AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Is Facebook the Solution to the Obnoxious Comment Plague?   

Mon., December 19, 2011

By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

When USA Today announced it was about to implement a new system requiring everyone who wants to comment on its online stories to do so via Facebook, editors noticed a less than friendly reaction from readers, who submitted their responses under the old anything-goes comment system.

"Boo hiss!" wrote pudding5. "Bye Bye USA," wrote another anonymous commenter. "This SUCKS," was the reaction of a third.

Hundreds of readers posted comments raising concerns about a decision made by parent company Gannett to switch from a system that allowed anonymous comments to one that requires commenters to sign in through their Facebook accounts. The new approach, which applies to all of Gannett's newspaper and broadcast Web sites, went into effect this month.

For years, online readers have been able to post their views while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. Proponents of that approach have characterized it as reflective of the freewheeling nature of Internet dialogue. But many stories have attracted large amounts of offensive reaction, some of it obscene, racist and sexist. The ugly feedback has caused a number of news organizations to rethink the way they handle response to their content. One idea is to require commenters to weigh in on Facebook, the path Gannett and a number of other news outlets have chosen.

"The decision to change our commenting tool was made to provide a welcoming environment that encourages high-quality and relevant contributions," a Gannett spokesperson said in an e-mail. The company, the nation's largest newspaper chain, says that it had good results with a pilot project utilizing Facebook earlier this year and decided to embrace it for the entire company.

That's not a decision that should be made without a great deal of thought about the nature of social media, says one digital news watcher. "If news organizations want to host conversations around content, they need to understand what it means to hand off interaction to a third party social media site like Facebook," says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. "We see more and more journalism taking place on third party platforms, but the journalistic intent is not designed into these platforms."

For newsrooms turning to social media, it means that essential journalism practices like archiving information, protecting sources and controlling the process are left in the hands of technology companies, Bell says. She takes issue with the Facebook-only comment policy because it leaves out a portion of the public that doesn't participate in the social networking site. "There are so many different social media platforms with differences in policies and interests, especially for privacy, but there has yet to be a real editorial test applied to them all," Bell says.

While acknowledging some have questioned the need for the Facebook-only system, Desair Brown, reader advocacy editor for USA Today, says the move was necessary to improve the quality of dialogue about the national daily's news coverage. "In recent years, we have seen a decline in the conversation, and we wanted to elevate the discussion around our content," she says. "Part of the reasoning behind the change was to avoid anonymous commentating and enhance conversation all together."

Under the old system, USA Today received 12,000 to 13,000 comments a day from a pool of more than 600,000 registered users, she says. While it's still too early to tell how the move to Facebook will affect user activity over the long term, she says there has been a drop in comments. "Although we value the large number of comments and feedback, we're trying to address the concerns we've been seeing as the conversation has declined," Brown says.

And for some a drop in the number of comments is not necessarily a problem.

"We'll take a post with 30 great comments over a story that has 110 comments with ones that we've had to moderate and take out," says Jimmy Orr, online managing editor for the Los Angeles Times. The Times switched to Facebook for comments on all of its blog content in March.

"It was one of the first decisions that I made when I was appointed online managing editor," Orr says. "We made the decision because of user authentication."

The Tribune Co.-owned Times maintains an open comment system for news articles. The authentication process is weaker, leaving the system wide open to "trolls"--anonymous posters who make offensive or off-topic remarks to grab hold of a discussion, Orr says. The result is more time and energy spent moderating comments about stories than blogs.

"The difference is night and day," he says. "If there's a particularly explosive news story, like a story on immigration, we will have to turn off our automatic system, and use manual moderation to watch comments." The Times is exploring various new approaches for comments about its news stories, Orr says. Mandy Jenkins, social news editor at The Huffington Post, sees pluses and minuses to the Facebook approach. "I can see how Facebook makes comments better to a certain extent," she says. "Anyone who doesn't want their name attached doesn't have that option anymore."

Prior to joining The Huffington Post, Jenkins was digital content manger at Gannett's Cincinnati Enquirer, and she frequently encountered racist comments, especially with articles pertaining to crime. The system that Gannett used prior to Facebook, known as Pluck, allowed readers to make unauthenticated comments in real time. Moderation came only after comments were flagged as offensive, either by readers or online editors. Jenkins says the process was difficult to manage and time consuming.

Jenkins has blogged about some of the drawbacks to a Facebook-only comment policy on her personal site, Zombie Journalism, which focuses on online journalism and other news media topics.

She says that news sites that have made the switch to Facebook are seeing drops in comment activity, sometimes significant ones. "There are a lot of people for various reasons, good and bad, who don't want their online identity of Facebook, which is a very personal place, to be connected to comments that they are making on news stories." The types of comments that editors want, such as reaction and personal experiences, are not as likely to be posted because readers may fear that their privacy is at risk, she says.

And putting a name to a face through a Facebook profile does not necessarily ensure that comments are authentic. Ghost accounts from fake Facebook users can spew just as much hate speech as anonymous commenters, Jenkins says.

But after testing the new system, Gannett saw some obvious benefits, the company says. It selected four test markets, and the results were an increase in civility and more participation from local public figures, the company says. One property participating in the test was the Des Moines Register. Its site started using Facebook for comments system earlier this year when it launched a new politics page covering the Iowa Caucuses. Three months ago, the paper adopted the Facebook-only policy comments for its entire news site.

"Obviously politics is a charged area of discussion, and it tends to get heated quickly, so we thought it would be a good place to try it out and test," says Julia Thompson, digital editor at the Register. "What we found is that with Facebook comments..the level of comments is higher in terms of an actual discussion."

And there are some added benefits. If Facebook users link their comments to a personal profile page, friends within their network can see the comments and click on the story, resulting in more direct referrals to the site. Thompson also says that the Facebook-only system is an effective way to cut back on the amount of time the staff has to devote to policing comments.

"We are able to look at every comment that comes in, take down fewer of them and referee fewer fights," she says.

While some may feel intimidated to post an opinion linked to their Facebook identity, Thompson says that before the new system, in the "Wild West days," there was a fear that if you posted a comment, anonymous commenters would attack your beliefs or opinions without restraint. While some may ultimately feel alienated by the new system, Thompson says it's a better fit. She's not sure there's a perfect comment system out there.

Adds USA Today's Brown, "It's change. We see this every time we make an upgrade. It's not exactly a new response, and we think people will see the value in our new system."