October 3, 2016 Last Updated 12:00 pm

Struggling with out of control comment threads, media outlets ask commenters for guidance

Editors at The Washington Post and other newspapers are asking for reader input regarding their comment policies, hoping new solutions can be found to a growing problem of comment trolls

The issue of comments on news stories simply will not go away. In fact, it is becoming such a problem that while some publishers are simply giving up and turning off comments completely, others are going to their readers for ideas.

This weekend, for instance, the News-Gazette, which serves the Champaign–Urbana Illinois area, asked its readership to “comment about comments.”

“Last week, we closed online comments on three stories — all of which dealt with the fatal shooting in Campustown — because the comments quickly devolved into race-baiting, vulgarity and overall nastiness<" wrote Dan Corkery, managing editor at the News-Gazette.

“But turning off comments at News-Gazette.com is the exception. The majority of stories published last week were open to commenters, including many on the Campustown shootings. I know because I monitored those comments — some of which I deleted because they used profanity (including acronyms for vulgar phrases) and racial slurs.”

Corkery then asked readers for their input. Not surprisingly, commenters wanted comments to be as open as possible, and lightly moderated.

Those who never comment, or have completely given up on reading comments, are not heard from, of course. This ends up being the problem with asking readers about what their opinion of comment threads are, those who have stopped providing their comments because of how foul the environment has become will not be heard.

What news websites rarely admit is that comments drives traffic, some of it good, a certain portion of it useless. Useless because if the objective is to drive traffic for either advertising or paid circulation purposes, these readers will not be good prospects.

Greg Barber, The Washington Post‘s director of digital news projects, has been asking readers about comments, too. The Post moderates comments with a much lighter touch than The New York Times, and while the NYT typically closes comments after a short period of time, the Post is more likely to keep them open. This has led to far more commenting trolling of the Post than the NYT, a problem that it shares with The Guardian.

Barber shared a number of suggestions from readers, such as having to subscribe in order to comment, or forcing “real name” commenting.

ESPN went with a system where readers would need to log in using their Facebook account. This led, at first, to a sharp decline in comments, but many readers soon simply created fake Facebook pages in order to use when wanting to comment anonymously.

One thing neither newspaper addressed is where comment trolls come from.

Recently I asked the digital editors at several major news outlets about the issue commenting trolls coming from foreign shores. Did they monitor the IP addresses of their commenters? None responded openly, though a couple talked to me off-the-record.

Yes, they said, they are seeing a real problem develop where commenters are either coming from overseas, or else are using proxy servers to spoof their IP addresses. The problem, as one person told me, was that because a single story can generate one or two thousand comments, it would be too time consuming to to ban IP addresses of those they identify as comment trolling.

I asked one respondent if it were fair to say that comment trolls boost both overall traffic, and also encourage readers to respond in order to refute their arguments, boosting traffic still further.

“One could say that, but I wouldn’t say that,” was the response in a sort of wink-wink, nod-nod admission that this was true.

But for as much as I believe the Post’s policies are encouraging comment trolling, they are also encouraging comment discussions – the very thing both editors and commenters want most to encourage.

At the NYT, by the time a reader comes to a story or opinion piece, the comments may have already been turned off. For instance, if you want to comment on Maureen Dowd’s column from this weekend you will find that the comments section is already closed. George Will’s column in the Post, published at roughly the same time, is still accepting comments, however. In fact, you can still comment on his baseball column from April 1.

As one online editor told me, comments may be here to stay at his website, but he knows that the comment threads are becoming an alternate newspaper – one almost separate from the actual editorial content of the paper itself.

“A comment thread can veer off in ways out of the control of the editors. At our paper, many readers perceive our content as liberal, and our comment threads as hard right. How you look at the paper politically is completely dependent on what you are reading – the stories or the comments.”

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