So, you decided that moderating comments and engaging with your users is better for you than shutting down the comments section altogether and you’ve reached the same conclusion as others that believe that “comment threads are messy, but so is democracy” and that is not a good enough reason to give them up. You’ve just joined the ranks of numerous media organisations around the world that would rather find solutions to better their relationship with their readers and strive for their support, especially with legacy media’s struggle to find new and sustainable business models, rather than cede this direct connection to social media platforms, most frequently.
And although some have reported success in moving the conversations with their users on social media, one should also take into consideration the lack of transparency and questionable behaviour of digital giants like Facebook, but not only, which have faced enormous backlash for being vulnerable to information warfare and possibly complicit, as well as not being able themselves to control or do at least a better job at containing the spread of online hate speech.
Thus, these organisations that are committed to keeping public forum open are also more likely to see the value of comments and reader engagement not just for publishers, but also for journalists and readers themselves. A comment section is valuable for society at large as well, a place that can foster debates and support democratic participation as well as enforce norms of civility that ultimately provide a public good. And it is desirable from both a practical and a normative point of view to encourage dialogue, while taking responsibility for the content that is hosted and the environment that is fostered in the comment section.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you set the strategy for engaging with your community.
A. An organisation needs to set some realistic goals regarding moderation.
Starting with general aspects (having in mind answers to questions like who your audience is and what their expectations of a moderation might be and trying to match it with what your newsroom stands for and what its values are) and then trying to focus on principles to guide the day-to-day activities in what concerns comment moderation.
B. Collaboration in developing the goals between the people in charge of managing the community and the rest of the journalists is highly recommended, as we saw from our own experience.
This was a learning process for both researchers and journalists involved. The final decision regarding the goals, principles and eventually rules of engagement on the websites, was based on several sources related to the research we did (including an extensive analysis of 69 websites, their rules and comments management systems which you can see here), in addition to numerous meetings with the moderators’ team and the newsroom leaders.
C. Nine general goals for moderation came out of this process which were used internally to guide the moderation team:
- Allow commenters to share opinions and information, debate passionately, be ironic or critical, have a laugh, if they do so in a civil manner. Aim to show users that we do not seek to suppress passion or fun or any specific opinions.
- Encourage more people to post more comments, by making the comment section a safer space, more free of aggression, hate, trolling, spamming and other anti-social behaviors.
- Encourage higher quality user contributions, by opening up the space to the more civil and thoughtful commenters to express themselves.
- Systematically remove content that violates the commenting rules in any way.
- Systematically preserve content that does not contravene the commenting rules, even if it is unpleasant, uncomfortable or insulting for the authors, the publication, the reader or other persons.
- Make commenters reconsider before impulsively posting an aggressive, hostile or vulgar message.
- Help users learn what is not acceptable on the moderated websites and how to express themselves without falling astray of the commenting rules, by giving them clues as to where they erred and in what way.
- Confer legitimacy to the commenting rules by enforcing them firmly, consistently and without abusing the moderation button.
- Encourage the acceptance and internalization of the commenting rules among the users, so that they may effectively become community-accepted norms and that users can eventually police themselves and each other.
The main takeaway from our experience would be that whatever goals you decide upon, acting fair, showing respect to your readers, applying the rules systematically and in a predictable manner is key. As is avoiding the appearance of censorship or arbitrary moderation, since the goal is to motivate them to change their behaviour towards a more civil and meaningful approach for all parties involved.
D. But for the day-to-day needs of the moderation or engagement team it is desirable to have a set of focused principles to guide them in their interaction.
Based on our 27 meetings with the moderators’ team in which we analysed numerous comments left by users, debated where moderation was needed and after sieving through more than 700,000 comments, we were able to formulate the principles of moderation, as internal tools to guide the whole endeavour:
- Moderate speech, not thought.
- Dislike =/= intolerance.
- Use insight, but do not over-interpret.
- We moderate our feelings.
- Moderate the comment, not the commenter.
- Don‘t take the fun out of the game, as long as things stay reasonably civil.
- Strive not to change the meaning of the comment.
- Keep as much of a comment as possible, without allowing the rule-breaking part of the text to come across.
- Context matters.
Whether you chose to go through your own internal process of setting the strategy, goals and principles of moderation or you feel you could start by using, adapting or improving those developed by our project, the next step will lead you through some practical things you need to think about before announcing the new order to the public.
Things to consider before announcing the new order