seen news publishers sued for a comment, but it’s a matter of time before that occurs,” said Julie Posetti, Head of Digital Editorial Capability for Fairfax Media in Australia.

Freedom of speech and civility

Publishers wishing to exert greater control over comments and delete those they deem unsuitable often have to deal with complaints or worse, a potential violation of freedom of expression. “Sometimes what is regarded as offensive to one party is just freedom of speech to another party,” wrote Frank Kisakye, Online Editor and Web Administrator at The Observer Media in Uganda.

Bassey Etim, Community Editor for The New York Times, deletes about 15% of the comments he receives, but does not see this action as an infringement on freedom of speech, a right enshrined in the United States constitution. “We are not a government; the Times has the freedom of speech to patrol what goes on its website. We are not a freedom of speech board; we are a piece of New York Times’ content,” he said.

“Freedom of speech is not abuse of speech,” said Wolfgang Krach, Editor-in-Chief of Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. “[Trolls] can post anywhere they want, but I don’t think it’s our task to give them a forum.”

In SwitzerlandNeue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) has a seven-person, pre-moderation team, which deletes about 10% of its comments. A user once complained to the country’s press self-regulatory body that this amounted to censorship. “They didn’t even respond,” said Oliver Fuchs, Social Media Editor of NZZ. “We are on the safe side.”

The way a society values free speech and the stage of democratic development also hugely influences how news organisations manage online commenting. Editors in young democracies such as Taiwan and the Philippines, both only having gained the right to freedom of speech in recent decades, tend to take a more laissez-faire, ad-hoc post-moderation approach.

“Honestly, when I see negative comments, I feel bad, but I am not sure what to do or what to tell them,” said Mario Yang, Co-Founder of Taiwan’s The News Lens, which does not moderate its commenting section except when it receives complaints. “I really want to manage, to be a dictator and take it all out but I can’t. This is not a personal blog, it’s a media platform, so it should be open.”

“If we close threads, we don’t allow democratic exchange,” said Camille Diola, Editor-in-Chief for Digital at the Philippines Star, which does not delete comments even when it identifies systematic propaganda and misinformation. “We just let them,” said Diola. “We don’t really moderate; what we do is feature comments that really contribute to the conversation.”


Chia Lun Huang


2016-10-17 08:11

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