By Andrew Losowsky, Head of Coral by Vox Media
- Change your moderation strategy and guidelines
- Reduce the number of articles with comments
- Write clear prompts and enforce boundaries
- Remove rumors and misinformation, explain why
Here in the United States, we are entering an unprecedented election, in which the very structures of our democracy are being challenged. Many experts say that we could be facing several days or weeks of uncertainty before all of the election results are declared. There are numerous scenarios for which you need to plan.
As a news organization, it is essential that you have an appropriate comments strategy alongside the rest of your elections coverage. Otherwise, you risk undermining your own reporting, and damaging your community’s trust in the democratic system, through the comments that you host on your page.
However, if you listen and manage the discussions in the right way, they can help you find new and emerging stories in your community, and support your essential reporting during this period.
Why do the comments matter?
Many of your readers – probably more than you think – are reading the comments on your articles. They do this to get more perspectives on the reporting you do, and to both share and learn more about what others are thinking and experiencing in your community.
However, comments on your site should not be a “free speech zone” where anything goes. It is a space that you control, and you have to choose the bounds of reasonable discourse.
There are real consequences if you ignore this responsibility. When left unattended, the comments can encourage the spread of dangerous misinformation and rumors that will undermine people’s trust in your reporting and damage their faith in democratic institutions.
This isn’t just hyperbole. Comments are a frequent target of misinformation campaigns in order to destabilize our democracy and affect public opinion.
- In 2017, Julia Ioffe at The Atlantic reported that Russia’s state-sponsored “troll factory” was “sowing discord… in the comments sections of various websites” in order to damage Americans’ faith in their democratic system
- In 2018, Ishmael N. Daro at Buzzfeed revealed how an app linked to the Israeli government was rewarding people for ‘liking’ and highlighting comments left by their operatives in the comments of sites such as CNN and the LA Times, in order to shape public opinion against the Palestinians.
And the conversation isn’t only polluted by deliberate actors. More frequently, misleading or false information is being shared by well-intentioned people, based on what they have learned from politicians or unreliable media.
Principles of comment moderation
The most important role of a moderator is to protect members of your community from harm.
Examples of harm include:
- Comments that abuse/attack/threaten a group or an individual, especially someone who isn’t a public figure
- Comments that diminish or negate the humanity of a person or group of people
- False information or advice that, if followed, could directly hurt someone
If you were reporting on an incident involving an active shooter, you would not allow people to share invented rumors in the comments that say that there were still several shooters, or that the shooter was a particular ethnicity, or share a photo of someone who turns out not to be the shooter, or state that there had just been another shooting somewhere else, all without any factual basis. It could cause panic, make things worse, and put people in danger.
If you accept the premise that our democracy is under threat by challenges to the legitimacy of the process, you should not allow people to harm our communities further by sharing destabilizing rumors about the election that are directly contradicted by your reporting.
While this sounds exhausting to have to track truth all of the time in the comments, these are not normal falsehoods and this is an unusual situation.
We all lose if the democractic fabric of our society is undermined, and people lose faith in the basic structures of democracy. If something appears on your page, it is your moral responsibility, so you have to make sure that your website (as well as comments on your Facebook page) aren’t part of the problem.
What you can do
1. Review/change your guidelines
You should explicitly state clear policies around rumor and misinformation/unverified information in the build up to the election/post-election period, both on any page containing comments, and also in your general community guidelines.
You may well want to be more strict than usual in how you apply the rules during this period – and state clearly that you are doing so. We strongly encourage you to remove all false or misleading information as quickly as possible. This means dedicating more resources to your community – and/or reducing how much discussion there is on your site (see below).
Replying to comments in order to debunk false rumors in the comments can make things worse, because the rumor is being asserted first, often several times – without getting into too much detail, when it comes to misinformation, prevention is better than the cure. If you’d like to dig deeper into why this is, this piece from First Draft News provides some excellent context.
Instead, get any unverified information (about, say, polling places being illegally closed early) immediately to your newsroom, and keep track of the falsehoods you remove, as these can be essential for writing articles that reiterate what is true and verifiable.
2. Restate your guidelines repeatedly by posting them in the comments
Explain why you’ve been removing comments from the article. Explain your position. You’ll have to keep doing it, as some people complain about censorship or bias. Link to articles where you debunk the most common types of misinformation.
Like every journalist, your bias is to the truth. State that plainly. Then say it again. You have a strongly defensible position, safeguarding your community. Be prepared to defend it.
Try saying some version of:
We know you value civility and the truth, and we do too. That’s why our comment policy prohibits xxx, and we’ve deleted comments that violate our policies: (link). Thanks to all of you who are adhering to the guidelines.
3. Only allow comments on articles if you have the resources to monitor them
This should be true at all times, but especially during an election period.
Most modern systems use AIs that spot toxic behavior – but these aren’t going to be able to tell rumor from established fact. You can’t rely on the AIs to help you on this one. You need human intervention.
