Go Ahead and Feed the Trolls, Says New Research on Internet Comments

Researchers have found how to cut incivility by 17 percent. It’s... a start.

Dec 10 2014, 6:55pm

​Comment sections everywhere. Image: ​TORLEY/Flickr

In 2014, many news sites either did away with comments altogether, or hid them away, keeping whatever engagement commenting brings while sparing the eyes of the innocent from the rants of the inane. Mostly, it seemed proof that open, unmoderated comment sections are the internet's great failed egalitarian experiment—anyone can say anything, but ​too often it's shit.

But some aren't content to let comments fall silent. Natalia Stroud is a professor in the department of communications studies at the University of Texas. She directs the "Engaging News Project," which has been studying how to calm the troll tide, as well as trying to discover what it is that turns ​people into sociopaths below news articles.

"From a practical perspective, understanding how to affect the tenor of comments can help organizations interested in creating a certain type of user experience," she told me in an email. "From a theoretical perspective, studying these spaces gives us new ways of understanding how norms develop and people interact online."

For a paper just published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Stroud and a team of researchers looked at comments left on local news stations' Facebook pages, trying to figure out what brings out civil discourse and what leads to partisan bickering and name-calling.

One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments

"We combed through the academic literature to understand the criteria that had been used in the past to indicate deliberative and civil conversations," Stroud said. "Each comment was evaluated for whether it was civil, was relevant, provided some form of evidence, and asked a genuine question."

One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, "incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter," according to the study.

I asked Stroud why a reporter's presence put people on their better behavior.

"Although we can't know for sure from our study, I suspect that the identified reporter made commenters feel that they had a voice and that someone cared about what they had to say," she said. "It could have been seen as an honor to have a recognizable reporter respond to a comment and engage with commenters."

Maybe famous speed need to engage more? Or yeah, just ignore.

Speaking from my own forays into the comment section, I'd say that most people who snark don't really expect to get a reply from the object of the derision or even questioning, and that when I, in my better moments, reply with an answer to their question or critique with civility, it gets returned.

The de facto internet commenting norm seems to be sort of low and sort of mean, but it's a norm that seems like it can be changed pretty easily, depending on the issue. No matter how many prominent journos weigh in on, say, Gamergate, my suspicion is that the damage is already done.

But maybe not. Maybe researchers, who are less cynical than myself, can figure out how to put our better selves on display. Stroud, at least, believes there's something to be gained there.

"I think that social media has become an increasingly important space for engaging with the news," she told me via email. "Most optimistically, comment sections can be a place where citizens engage with one another and with the news. They can be a space where people share different views and perspectives, enriching the experience of reading the news."

Hey, we all love different views, right? Feel free to share your different views below.