The 21st Century Public Square: Protecting Online Comments from Manipulation and Disruption

Americans are angry, with our governance and with each other. The political divide seems a great chasm. Citizens with divergent political views gravitate to different media sources, some of which, it turns out, have been created or funded by foreign intelligence services.

Way back in 2015, the New York Times wrote “Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.” This recent Just Security article suggests the technological and political sophistication of such efforts has only grown.

Democracies are vulnerable to efforts to sabotage public trust and distort public understanding to a degree that autocracies are not. Information warfare is asymmetric; it costs more to defend against than to initiate. Technological barriers to entry are low. Most 21st century governments will have in-house technical capacity or be able to contract for it.

So, in the face of such serious potential threats of manipulation and disruption, a call to preserve online comments sections might seem quixotic.

Despite their imperfections, however, comments sections allow Americans of different views to talk with one another – at a time when, in our analog lives, we are ever more stratified and cosseted. For good or ill, internet news sources are increasingly the place where Americans acquire and consolidate their understanding of the world.

And with smart website reforms, we could elevate our public discourse, frustrate our geo-political competitors, and support quality journalism.

Bullies, Liars, Lunatics, and Spies

First, the bad news. Without monitoring, comments sections of even widely respected publications attract harassment, slander, fabrication, and misdirection, as well as lunatics and spam advertising. Too many provide a heckler’s veto or a habitat for trolls hired by foreign governments to fracture the American community and obfuscate truth. 

The volume of comments (for example, eight million per year on washingtonpost.com) and speed with which they are posted, make debate between distinct viewpoints difficult. A few words of vapid sloganeering take seconds to post, while carefully phrased, multi-paragraph arguments float briefly, gasp for breath, and then are submerged. As Jonathan Swift said “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

When Popular Science shuttered its comments sections in 2013, it explained that exposure to toxically polarized arguments leads to more extreme views and degrades support for established facts. Noxious comments can even degrade a reader’s opinion of the quality of an underlying article. Indeed, belligerent, ALL-CAPS arguments may reinforce confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and other mental errors Kahneman and Tversky warned about.

The 21st Century Public Square

At their best, however, comments sections promote civic discourse by featuring spirited debate, keen analysis from experts, compelling counter-arguments, and irreverent humor. Even when passions run high and insults go low, the swampy ground is usually seeded with golden nuggets of poise, wit, and wisdom.

So I regret the recent growing consensus that comments sections are more trouble than they are worth. In October 2015, WIRED published this demise-of-comments chronology, and there have been similar retreats since, including by National Public Radio last August.  (In better news, however, the New York Times appears to be heading in the other direction, “opening up comments on nearly all of its articles.”)

It is possible that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation concerning Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election will uncover additional evidence of meddling in online discussions, and further sap support for them among publishers.

That would be too bad, and doubly unjust. While we will continue to argue over politics at bars, sporting events, and picnics, many of our discussions nowadays are primarily digital.

A public policy oriented comments section has the potential to be the 21st century equivalent of the Turk’s Head Coffee House. That late 17th century London gathering place, “where political opinions were exchanged, and where news, newsletters, and mail were distributed,” has been credited with playing “an undeniable role in the growth of English political liberty.” But any rowdy establishment needs a constable at the door.

Everyone’s Responsibility

If removing comments sections is regrettable, publishers who offer unmediated comments sections are irresponsible. It is like holding a New England-style town meeting but ensuring that only the loudest and angriest get access to the microphone while others are shouted down or chased away.

Readers should expect that serious publications will cultivate discussion of their articles and devote sufficient editorial effort to ensure comment sections are more Jimmy Stewart than Lord of the Flies.

Comments section readers also have responsibilities themselves, to help police bad behavior and model good behavior. And the parts of government with relevant expertise (e.g., law enforcement and intelligence) should do more to help, including by sharing threat information, strengthening technical efforts to prevent foreign interference, and responding to hostile information operations with sanctions.

Good Reform Ideas…

There is no substitute for principled human curation, but procedural firebreaks can enhance online comment quality. Facilitating nested conversations seems useful, as does promoting “angel” commenters (whether voted, as on Reddit, or picked by moderators, as at the New York Times). Sites could penalize the worst comments by hiding them behind a banner that requires another click to access.

Publishers also might encourage authors to engage more routinely in comments section conversations, especially regarding public policy issues. That might provide incentives for comment moderation and topicality (since an author can choose to respond only to high-quality posts).

Given evidence that anonymity reduces barriers to bad behavior, some sites already require commenters to use real name identifiers. In 2010, the American Journalism Review called for a prohibition on anonymous comments. There are counter-arguments for continuing to allow anonymous commenting, but websites could at least stipulate what abuses might result in a loss of privileges, including the anonymity of current and previous posts.

Technology, which facilitates so much troll-work, may also help combat it, as with the “Perspective” bot used by the New York Times to filter comment submissions.  

…including a Market-based Mechanism

Publications might also consider fees. A modest charge could raise significant amounts on large sites, even if it precipitates some decrease in activity. At ten cents a comment, for example (they could call it the “Threw the bums a dime, in your prime” program) the Washington Post could collect hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to subsidize human moderators.

Such a system would help regulate posting speeds, allowing more cohesive, substantive exchanges. It would reward the most engaged. And it would make spam and trolling, including by foreign governments, more costly.

Fees might antagonize readers, as paywalls did, or affect ideological diversity. There is some evidence of increased readership when toxic comments sections are removed, however, and excellent but penurious commenters could be subsidized. (Plus, when a McCafé costs a dollar, commenting on 3650 articles a year could still be the equivalent of coffee money.)

 Mediating Institutions and Protecting Civic Discourse

 A foreigner who came to know us well, Alexis de Toqueville, said “The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express.” Time-transported to 2017, de Toqueville might find America’s rambunctious online civics debate familiar, but wonder if it is being overwhelmed.

A conceit of the early internet age was that mediating institutions no longer mattered – information would beneficially bypass political parties, special interests, and the established media. (For a hyperventilated prediction of cheap political campaigns, responsive governance, and a well-informed electorate, see this from Dick Morris.)

That now seems naive. Mediating institutions don’t get in the way of democracy, they scaffold it.

The public interest depends on citizens’ ability to exchange views without being drowned out by cynical partisans, special interest flackery, or foreign propaganda. Defending online comments sections from manipulation and disruption won’t solve all of America’s political problems, but it may allow us to work out the solutions together.

Image: Getty

 

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About the Author(s)

Joseph Cassidy

Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Follow him on Twitter (@cassidyjosephp).