Strategy for comments about the US election


#1

Hi all,

I’m Lilah Raptopoulos, community manager at the Financial Times. We love Coral and the work they’re doing & I’m thrilled this community exists. Haven’t done this before, but thought I’d come in with a question I’m grappling with and see if anyone’s willing to compare notes.

Context: like many news organisations, we have a small moderation team, and we leave most stories open to comment - though we have a short list of very contentious topics whose news stories we close de facto because they just don’t encourage productive debate. (We do leave comments open on any opinion story about these topics.) It’s also worth noting maybe that we fundamentally think comments are valuable and our subscribers are overall smart and decent, with tons of insight and expertise hidden below the surface.

What I’m seeing is that as the US election becomes more heated, so does the quality of debate under all US election stories. Of course, the nature of political comments is that they lean high on ideology/opinion and low on unique personal insight (unlike, say, pieces on real estate or technology or management, where people have specific stories or knowledge to share). What I’m considering now is a targeted strategy to improve it, assuming no major technology solutions will magically avail themselves pre-election. Do we close US political news stories to comment for a few days and streamline the whole conversation into the opinion pieces (this feels too strict to me)? Do we set time limits? Do we give alternate private callout options for those who want to get involved in a different way? Do we ask our political reporters to respond more often? Do we give out more warnings? Or do we just accept that partisan bickering is just what our readers crave (as do we - I’ve jumped into so many political family email threads…), and let them get on with it?

Thought I would check in briefly to see if any of you are thinking about this what you’ve tried that’s worked - and failed!

Thanks in advance for your time and thoughts.


#2

Hello Lilah, I’m the community manager for Salon.com and basically I moderate the bulk of the comments myself. We’re a big free-for-all with limits only on behavior. Although mostly that’s what we want and are able to pull off with just me, the result hasn’t exactly been high quality – very formulaic, is how I would charitably describe it. The resources available have dictated my strategy more than anything. It looks like you might be using Livefyre like we are. If so, is your backend the standard Livefyre setup?

You say your team is small, but how stretched are you currently? Do you feel like your team could premoderate more comments?


#3

Hi Lilah,
I’m not a community moderator :grimacing:, I’m just a reader. I believe that those completely unstructured comment spaces are not the right tool to discuss contentious issues at all. Sadly there are no good choices at the moment, hopefully coralproject will come up soon with a better solution.

Instead of a comment section, I would like to see just two big buttons there:
“After reading the article, I feel more confident about my intention to vote for Clinton”
and
“After reading the article, I feel more confident about my intention to vote for Trump”

Here is why:
The phenomenon of attitude polarizaton is likely to happen after reading an article on the US election. Attitude polarization is defined as being more confident of the previously held believe after thinking about the issue, regardless of the facts one is exposed to.

So my two buttons are expressing exactly this: attitudes polarized.

My intenton is that people feel spoon-fed by only having this option, which hopefully disrupts the effect itself (But I’m no psychologist either)


#4

I wonder if there’s a way to do both - start by stating your voting intentions, and then frame the conversation that way. That allows users to choose what to read by who they support.

Here’s something the NYT tried in 2013:


#5

I don’t see how this would make the debate less heated.


#6

Three reasons come to mind:

• By making people position themselves related to the story first, it creates a frame for how they might respond and what they might say

• NYT doesn’t allow threaded responses, so it becomes much more about statements on the piece, not replies to each other.

• It creates a better reading experience that focuses on the individual response (via a filter) instead of chronological threaded arguments.


#7

Hi Lilah.

I think Andrew’s recommendation is a good one ,in terms of calming down dissent , a lot of my research both anecdotal and academic has found that people get more acerbic when they feel they are unheard or unsupported. Even just the stated presence of built in support calms down confrontations in discussions . Removing threading also removes the “tit for tat options”

I would also think about targeted asks focused on the article:

  • What part of the economic plans of the candidate worries you the most? Excites you the most ? etc?

  • Graphical polls .

  • Possibly grouping the articles around topics and allowing things like Economics and Immigrations and security to all funnel to smaller centers that are tightly moderated.

How do your moderators feel about it? What are their thoughts?


