South Africa

South Africa

Editorial: Write your comments below, keep it civil please

Editorial: Write your comments below, keep it civil please

Just over a year ago, we wrote to you, conceding (temporary) defeat to the trolls. We drew the line and, like so many other publishers, stated that we weren’t willing to host a comments section on our pages any longer. As we grew from a niche publication into the foremost independent voice, tackling some of South Africa’s thorniest issues, we were always going to be on a losing wicket with regards to comments. Now we’re happy to announce that our search for digital penicillin may just be over and that we've just completed a trial to bring back comments. By DAILY MAVERICK.

Anonymous or not, the comments section became a place where authors feared to tread. And those with a sadistic streak bypassed the editorial entirely to watch groups of people shed their veneer of real-world decency and indulge in slinging insults and hate speech at each other. Nobody wants that, bar the Milo Yiannopoulos’ of this world. But those with equally difficult surnames in management at Daily Maverick don’t and so the search was on to find alternative methods for readers to engage with our work.

At the time, we received many letters predicting our demise, that our traffic would plummet and that we were cowards for doing away with comments. But the overwhelming majority of feedback was that readers were sad to see comments go but understood our rationale. For our journalists, reading through comments was the equivalent of a random person off the street walking into an office worker’s cubicle and spewing profanity at them through a megaphone. We were willing to sacrifice a bit of traffic for the well-being of our team but that proved inconsequential as reader numbers more than doubled in the months that followed.

Comments and reactions to our stories moved to Twitter and Facebook and in so doing, all we succeeded in doing was to divert the vitriol elsewhere. Admittedly, it was a huge relief to see people take their morning verbal bowel movements on Mark Zuckerberg’s front lawn instead of ours, proving that the use of real names by nutjobs is no deterrent for what the depths of humanity is capable of.

We had no choice but to wait and trust that some bright sparks in a garage somewhere in Silicon Valley would come up with a better way of handling things, throwing technology and human ingenuity at the problem. We encouraged good ‘ole fashioned “letters to the editor” that produced many great pieces for us, although it added to an already creaking editorial team’s workload.

Then a few months back, we implemented “Reactions”, a service that allows readers to choose from a list of preset reactions to relay their thoughts on a particular piece of text or the article in its entirety. For an audience that was starved of quick and easy feedback, the uptake has been great. We now record more than 10,000 reactions per week – and with engagement being one of the holy grails of publishing, this was good news for us.

But the internet was supposed to be about evolving news media from a one-way broadcast channel and giving voices to the previously unheard. Not all comments were bad and some were exceptionally good, even moving our editor to publish them as opinion pieces. The goal was never to censor people’s opinions and build an echo chamber of fan mail but rather to stop that which was clearly intended to hurt and added nothing to the debate.

Our search for such a tool yielded a service called “Civil Comments”, something we’ve implemented across the entire site quietly since last month, on a trial basis. Once readers submit their comments, they are asked to rate three other comments from the site for civility and utility. And then rate their own comment. The theory being that if readers realise others are rating their comments, they might want to edit their own posts before going live on the site and that rating their own comments might snap them out of the manic fervour that trolling brings.

Built into the back end of Civil Comments is a learning algorithm that also assesses what has been submitted and rated by the community, just in case Steve Hofmeyr and Steve Bannon both happen to be rating comments at that moment in time. Abuse patterns are identified by the machines and the technology supplements the work of the community.

In no time, readers with poor ratings are flagged and a variety of corrective measures can be taken, such as limiting the number of posts poorly rated readers can post in a given time period and, of course, the last resort of blocking. Of course, no system is perfect and system gaming is being attempted all the time. But by involving the Daily Maverick community as our frontline defence, we can dedicate more of our resources to editorial and manage by a much more targeted series of exceptions. All these precautions mean there will be fewer comments in total on our site, but we’re all about the quality over quantity.

Our goal regarding comments is clear. Like our editorial, we don’t want to censor opposing views and opinions but rather nudge behaviour in the direction of civil dialogue. That is what we expect of our journalists and opinionistas and, if we’re going to host comments, what we expect of our readers too. We hope Daily Maverick readers will embrace the relaunch of comments and be active participants in building a healthy feedback and debate platform for our community. Or we’ll just have to keep looking. DM

Photo by Craig Sunter via Flickr.

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