Want to improve your online comments? Don’t feed the trolls

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of reports from five Digital First Media journalists who attended ONA13 through the Digital First Represents program. 

One of the sessions I was most looking forward to at the Online News Association’s 2013 conference was Peter Dykstra‘s talk about “bagging trolls.

“Troll” is, of course, Internet slang for someone who regularly posts to online comment threads or social media with the sole intent of starting arguments, offending people or just afflicting the poor souls charged with moderating web comments.

If this topic is not something that you or your newsroom has to deal with … please, shoot me an email. Tell me your secrets. If there’s one thing I learned from Dykstra’s talk, it’s that no one has figured out a sure-fire way to deal with trolls. The talk at ONA was recorded, which you can listen to here:

Dykstra is publisher of Daily Climate and Environmental Health News. As one might expect, his publication draws some pretty harsh feedback from those who believe global climate change is a hoax. For that reason, Daily Climate and Environmental Health News does not accept comments on its site.

Dykstra said the reason is simple: It’s a small publication without the people or time to deal with online meanies.

His publication isn’t alone. Popular Science made waves a few months back when it announced it would eliminate online comments from its site. Editors decided comments by trolls and spambots were hurting the magazine because they were eroding readers’ confidence in its reporting. The decision was based on — what else? — science. A recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study found online comments actually change readers’ perception of the news.

After a short introduction from Dykstra, the “bag a troll” session took on the form of a therapy session.

  • A blogger from Philadelphia tried to “dance” with the trolls by participating in his own comments section. He said he tried to set a tone, and when people got nasty, he employed the “block” button liberally. He has since removed the comments section.
  • A columnist from Memphis says she has received death threats from commenters on her newspaper’s site. She said she feels like removing comments, in some cases, is protecting sources. Much of her writing is about crime, welfare and other sensitive topics, and doesn’t want her sources to be eviscerated online.
  • Some reporters said they’ve had sources refuse interviews because they didn’t want their name in the comments section.
  • Richard Clark of KOTV said his organization switched to Facebook-driven comments, which has improved discourse. Other newspapers reported similar success. One participant suggested Facebook comments, where posters must use their real name and photo, is almost like making eye contact. It seems to make people a little less mean.
  • One reporter said her organization outsources comment moderation. Everyone seemed to like that idea … until she mentioned the service cost $5,000 a month.
  • Others suggested ways to help trolls feel your pain. A staffer at WHYY suggested inviting trolls to real-life meetups, so they could meet the real people behind the news. A Yahoo admin suggested having the biggest trolls write something for the publication, so they could see what it’s like to be subject to online commenters.

Although we didn’t reach any conclusions, I did get a few take-home lessons from Dykstra’s talk.

1. Don’t feed the trolls
I repeat, do not feed the trolls. Don’t engage. It only encourages them.

2. Try a system where commentors cannot post anonymously
Switching to a Facebook-based comment system seems to make people nicer. My newspaper, the Charleston Daily Mail, went to Facebook comments about a year ago. We have noticed significantly fewer comments than when our system was anonymous, but they are generally more civil.

3. * Under Construction *
The most important lesson is this: Nobody knows how this is supposed to work. Newspapers have lots of issues to solve (issues, get it?) as we transition into an increasingly digital world. Learning to deal with mean people is just one of those obstacles we’ve yet to overcome.

It’s doubtful people will get nicer, so we’re going to have to figure out a way to keep the trolls at bay. Again, if this is an issue you’ve solved, shoot me an email. We’re all ears.

Join the discussion (this is a post about online comments, after all!)
What are some of your commenting horror stories? Or better yet, what are some ways that online comments have contributed to your reporting? Have you uncovered sources or story ideas through comments on your website? Do you have any additional suggestions for how to deal with the trolls? We want to know! Tell us in the, uh, comments.

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