A Formidable Anti-Troll Weapon

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Everyone knows comments sections can be terrible places full of vitriol, feverish conspiracy-spreading, and worse. But what can outlets do to improve the tone of the discussion short of shutting them down altogether? A new study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication led by Natalie Jomini Stroud of the University of Texas suggests that having journalists themselves engage in the discussion can substantially increase the level of substantive debate.

Stroud and her team examined 70 posts on the Facebook page of a local TV station with more than 40,000 followers. For each post, the researchers explain, “(1) The station’s well-known political reporter would comment and respond to commenters, (2) The station’s web team, using the station’s insignia as their identity, would interact in the comment section, or (3) No one from the station would interject in the comment section.” They predicted that the conversations going on under conditions (1) or (2) would be more substantive and less angry than in the no-supervision third condition, and that the presence of a reporter would make a bigger difference than the presence of a station employee.

They were partially right. When the reporter poked their head into the conversation, comments grew significantly more civil, and respondents were significantly more likely to offer evidence to support their opinions. On the other hand, having the reporter there didn’t lead to any statistically significant increases in the relevance of the comments or the frequency of genuine questions that sparked debate, and when station employees showed up it didn’t affect the tone of the discussion whatsoever.

This is one study dealing with one news station and a relatively small handful of comments, of course, but it fits into the broader lessons of research into online civility: To a certain extent, online commenters react positively to the perception that their contributions are being taken seriously, that people with “power” (even of the limited sort enjoyed by a local-news political reporter) are paying attention to them and responding to their questions. It’s purely anecdotal, but I’ve even seen a version of this when, instead of ignoring extremely vitriolic emails from readers, I’ve responded by gently asking them to further explain to me why they’re upset. A rather shocking percentage of the time, they’ll apologize for having come across so angrily and the conversation will immediately shift into a more civil gear.

Engaging with readers like this can end up taking a lot of time, of course. So for outlets forced to choose between Wild West comments sections, time-consuming moderation and engagement, or shuttering their comments sections altogether, it might not be surprising if more and more make the same decisions Popular Science famously did last year.