#8

Thanks, yeah, we are currently LiveFyre users and use their UI. We have thought about premoderation for certain stories that we know will be more contentious than others. It’s a good idea! Have you tried it?


#9

Andrew, that pope project has been ingrained in my mind since 2013 as the best case for the benefits of structured comments. I’m interested in why you guys haven’t tried it again since (or did you and I missed it?).

We’ve done comment prompts often and they tend to bring people out of the woodwork who have insight but wouldn’t otherwise think to share (here’s a free to read example: http://on.ft.com/1KnNIfu)…The technology currently restricts us from doing something as cool as yours. But in the meantime, actively structuring debate by giving people some guidance up top is a great idea.


#10

Hi Sydette – interesting idea to remove threading for certain stories to discourage arguments. It may drive our commenters crazy but it’s worth an experiment.

I’d love if you could expand on what you mean when you say, ‘even just the stated presence of built in support calms down confrontations’? What does that look like?

The moderators and I are grappling with these questions together. I think it’s becoming clearer that the approach will have to be a combination of things: moderators making their presence known a bit more and a bit sooner by commenting to encourage civility where necessary, me & the editors spending some more time highlighting the good comments as editor’s picks to reinforce what we consider quality, more work encouraging & structuring the conversation with comment prompts, occasionally premoderating when a story is bound to be contentious, and getting reporters to jump in more often. “There is no silver bullet” etc etc…


#11

I’m not a NYT employee and can’t speak for why they haven’t done it more (I think they have done it on at least one other occasion, but the example escapes me) but I’m pretty sure it was a bespoke feature, rather than something easily applied to other pieces. Doing what we can to build technology that makes such things more reachable for newsrooms.


#12

Sure,

One of my research roads in comment moderation has been parenting and emotional interventions. Also peer leadership . One of the common findings is that if outside of expectations, support is one of the best deterrents for aggression. So having someone “on your side” in most people actually calms them down.

The ability to know if you are participating in a polarized conversation ( like this election for most) , that there is a space or even people who you can fall back on or isolate yourself to for affirmation helps. So Andrew’s suggestion of seeing only people who support your candidate, equal point by point breakdowns makes people feel better .

In some cases reiterating codes of conduct, or even goals of conversation help.

" We want to find out at what specific parts of X plan are most supported by all voters , so we are looking for consensus"

I’m playing with other ways we can model that online , but the reminder that you’re not alone adjusts behavior .


#13

interesting idea to remove threading for certain stories to discourage arguments. It may drive our commenters crazy but it’s worth an experiment.

This is one thing we’re trying to achieve with our Ask tool - make it easy for engagement editors to shift the paradigm to questions that elicit answers, instead of conversation, for topics that make people upset.

Though making it easy for orgs, and acceptable for those people who want to shout at each other, are not the same thing…


#14

Very cool. I like the idea of structuring questions that encourage people to think about what they have in common and where they agree. I feel like audience engagement people could learn a thing or two from group therapists!!!


#15

Yes, though I see Ask and the comments (Talk, I suppose) as serving such different purposes. When we do private callouts the civility is practically 100%. And we usually use it to ask for insight, expertise, personal stories, personal questions (like financial problems), or opinions from a specific point of view (like British expats) where we’d like the opportunity to ask a few questions. The fact that it’s not in conversation is a benefit. The fact that it’s private encourages more introverts to contribute. And there’s less arguing because there’s no one to witness it and no one to argue with. There are some places where asking those questions in the comments works too - like asking for younger people to share their thoughts on stories about millennials, especially when the thread is full of old people complaining about ‘kids these days’, or asking immigrants who’ve had to integrate into a new culture to share some insight on a story when the comments are getting a bit xenophobic. We’ve had good success with that. But with political stories, the way in is less obvious. I suppose I could ask whether there are Americans reading who can speak personally to certain social issues (guns, tax loopholes, etc). But when the political stories are on the campaign game, like “Donald Trump hit by dissent from within Republican party”, I just don’t see where there’s any useful prompt there. The only thing driving a person to that comment box is either to say, “Trump’s crazy” or “You’re crazy, Trump’s great!” It’s boring, but people love to do it. So maybe we just…let them?


