It’s an almost established truth that comment sections on news papers are filled with trolls that write hateful and hurtful comments. In my own research, I have been reading dozens of comment sections. And I must say that I don’t recognize this description. In fact, I have seen very few hateful or hurtful comments. This could be because the moderators on the news paper I am studying are doing a good job, or that trolls simply do not comment here.
But of course, I know that trolls are out there and that their commenting is a problem. And while I haven’t seen much of this myself, I have observed a lot of meaningless comments that do not add to the informed discussion that comment sections should be.
So, if we want comment sections to be a place for discussion, sharing of informed opinions and argumentation, what can the news papers do? Moderators is not the answer. They can delete comments that violate community guidelines, but not much else. And you don’t have to brake any guidelines to post a comment that does not contribute to a good discussion.
An answer may be found in the importance of social influence, specifically indirect social influence. This is the phenomenon where a person’s opinions and behavior is affected by the information about other people’s action (Cheng et al. 2015, 2). What this means is that people, especially when they are uncertain about a situation, look to other people to find clues about how to act. Cheng et al. found that users of an online bulletin board were affected by indirect social influence. The users conformed to trends in the bulleting board by adopting both positive and negative information.
So how can the effects of indirect social influence be used to better comment sections? In his book, Net Smart, Howard Rheingold writes about virtual community organizers, and compares them to party organizers: “You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer.” (Rheingold 2012, 165). On news paper comment sections, the news papers them selves are the community organizers. And they have “thrown parties”, or created the platforms, by setting up the technical possibility of commenting on articles. But Rheingold writes that the party organizers also needs to “invite an interesting mix of people, greet them at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs…”
As community organizers, the news papers could potentially better the quality of commenting by being good party organizers. They could set the tone of the discussion by starting the conversation with a well thought-through question to prompt some informed replies in the first comments. And if Cheng’s findings about indirect social influence are correct, this might be enough for later commentators to conform to an established intelligent conversation.
I don’t know if this idea would work, and of course: trolls don’t conform to anything positive (which is where the moderators come in). But I would love to see this at least being tried by a news paper. I’m sure plenty of news papers already start comment sections by writing a generic question like “What do you think?”, or “Are you happy with the election results?”. But I would like to see the journalist ask a more thoughtful question based on unresolved issues in the article, one that forces any potential commentator to stop for a few seconds to think.
Again: I don’t know if it would work, but I think it’s worth trying.
Cheng Shu-li, Wen-hsien Lin, Frederick Kin Hing Phoa, Jing-shiang Hwang, and Wi-chung Liu. 2015. “Analysing the Unequal Effects of Positive and Negative Information on the Behavior of Users of a Taiwanese On-Line Bulleting Board”. Plos One 10, no. 9. Accessed May 7, 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137842
Rheingold, Howard. 2012. Net Smart: How to thrive online. Camridge: MIT Press