Scroll down the comments section beneath a news story on an even slightly controversial topic and you’re likely to see a stream of xenophobia, misogyny and racism, reminding us that intolerance isn’t only an American problem. It’s humanity laid bare and unfiltered.
It’s also part of the reason why many major publications, both local and abroad, have decided to close their comments sections and shift the conversation to Facebook. Moderation is an arduous task that stretched publishers simply don’t have the time to deal with any longer.
One media company that has decided not to turn its back on comments is Fairfax, which last year launched the ‘Civil Society’ initiative in a bid to improve the quality of debate in the Stuff comments section.
Stuff editor Patrick Crewdson says this move was made in response to the growing sentiment that the Stuff comments section was a toxic environment.
“The Stuff comments section had developed quite an unsavoury reputation,” Crewdson says. “It was vitriolic and contained too much abuse and opinions that most people would find unpalatable… If that perception existed, then that was not the type of site we wanted to be.”
Crewsdon admits that it would’ve been easier to simply can the comments section, but the team felt it was worth the added effort if Stuff wanted to remain central to New Zealand discussions.
“We pretty quickly discounted the idea of canning comments and decided it was something worth fighting for,” he says.
“A number of other media publications have taken the decision to close down comments and outsource that discussion to Facebook, in particular. And that’s a problem because it doesn’t lead to an improved standard of debate. It’s just a discussion you’re not involved with any longer.”
The ‘Civil Society’ initiative is Stuff’s answer to this problem.
It involves a five-pronged approach, which includes soliciting reader feedback, modernising the terms and conditions of the comments section, retraining staff in best-practice moderation procedures, hiring specialist comment moderators and publishing an editorial series advocating civility.
Crewdson stresses the aim is not to infringe on the commenter’s right to freedom of expression or to promote a certain political leaning.
“We want to be clear that it’s not about us deciding what opinions are okay to express. It’s more about how you express it.”
One of the biggest criticisms Stuff now faces comes in the form of accusations that the site’s moderation is informed by political bias, essentially that so-called ‘mainstream media’ is involved in an elaborate conspiracy.
“Aside from the fact that journalists find that type of allegation offensive, we don’t have any ideological lens through which we look at our comments,” the Stuff editor says.
“We have a team of about 50 people [in our digital production team]who are involved with moderation at one time or another and they’re from diverse walks of lives. They’re certainly not towing any particular party line.”
Some members of the staff have been employed as full-time moderators, but the digital journalists also share the load.
“Everyone pitches in,” Crewdson says.
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, all comments posted to the Stuff website are vetted before being published.
“We’ve always had rules against misogyny, xenophobia and racism, but we’re now applying those rules more stringently. We do our best not to host those kinds of comments.”
Those who make comments falling within these categories often raise their right to freedom of expression as the reason why they should be permitted to say what they like.
But this isn’t accurate. The right to freedom of expression doesn’t give you the right to say whatever you like. Your right to say what you think on a public domain is always limited by the extent to which it has the potential to harm the rights of another person.
That said, determining the difference between fair expression and hateful speech is tricky even for experienced legal professionals—let alone a group of under-pressure journalists who have had this responsibility lumped atop their existing duties.
“It’s a very difficult line to draw in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Crewdson says. “It’s one by one, case by case, and we apply our standards to each of them.”
This is a massive undertaking, given the sheer volume of comments Stuff receives every day.
“It’s worth it because it keeps us connected to the people we’re writing for,” Crewdson says.
That might be true, but the bigger question is whether the approach is actually achieving its objective of improving the quality of debate happening beneath stories.
“I think it has made a difference,” he says. “I have noticed a solid uptick in the number of complaints I receive from people questioning why their comments haven’t been approved or why they’ve been blocked. That shows me that we are forcing our terms and conditions more stringently.”
Importantly for a website focused on scale, the introduction of the initiative hasn’t impacted the levels of engagement or readership on the site.
“If anything, it has helped the engagement on the site. When we started the project, we were getting 5,000 comments on busy day, but looking back at February, we got 5,000 comments on an average day. A busy day was 8,000.”