#16

Hello Lilah,

The Huffington Post used to split their comments into opinion blogs and everything else. The opinion blogs were all premoderated to a high standard; this was where HP published all their highest profile contributors. This created a space where proper discussion could take place and commenters felt able to put in their best effort; they also achieved what I now understand is an unusual level of spontaneous author participation in the comments. As the participants in these discussions also commented elsewhere on the site, it could clearly be seen that these discussions were continuing and evolving even without premoderation. So the improvement of discourse in one highly visible but relatively small section lifted the discourse elsewhere. HP pulled 93 million comments in 2012 and sailed through the election like champs with a team of about 60 (although this recollection may be rosier in hindsight!)

Huffington benefited from superior social tools to Livefyre (this was before they moved to Facebook comments), but when I arrived at Salon I managed to reproduce this effect in another way. Salon is mostly opinion, but was at the time split into topic verticals. Politics was a mess, and the biggest problem – full of open racists and death threats, among lesser crimes. Any attempt to moderate it directly produced a backlash and a big mess. Instead, we began on the smaller topics – environment, technology, feminism, etc. This gave me a clear picture of who was deliberately causing trouble, and we concentrated moderation efforts on them with outreach, interaction in comments, and ultimately banning. Many of the others who seemed to be trolls or fighters were revealed to only be going along with a bad situation, and when the situation improved so did they. As many of these same commenters also participated in politics discussions, the improvements cascaded upwards. By the time we had the bandwidth to tackle politics directly, it was not as much of a problem as it had been before.

So I think it is a viable option to take a small, visible segment of the comments and improve them aggressively in the manner being discussed, and to make it clear that this is what you are doing. I feel it would work best in combination with close collaboration with the writers themselves. It could perhaps be presented as being at the writer’s own request, and the payoff would be the writer’s participation in the comments. The limiting factor is the premoderation, of course. I also needed to carefully talk through the changes with a lot of slightly-to-majorly pissed off commenters demanding to know why their previously allowed comments were now being deleted. That was certainly the hardest part!

Have Livefyre finally moved their collapsed threading option to the main comments app? I haven’t upgraded to the engagement cloud yet but understood it wasn’t in there yet.


#17

The more I think about the disabling of conversation on contagious topics, the more I like it. What do we actually gain from those large-scale discussions? Definitely more comments, because commenters are reacting on previous comments. But they are by no means a tool to work against polarization or a method to get another perspective on the issue. Those tools still have to be invented (not even Common Ground for Action has it all figured out).

If we agree that conversations on heated topics should be avoided, we need to do two things:

  1. disable threading
  2. do not display comments in a chronological order (because conversations are still possible via @mentions etc.)

So the suggestion by @andrew_coral is already quite perfect. Maybe the All section should be removed.

A more generic solution would be to sort by a different value by default. By length for instance. Or make a two level sorting: 1. by likes 2. by length.


#18

It’s boring, but people love to do it. So maybe we just…let them?

I guess it depends on who you want to serve primarily, and how.

My worry is that a bad reading experience there will mean that people don’t go to the comments when there is a good conversation happening. Is there/could there be a way of distinguishing a good conversation from a generic name calling session for the readers? Or moving the “Trump’s crazy” “You’re crazy” to a different space?


#19

Thats an interesting question. Is the amount of comments used as a metric of successful articles? If so, discouraging/preventing discussions would obviously leading to less “sucessful” articles. Also, I doubt that people really love these kind of discussions. When I engage in those kind of discussions, it feels more like a kind of duty. Its hard not to show your disagreement and argue for it.


#20

I wonder if what we want here are at least three comment states:

eg.

  1. Free conversation. Things seem productive. Here are the best comments featured at the top.
  2. Lockdown. Things turned sour. Now you can’t @ anyone who doesn’t follow you. Threading is disabled. Maybe pre-mod is activated for anyone not an Approved Commenter on that topic.
  3. Closed. This one is now just burning garbage. Take it outside.

A comment thread could move between these (and other) states as things change.

However: would this just encourage trolls to try to get threads closed as fast as possible? How do we avoid that?