In order to better understand what we did in the Less Hate, More Speech research project and how your own goals regarding your community might be aligned with ours, let’s briefly touch upon some key aspects of the project, the reason why it all came together, a rare collaboration between researchers, journalists and media people, at least in Central-Eastern Europe:
- The journalists were interested in seeing how to achieve better engagement with their readers and commenters while striving for a decrease in aggressiveness and incivility, but while still maintaining the passion in debates.
- This also meant they did not want to give up the direct relationship with their readers (which can translate into more time spent on the websites, more “eyeballs” to sell to advertisers, brand establishment or consolidation and even a considerable source of ideas for new articles or complementary resources stemming from users’ comments) by closing down comments or leave such interactions to third-party platforms. Although, there was an important wave of publishers announcing the closing down of comment sections in 2015-2016, each with their own reasoning for doing so.
- The researchers wanted to see under which circumstances and to what extent it was possible to reach these goals of respect and civility and turn them into accepted norms.
If this, so far, seems to be in line with your own thinking, read ahead for a couple of aspects related to the context in which the 4 websites in the project (GSP.ro, one of the biggest websites in .ro & the online presence of Gazeta Sporturilor – the only daily sports newspaper in the country, Tolo.ro – the blog of Catalin Tolontan, one of the most reputed investigative journalists in Romania and Gazeta’s editor in chief, Paginademedia.ro – a niche website dedicated to the media and advertising market, Blogsport.ro – a platform dedicated to opinion pieces) existed and the challenges it posed:
- The Romanian media system is characterised by strong political parallelism and polarisation, low information quality (including in terms of accuracy), high levels of partisanship, low institutionalization of professional norms – no binding or enforceable (self-regulatory) codes of conduct in the private media.
- On top of that, the media system also lacks a sustainable business model, more so than almost anywhere in Europe (advertising revenues were down 50% across the whole media sector in 2012 from its height in 2008, the newspapers saw a whooping 86% decrease between 2008 and 2016, while a subscription based model was never popular in the country. There was another 60% drop between 2008-2016 in the number of paid-for dailies).
- Thus, it’s difficult for media outlets to carve out resources for user engagement – including comments moderation – and to prioritise its maintenance.
- More so, when there is a lack of in house advanced technical expertise (which would be the preferred route) in understaffed and underfunded newsrooms serious limitations to what can be achieved arise. Even in an outsourced needs scenario, there are still limited staff and time resources to interact with programmers and considerable effort and commitment is needed on the newsrooms part.
If you’ve made it this far and the context in which we functioned is somewhat similar to that in which your newsrooms operates, if you believe that less resources do not necessarily mean the end of all innovations and a little can go a long way and if whatever the big shots across the world are doing in this respect is not suitable for you, than we present you with another way of achieving less hate in your online community, through more speech and engagement, by going step by step through our process of setting up a moderation procedure on the 4 websites, explaining why we chose each route and to what avail.
So, we did the research, we tested and we came up with possible routes and tools to achieve our goals that might also increase the horizon of possibilities for your community:
Goal 1 – Less Hate: the challenge was to have a better online environment for people to feel safe to express their views freely and diminish hate speech and incivility, by having norms that protect and level the playing filed.
Goal 2 – More Speech: the challenge was to initiate and foster better engagement with users, to go beyond the norms of civility and be more focused on the community, mutual respect and understanding, as well as test what options worked better than others and to what results.
Here’s what you can expect to find in the 9 following guides: we start by focusing on establishing the principles of moderation, then guide you through the best practical options you have for how you want the interaction to look like on your website, how to set up the terms & conditions and what to take into account, how to set up the moderation and involve the newsroom in the process (through talks and surveys), how to cater to the moderators’ needs, how to try different things in the comment section (we also provide stats from our own experiments to benchmark against) and how to use surveys and online focus groups with loyal users to test, get feedback and make good on the promise of engagement.
 All data from World Press Trends 2013, 2017.
Start with the goals and principles for moderating the comments produced by the online community you cater for