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Attack of the Trolls: How Can Publishers and Content Marketers Solve Their Commenting Problem?

Since the web began, comment sections have always been a surprising challenge for publishers, and in 2014, publishers—brand and non-brand alike—are still working to determine the best strategies and tactics for wrangling with it.

Some publications have decided to eliminate comment sections from their sites entirely, as they may misinform and bias readers. As Popular Science online-content director Suzanne LaBarre writes, “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Others have chosen less extreme measures, instead enforcing rules, offering privileges, and rejecting anonymity in their comment communities.

So what forces will affect commenting in the future, and will comment sections even exist? Let’s examine a few options:

Anonymity

Studies show that anonymity can encourage participation and grow online communities. Anonymous forums may empower people to participate in online discussions without jeopardizing their identity. According to The Epoch Times, this can include government workers and rape victims. Apps such as Secret are built on this premise.

But there’s a darker side to anonymity on the web. When University of Houston communications professor Arthur Santana examined 900 randomly selected user comments in articles on the topic of immigration, he saw a drastic difference in quality between sites that allowed anonymous commenting and those that required registration. A whopping 53 percent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as compared to 29 percent of registered, non-anonymous commenters.

In addition, comments can have an effect on readers’ perceptions of an article.

“Basically, what we saw is people that were exposed to the polite comments didn’t change their views really about the issue covering the story, versus the people that did see the rude comments became polarized—they became more against the technology that was covered in the story,” said Dominique Brossard, author of “The ‘Nasty Effect’,” in an interview with NPR.

This dynamic becomes problematic when it infects a large amount of content on a site. Publications such as the Huffington Post have had to give up anonymous commenting because their dedicated community management team couldn’t process the volume of uncivil comments.

So what solutions are publications exploring in order to minimize the “nasty effect” of comments?

Connecting commenters to social media profiles

In a quest to keep commenters accountable, many have opted to force them to connect to their social media profiles, hoping that reputation concerns and social norm will keep them in check.

Not all readers have reacted positively to this, however.

“There was no way to comment on what they did without caving in to the garbage about linking to my Facebook page. So, they shut us up over there quite handily, didn’t they? I don’t like being tricked,” wrote user ChrisDC on The Epoch Times, regarding the Huffington Post’s transition from anonymous comments into Facebook comments.

“Any change will come with a period of outcry,” said Huffington Post Director of Community Tim McDonald in an interview with Poynter. “We expected many users would not be happy with this transition, but are confident that as we move forward, this will make for a more engaged and diverse community.”

A drawback to using social media for all commenting is the control that those social platforms have over commenting and publishers’ relationships with their audiences. In an article on GigaOM, columnist Mathew Ingram pointed out that social networks are like “the microphone, the hall, the electricity, and even the town,” expanding on a point originally made by Scott Smith about the widespread control they’re seizing over the media landscape.

But are there solutions that don’t involve having a third-party manage relationships with readers?

Tiered readers and commenting privileges

Not all readers are made equal. Some are loyal followers of a brand or publication, spending precious time thinking about an article and expressing opinions, while others are trolls, waiting for any opportunity to use negative or controversial statements to push other readers’ buttons. As such, brands and publications can prioritize the visibility of reader comments based on their past commenting behavior. A tiered commenting strategy is a particularly compelling option for brand publishers, allowing them to reward engaged participants and potentially cultivate strong brand advocates.

The New York Times has enabled such a system, in which input from loyal readers are prioritized over comments from the average passerby.

“We wanted to both reward commenters who have this great track record with this additional level of privilege, but also try to experiment with ways we could get more good comments on the site faster,” explained Deputy Editor of Interactive News Sasha Koren in an interview with Poynter.

This reward system is reminiscent of ones used by Quora, Reddit, and various other platforms that use upvotes and reputation systems to encourage and reward loyal user behavior. Examples of rewards are instant commenting, special badges, or moderation privileges. And speaking of moderation…

Community moderation

When executed properly, comment moderation has successfully helped facilitate online discussion forums. Moderators might be customers or readers that volunteer or part-time contractors. Well-funded publications such as The Verge have implemented moderation systems that help drive conversations, but, as always in the media world, finding the right resources can prove difficult.

“Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections,” writes Poynter’s Butch Ward. “A few are ‘deputizing’ members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.”

Yet some think even the slight interactions from amateur volunteer moderators could be effective for managing the community.

As Annemarie Dooling writes on Medium: “Moderation goes to great lengths to fix these problems. A moderator can ban dangerous trolls, protecting equitable commenters and increasing reply rates and time-on-site between those readers. They can pass along helpful corrections to authors, and respond to technical problems.”

Perhaps it’s not the moderator but the journalists and writers who need to engage with commenters to reduce the number and effects of negative comments. A study from the University of Texas shows that when reporters participate in comment sections, the chance of an uncivil comment being posted is decreased by 15 percent as compared to when no one is there to intervene. The challenge with this, once again, is one of resource allocation; whatever time a journalist or content marketer spends commenting is time they could have spent on creating more content.

Eliminating comments

Finite resources brings up what seems like a harsh question: Would websites better serve their readers without comments at all?

If a site expects to foster quality discourse in its comment sections, it should allocate a reasonable budget for teams to manage them. If this isn’t possible, removing the ability to comments might be a better option than letting readers engage in the jungle of a barely-managed comment community.

Studies show that unmoderated comments can cause more harm than good for the original generated content on the site. As Adam Felder explains in The Atlantic, sites with unmoderated comments receive more traffic after the comment sections are turned off.

Publications that have chosen to eliminate the comment section altogether should reinforce with their readers that there are many other ways to engage in dialogue. When Popular Science shut down their comment section, they made sure that the public didn’t think they were cutting off the connection between publisher and reader. It’s important for readers to understand this when brand publications take that route.

“There are plenty of other ways to talk back to us, and to each other: through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, livechats, email, and more,” LaBarre writes. “We also plan to open the comments section on select articles that lend themselves to vigorous and intelligent discussion. We hope you’ll chime in with your brightest thoughts. Don’t do it for us. Do it for science.”

Closing thoughts

Amid various community engagement options for publishers, commenting technology is still evolving. Publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post have partnered up with Mozilla to create their own new comment systems. Similarly, startups such as Spot.IM are attempting to help solve publishers’ problems.

Clearly, comments should not be an afterthought of an article; they have tangible effects on readers’ perceptions of journalism and brand publishing. Comments certainly empower the community, but when you hold an open house, you have to be prepared when the trolls show up.

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Image by Ron Edmonds/AP
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