September 26, 2016 Last Updated 8:01 am

On ‘Twitter breaks’ and closing comment threads

The New York Times says it will be partnering with Google Jigsaw on a new commenting system, as the paper continues to grapple with abusive language, trolling and outright lying

The latest rage is the so-called ‘Twitter break” – decision to quite publicly proclaim that you are leaving Twitter, at least for a while, due to reasons usually tied to abusive comments. I see no reason to criticize the decision because there is no law that says one has to tweet. In fact, most people I know, out there in the real world, the ones I have dinner with, go to the ballgame with, and have honest to goodness real conversations with, do not tweet.

It has always been a personal decision which social media one uses, if any. I don’t post on Facebook very often – like once a year. But I use Twitter and occasionally post something to LinkedIn. It’s my decision, but I certainly don’t hold it against anyone who choose to do neither.

But I find it funny that there are those adamant that publishers must keep their comment threads open, as if closing comments is some sort of attack against free speech. The fact is that the abuse and trolling one finds on Twitter is even worse in comment threads – it is just less personal, mainly because most people post comments anonymously. Where one must sign into a comment thread using your real name or a Facebook account, discussions generally more civil, but when they are not the number of comments falls dramatically.

Google Jigsaw home page message

The New York Times has been grappling with the problem of comments and has decided to partner with Google Jigsaw to create a new moderation system. The paper has been moderating its comment threads, using a fairly light touch, but also closing down threads fairly quickly because moderating comments in labor intensive, By contrast, The Washington Post is the wild west, with far more comments, far more trolling, and therefore far more comments. The Post has been bragging up its traffic gains, but I suspect they can credit Russian trolls for the majority of their gains – it won’t translate into paid subscriptions.

Recently the NYT explained their system, which involves a team of 14 people which they say moderates about 14,000 comments each. They also provided their readers with a moderation test, something The Guardian did months ago.

Just like the Guardian’s test, I approved comments that the paper said it would reject. But the funny thing is that while the NYT says it would reject comments that I would approve – in real life I see far more comments that I would have rejected than the paper actually rejects. In other words, it is one thing to reject a comment in a test environment, another thing to reject them in the real world. I find that both the NYT and Guardian allow more outright lying and trolling than I would, but claim they would reject comments based on name calling (which doesn’t actually bother me as much – sticks and stones, and all that).

What none of the major news sites want to talk about, however, is the vast number of comments coming from overseas – paid trolling, if you will. TNM reached out to several of the major news sites and asked them if they moderated by ip address, or at least monitored ip addresses. None either said they did, or responded back. My guess is that this is too labor intensive for them, or they have not set up their system to automatically monitor ip addresses. Due to spoofing, this might not be a bad decision, but I do think paid trolling is a major problem, and at the heart of the commenting controversy.

The NYT’s executive editor Dean Baquet recently said the paper has made a decision to call out Donald Trump’s lies, using the word “lie” as opposed to some vague term. But as the paper does so, its comment threads are working counter to what the paper says it is trying to accomplish. Comment threads are, in essence, the place where a campaign can place free advertising, beating down all opposition and driving home their message. A comment thread dominated by a campaign can make it seem as if the majority of Americans are in agreement with a candidate. Making sure the comment threads of the Post or Times is now part of a campaign’s strategy to influence voters and money put into trolling is probably better spent than a 15 or 30 second television spot – and far less expensive.

Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be facing off in the first of three presidential debates. You can be sure that the comment threads will be busy – but how sure can you be that the comments are really coming from readers or from some other source?

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