This might mean restricting the number of election-related articles on which you allow comments, and explaining why you’re doing so, using such language as:
In order to manage the conversations effectively, we only allow comments on some of our articles. If you have feedback on this piece, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is no simple rule about how many people you will need to dedicate, in order to moderate, say, 100 comments an hour. The right number will depend on your community, the number of bad comments, the length of each comment, how easy your platform is to use, etc.
Start with “how much interaction do we want to see between our team and the community?”, try it on a few articles, see how manageable that is for one person, and go from there.
You might also want to run more focused community discussions instead of open forums (see below.)
4. Moderate with care
There’s a number of actions you can take in order to reduce the impact of damaging or unverified rumors in your comments.
i) Pro-active – before publication
If your comments platform allows it, you might want to consider some combination of:
- Set election-related articles to ‘pre-moderate all comments’ or at least ‘pre-moderate all links’.
- Set individual users that you’ve seen share unverified rumors or stir up trouble to ‘pre-moderate all comments by this user’ to check what they post before publication.
- Set ‘new commenters’ to ‘pre-moderate’, to ensure that new arrivals can’t derail the conversation without your knowledge.
- Take a look at your moderation schedule and make sure there aren’t any gaps. If news suddenly drops overnight/over the weekend, will moderation resources be called in to cover? If not, should you have different rules for publishing articles with comments during those periods? Also you should seriously consider adding more overnight moderators for election night.
For all of these, you should communicate to your readers that some or all comments will be held for review, and ensure that you have the resources to review the submitted comments at least a few times per day.
ii) Reactive – when you start to see trouble in the comments
- Show that you are present by restating your rules in a pinned/featured comment that also states what actions you are taking against rulebreakers.
- Warn, Suspend, Ban commenters who cross the line. Which action you choose should depend on the frequency and severity of an infraction – someone who is a regular and is seemingly unintentionally sharing a rumor could be warned and then watched carefully / set temporarily to ‘pre-moderate this person’, whereas someone who seems to only be deliberately and consistently trying to cause trouble should be suspended or banned outright.
- Watch out for comments that seem to use language in strange ways, especially misplaced or the wrong type of apostrophes (because of the Russian keyboard), accompanied by “just asking”-style commentary that seems designed to stir up strong reactions.
- Watch out for links to sites that you don’t recognize, and look carefully at all links. For example, www.abcnews.com.co was a fake news site designed to look like the real ABC news site.
- If the volume and speed of comments that violate your rules becomes too relentless to manage, consider closing that article’s comments early, or even removing the comments box altogether from that page.
If you do close or remove the comments completely, explain why you have done this on the article page, for transparency and also to make clear that you will not allow such behavior to take over your site. Your loyal readers will thank you for it.
Also take care of yourself and your team. Moderating can be emotionally draining and overwhelming, especially at a time like this. We have guides on how to build a strong moderation team, and how to emotionally support them in this work.
5. Run focused discussions that add value and support your readers
If I were to run up to you on the street and ask, “Hey, you: say something to me?”, you probably wouldn’t know how to react. You might ask, “What kind of thing?” or “What do you want me to say? Why are you asking? What are you going to do with this?” Or just shake your head and walk away.
How about, instead, I came up to you and said, “Hi, I’m collecting responses to publish in our local newspaper. How did you feel when you voted today?”
I’ve done a few basic things:
- Made clear why I’m asking
- Demonstrated clear value (your words will be heard, and might appear in the paper)
- Given you a clear prompt
- Made it easy to respond
Because of this, you are much more likely to come up with a focused and interesting answer.
Yet all too often, when articles are published, beneath each one is a comments section without any direction or focus, as if the publication were saying, “Here’s a complex and interesting story. Now…… say something. We don’t care what. We won’t do anything with it – just leave it there and likely not even read it. Just…. say something. No reason.”
And then you get what you ask for. No wonder that the comments on any given article could be dominated by people who arrive with an unpleasant agenda. They already know what they want to say, and there’s no indication that they shouldn’t. You’ve left the space open for them to take it over.
If you want to reduce the potential for abuse, and listen to your readership, have fewer articles open to comments and do them really well, as standalone community-led stories. The FT does these types of stories a lot, asking clear questions for readers to discuss.
Invite specific responses to support your coverage. Run time-limited Q&As with reporters and experts, and allocate moderators to work with them during these events. Create purpose and value for community participation and discussion, and remove contributions that clearly don’t belong.
In short: treat the comments as live community events that you are running on your pages, instead of empty and focus-free opportunities for anyone to yell anything, and bad actors to run rampant.
The comments on your site are read by more readers than you realize, and have an essential role to play in supporting or undermining the integrity of the upcoming election and its aftermath.
We are entering an uncertain period for our democracy. By being responsible and planning ahead, you can limit the impact of bad actors, support our democratic structures, and emerge safer and closer to your communities on the other side.
If you’re using Coral to power your comments, there are many tools and features within our platform that support these strategies. We’re going to run a session on these for Coral users, and those interested in using Coral. You can sign up here.
Thanks to Kat Lo, Joy Mayer, Max Resnik, Alisha Savson, Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn for their help and advice with this piece.