Trolls, paid posters and aggressors in online comments
Why is it important to speak of online aggressiveness?
Aggressive and instigating comments found at the end of online articles do not only affect the journalists that have written them, who develop a tendency towards self-censorship and an excessive refinement of their own opinions, but also the heroes of their accounts. This has been brought to light by a series of consultations with the media partners of the Less Hate, More Speech project, conducted by Median Research Centre.
Moreover, the commentators are polarized, and studies show that people who only read the uncivilized comments tend to evaluate the article at hand as less valuable, regardless of its content.
It’s no surprise, then, that a number of publications throughout the world have decided to shut down the comment sections on their websites. Among the first to resort to this are: Reuters, Recode, Popular Science or Chicago Sun-Times. Neither of these sites has gone back on their decision. In addition, some of them have extensively argued for their position.
Recode, for instance, believes that debates and discussions are progressively moving towards social media and that devoting resources to their own comments section would constitute an unnecessary effort. Of course, this may lead to the use of a third party application, such as Facebook or Twitter as a liaison for public interaction, which in turn translates to the loss of a sizeable community that could have supported the brand.
It is true that, recently, social media have started to paint themselves as publishers and not just platforms. Facebook has gone a long way in this direction through the implementation of “instant articles”, practically picking up original content from publishers (New York Times, Bild, Wall Street Journal, etc.) and posting it directly into the article feed, without requiring the user to click for the website of the respective content producer. This is another experiment in which the promise of supplementary sources of income for publishers (stemming either from advertising sales or Facebook and these instant articles), leads to the abandonment of the direct relationship with the readership. In this context, Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, claims that his journalists have become the “slaves of the Facebook algorithm.”
The aforementioned study (The “Nasty Effect:” Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies) also shows that the negative effects caused by uncivilized comments are too big on the actual content of the website, on the users’ proper understanding of the piece of news or material of any kind at hand. This is how Popular Science justified shutting down its comment section in September of 2013.
In the previous year more and more publications decided to drop comment sections. But they do more than this. Most of them believe that media must follow the direction of the largest audience and nurture its relationship with readers even if this means moving to other platforms or putting in place mechanisms other than the possibility to comment.
For instance, in June 2015 The Verge announced that it was going to close its comments section throughout the summer, while still making comments possible for certain articles. However, its forums remained open and saw a 36% increase in traffic.
The sports section of USA Today (FTW – For the Win) features a number of alternative ways of article dissemination and provides new modes of interacting with them via WhatsUp or SMS. Especially since, USA Today claims, traffic in this section stems mostly from mobile devices. Their records show no drop in time spent by users on the website and no drop in traffic figures.
Recode, in turn, relies heavily on its Facebook and Twitter communities where debates with the readers often take place.
As such, the majority of publishers pay much attention to social media platforms as a result of closing comment sections, they revise strategies to interact with the public and put much emphasis on traffic figure analysis.
Trolls and paid posters
Two additional phenomena are of importance aside from the level of rudeness when talking about online aggressiveness and its aftermath: trolling and paid posters.
Trolling is a phenomenon that goes a step beyond aggressive language usage in comments; it is a deliberate habit of those who wish to antagonize, change topics of discussion or intimidate, without any apparent goal. Practically they wish to create chaos among Internet discussions for the sake of it.
A recent study goes so far as to claim that there are significant connections between trolling and sadism, psychopathic behavior or Machiavellianism. The magnitude of the phenomenon has determined a group of researchers from Stanford and Cornell to develop a software that is able to detect users who’s behavior has the potential to turn into trolling, before its actual manifestation. In the UK, in particular cases, trolling constitutes a felony.
An important case of trolling was uncovered in the US. An army of Russian trolls tried to spread chaos in a location in Louisiana by invading social media sites and media outlets with false information about an explosion at a chemical plant. They were found in a building in Sankt Petersburg, Russia.
And then there is the paid posters category, which is not only a Romanian phenomenon. The practice of paying people to influence online debates in favor of those making the payment is a wide-spread tactic throughout the world. Again, in Russia, there are companies who pay people to post a minimum of 100 comments daily, on websites and social media, based on the “orders” they receive. Even The Guardian’s website has sensed, through its moderators, that at the outburst of the war in Ukraine a concerted attempt at influencing public opinion was in place through pro-Russian comments found at the end of articles.
In Romania, the indictment forwarded by prosecutors at the National Anti-Corruption Directorate in the Bute Gala case revealed that a politician had paid posters and directly influenced news editors in order to eliminate inconvenient coverage.
Despite all this, many editorial crews chose not to eliminate online comments and there are many compelling arguments against taking this step.
Less Hate, More Speech – Youngsters Get Involved!
The project is run by Median Research Centre (MRC) in partnership with Educ Association and targets young people between 12 and 17 years old, in order to help them better identify and react to online and offline hate speech.
More, on the project’s website.