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News comments: a blessing or a curse? A MediaPsych Perspective

By Apr.13, 2016

Sharon Coen


In a recent article, the Guardian reports some original research on its own comment section, and raises some important questions concerning how to deal with abusive comments.

In line with what argued elsewhere, the study revealed that articles authored by women receive the largest amount of comments which are subsequently blocked by moderators due to their abusive nature or irrelevance. Belonging to a minority group in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion are other factors which seem to characterise articles which attract abusive comments.

The article includes some testimonies from journalists who have been subjected to online abuse and report the negative impact that these comments have on them. Again, these reports are in line with literature on the emotional effects of online abuse and cyberbullying

The Guardian therefore asks: how shall we deal with online abuse?

One suggestion would be to block comments, or to get rid of the comment feature altogether. While this would certainly eliminate the problem, one needs to bear in mind that research from the Pew Research Centre shows that the possibility to share and comment news articles is one of the main reasons why people access news online (this especially for young adults, 18-30 yrs old). Moreover, a preliminary study I have recently conducted on a sample of Undergraduate students in my Institution suggests that commenting and sharing online news is a predictor of offline political and civic engagement. In her Dissertation, the MSc Media Psychology Graduate Aylin Guzel reviews the important factors which make of the opportunity to comment online a fundamental feature of online news. Therefore, however appealing to just turn off comments, this might be a counterproductive move both for online outlets and for the health of our democracy.

So, what alternatives do we have?

Some suggestions may come from the ever-growing literature concerning trolling and communication in online communities.

How to deal with Trolls


The term ‘trolling’ has been defined in many different ways in the literature, but a common theme is that trolling has to do with disruptive communication online. This can take the form of deviating from the topic by posting apparently random comments to posting inappropriate humorous or satirical comments to posting offensive and abusive content. In her book on the argument, Whitney Phillips proposes a view of internet trolls as individuals who ‘actively embrace amorality, and are, or at least profess to be, pawns in the service of nothing but their own amusement. When the troll posts an obnoxious comment the main purpose is therefore to provoke a reaction in the readers to which s/he and the Troll community can laugh about. More importantly, the author suggests that, rather than being a deviation from mainstream culture, trolling is actually a reflection of the themes and biases which are inherent in our culture as well as in mainstream media.

Some useful guidelines on how to deal with trolls come from Timothy Campbell:

When you suspect that somebody is a troll, you might try responding with a polite, mild message to see if it’s just somebody in a bad mood. Internet users sometimes let their passions get away from them when seated safely behind their keyboard. If you ignore their bluster and respond in a pleasant manner, they usually calm down.

However, if the person persists in being beastly, and seems to enjoy being unpleasant, the only effective position is summed up as follows:

The only way to deal with trolls is to limit your reaction to reminding others not to respond to trolls.

When you try to reason with a troll, he wins. When you insult a troll, he wins. When you scream at a troll, he wins. The only thing that trolls can’t handle is being ignored.


How to deal with other offensive comments


Trolls represent only a proportion of people who post offensive content online. This is partly due to the online dishinibition effect, that is the tendency of people to behave online in ways that they would see inappropriate in a face to face interaction. This effect means that we tend to disclose more of ourselves online with perfect strangers than we would in face to face social encounters and that we tend to allow parts of ourselves to find expression online which we keep closeted in our day-to-day interactions in person, but also that we are more likely to give in to aggression, insults and abusive language.

Moreover, whereas in our face-to-face communications we tend to be able to choose the people we are talking to, when the communication moves online, it reaches a much wider public, therefore the likelihood of our message reaching an audience which fundamentally disagrees with our position, or who dislikes us simply on the basis of the various social categories we belong to.

In this case, the purpose of the commenter is not their own enjoyment, but to express their own position or their dislike towards the author/s or participants in a discussion.


The power of the Online Community


Once again, in this case it is fundamental to be reminded of the power of ‘we’: research in marketing and in computer mediated communication has repeatedly shown the extraordinary ability of online communities to self- regulate. For example, in her PhD project exploring the role of Social Media in Charities ‘Fundraising activities, Evie Lucas interviewed several professionals who were managing important UK Charities’ Facebook pages. Some of these mentioned how they do not engage in moderation of the comment threads in their pages, because the moderation is actually made by the other members of the online community.

Like in face-to-face interactions, therefore, ‘bystanders’ (that is, other readers) play a crucial role in the face of online abuse and bullying. The community can help ensure that the conversation remains around the issues raised in the article (or in the forum) and does not descend in personal attacks.

Appealing to the readers and seeking their support in regulating the comment threads is therefore an excellent idea, not only because it will hopefully discourage inappropriate use of the online space, but also because it will show the targets of the offensive communication that they have the support of the vast majority of the public.

Finally, it is very important to bear in mind what Whitney Phillips suggested in her books: this abuse is a painful reminder of what is wrong with our society and where the attention of educators, politicians and social scientists should focus.

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