Even if the comments under Stuff stories are improving, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall debate is improving. The vast majority of online conversation continues to occur on social media channels, and there isn’t much moderation going on.
One need only consider the example of Milo Yiannopoulos to understand how far social media sites are willing to let the debate slide before taking any action at all.
On the flip side, the Arab Spring provided a glimpse at what communities can achieve when given the power of free speech. Without social media, it would’ve been difficult to even imagine this movement sprouting beyond its grassroots.
It’s also worth remembering there are laws protecting against hate speech and defamation. And a 2014 story told on This American Life illustrated that a few lawsuits have a pretty powerful impact when it comes to online commentary.
The story centred on a man named Gene Cooley, who became the subject of nefarious gossip, spread anonymously on a community discussion board called Topix. The rumours spread from the online environment and impacted Cooley in the real world, with neighbours ostracising him from the community.
Cooley responded by taking legal action, leading to a court ruling that required Topix to release the identities of the anonymous commenters. As it turned out, the worst comments came from a single person, who Cooley then sued for defamation.
After news of the lawsuit spread around the community, a swathe of other victims also stepped forward and took legal action in regard to slanderous remarks made on the site.
And the result of this? The slander and the gossip all but disappeared, leaving only a few commenters on the site.
Alongside the rise in vitriolic commentary, we’ve also seen the recent proliferation of fake news shared across social media sites, often serving to only concretise highly partisan views shared by readers.
While there aren’t many local examples of blatant fake news in this market, Crewdson says there was a Stuff knock-off site that existed for a while.
“They had a story saying 21 people had been killed in a massacre in Auckland,” he says. “You’d remember if that happened, but it didn’t. If you clicked through to other pages on the site, it looked as though it had replicas of that story in other languages.”
Crewdson says this is something of an isolated example, explaining that New Zealand simply doesn’t have the scale to make fake news production a profitable enterprise in this market.
“You’ve got to count on fooling a small percentage of people and making that lucrative enough,” he says.
This approach works if you have a target of 300 million people, but not quite as much when dealing with a population below five million.
Crewdson says he is far more concerned by the repercussions caused by the emergence of fake news.
“Shortly after the election, Donald Trump flipped the definition of fake news to use that as a label for reporting that he finds objectionable,” Crewdson says. “So there has been this use of fake news as a label to refer to anything you don’t like.”
And Crewdson says this language has now started to trickle into the conversations surrounding Stuff articles.
“Since November, I’ve been getting complaints that Stuff is fake news. It started out targeted at US political coverage, but now it’s being used for stories on the weather, police and local reporting.”
Crewdson’s concern is that these off-the-cuff comments might eventually undermine the credibility of Stuff.
He expresses his frustration with this leap of logic by using the analogy of buying low-quality counterfeit goods.
“You can travel in some countries and have people offering you fake handbags, and you might buy one for $5, but then when it falls apart, you don’t question Gucci,” he says.
“In a fair world, fraudulent news wouldn’t damage the reputation of credible news agencies, but in reality, it does lead to decline in faith in media and makes people more sceptical.”
This, Crewdson says, makes it more important than ever for journalists to make sure they get the facts right.
“That won’t stop people from accusing us of being fake news, but we leave a pretty big opening for criticism if we’re committing errors,” he says.
Time Magazine learnt this the hard way when it misreported that Trump had ordered the removal of a Martin Luther King bust from the Oval Office. Shortly after news of the error broke, numerous right-leaning publications used this as confirmation of the belief that the mainstream media is anti-Trump.
Crewdson also believes this kind of partisan rhetoric makes it important for news titles to publish content that reflects a broad array of opinion.
“Part of the reason why someone might be tempted to call something fake news is if they can’t recognise themselves or their opinions in the coverage,” he says.
That was something that emerged quite clearly in the US and perhaps contributed to the congregation of so many readers at Alt Right site Breitbart.
No matter where you live or what your political leaning, it has become easier than ever to confirm your biases and this makes the truth something of a slippery subject. Which isn’t exactly ideal if the truth is purportedly what your business is built on.