No Comment! Readjusting discussions around news

One of the features of Web 2.0 is that we, as users, can interact with other users, discuss with them almost in real time, and even engage their contents. User comments, thus, are an important part of the new online consumption culture. The comment field after each article is perhaps the sole feature that news organisations adopted wholeheartedly slightly after Web 2.0 was born (2005). What’s happening now in some parts of the world calls for reflection: a student of mine who is investigating user comments on two leading Dutch news outlets was surprised to see that both outlets have disabled their comment functionality, replacing it with a Facebook icon. Users are invited to leave their comments on Facebook. The student tried other papers only to find out that they too had done the same.


So, it was with a lot of interest that I followed Dr Thomas Ksiazek’s presentation this morning at ICA 2016 Conference about “commenting on the news” on the websites of leading US outlets. It seems that 90% of papers allow comments! Dr. Ksiazek investigated those comments based on their “civility” and their “hostility” and came up with interesting hypotheses. He assumed that news stories with no sources would irritate the readers and provoke hostile comments. He also hypothesized that more multimedia would increase the quality of discussions. He also thought that if journalists participated in the discussions that the quality of discussions would be higher. I will just discuss the first hypothesis because the findings contradict what we would find more logical. Obviously, providing more sources would mean caring for the reader and ensuring that the source is based on reliable source. So hostile comments would not be in their place. Nooooo! That’s wrong. All depends on which sources are being interviewed or cited. Actually the higher the number of sources, the higher the number of hostile comments! Take a sensitive discussion like pro-life vs. pro-choice. Whatever source one uses, there will be some sort of hostility. The more sources used, the more contestation. So finally the finding is logical!


To go back to the Dutch papers that are disabling their comment functionality, I would like to share my reflection as to why they doing that (and I think the trend will shortly reach other countries). They claim that they don’t want to be held responsible for hate comments. They don’t want to serve as a platform for extremists. And they don’t have resources for pre-moderation. I think the issue could be looked at from a different perspective. Comments have become so interesting that people spend more time reading and writing them than reading other articles in the paper. At some point, readers come back to the page only to scroll down to the comments and to react and reply, etc. If one left a comment, one comes back to check if there is support for or hostility against that comment. Usually, a hostile comment calls for immediate action and so on. So comments somewhat “hijack” the process and prevents readers from reading other stories. By sending readers to Facebook, newspapers are putting an end to that hijacking. One reads one article and goes to the next! Reacting on Facebook means appearing with a full profile, full name, picture, etc., and it also means exposing your own network to the paper’s Facebook page. Not many people want to do that. Anyway, it’s an interesting development to follow.