Are trolls ruining Slate’s comment section?

Should Slate Kill Its Comment Section? Four Slatesters Debate.

Should Slate Kill Its Comment Section? Four Slatesters Debate.

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May 18 2015 10:30 AM
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Are Comment Sections Worth It?

It takes a lot of moderation to keep the troll population at bay. 

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Illustration by Slate

In celebration of Slate Plus’ first anniversary, we’re republishing a selection of pieces from the past year, including this article, which was originally published on Dec. 3, 2014.

Update, Feb. 13, 2015: This article is now free to all Slate readers to promote Slate Plus, Slate's membership program. Go to Slate.com/Plus to learn more about S+.  

This article is part of a package of coverage about commenting on Slate. Make sure to also check out "You Will Not Comment on This Article.” And then join other members and Slate staffers in an open thread discussion, “How Should Slate Improve Its Comments Section?” 

Some Slate writers believe it’s time for the magazine to stop hosting comment sections below every article. Among other things, they argue that the magazine isn’t investing sufficient resources into moderation and that stories about certain topics, such as feminism and race, are often overwhelmed by off-topic vitriol and hate.

We invited four Slate-sters to talk about the state of commenting on the site. In what follows, we’ve excerpted highlights from a recent exchange between senior technology writer Will Oremus, senior editor Rachael Larimore, senior writer Amanda Hess, and DoubleX contributor Amanda Marcotte. 

* * *

Amanda Marcotte: So is this the official beginning of the fierce fight to the death over comments?

Will Oremus: Nicely framed. Hyperbole and death threats—I feel like I'm in an Internet comment section already!

Amanda Hess: I'd like to begin by highlighting an insightful comment I received from a reader after publishing a long reported story about the publisher of a new website for women. It reads: “LOL! Why is Amanda Hess on her knees busy spit-shining Bryan Goldberg’s business? That is the question.”

Oremus: Worst Hamlet allusion ever.

Rachael Larimore: That's a terrible comment, and the kind of thing that should be stricken immediately. Having said that, though, the media and publishing industry owes its existence to the freedom of speech and has a long and dedicated history of promoting the free exchange of ideas.

Hess: Unless we hire Barack Obama as our comment moderator, I'm not sure we're responsible for denying anyone his or her constitutional rights here.

And while the editorial page of a local newspaper was once the only way citizens could respond to the press beyond a soap box in the square, the openness of the Internet means that everyone who comes to Slate to file a comment has access to dozens of platforms where he can say whatever he wants about our work, his thoughts on women, or his breakfast. Let him do that on a server that Slate isn’t paying for.

Marcotte: I am personally a huge fan of free speech, which is why I think comment sections should be closed. The problem with them is that they become so overwhelmed by bigots, misogynists, and people who just want to say mean things for the hell of it that all good-faith actors just leave and go elsewhere. I don't know that the best way to protect free speech is to make it impossible for people who actually have something to say to get a word in edgewise.

Larimore: If we're putting ideas out there, I think we have a duty to listen to our readers' responses. If anything, because Slate is a site that features more commentary and analysis and opinion than straight, reported news, we have more of an obligation to hear what people have to say. One hallmark of a quality publication is that it is willing to run responses from readers that point out errors or disagree with its stances.

Oremus: I worked for four years at a publication with no comment section to speak of. You might suspect that this would be a blissful experience: The soapbox is all mine, and no one can say otherwise. But I never felt this way. I felt more like Gizmodo’s Matt Novak, who quipped that writing for a site that didn’t allow comments was like “whispering to myself in the wilderness.” Did my points land? Did I change anyone’s mind? Did a bunch of readers misconstrue my meaning? These are questions that go through my head when I look at a story I’ve published.

I want my stories to start a conversation, and I want my readers to feel like they have a voice in that conversation. That’s why I think it’s worth the effort to improve Internet comments rather than do away with them altogether. To me, even a messy, ugly comments section is preferable to silence.

Larimore: Our readers are already out there commenting on Facebook and Twitter (and maybe Ello, whatever that is). If we keep them in-house, that enables us to have a more meaningful conversation.

Oremus: It is true that people are free to comment on Slate stories on platforms other than Slate. But this is not an argument for depriving them of the opportunity to comment on Slate stories on the site itself. Twitter and Facebook have their merits, but they're very poor venues for substantive, ongoing, multiperson discussions that are tied to a single, specific article or set of ideas. The ideal venue for that specific sort of conversation remains the comment section of the article itself.

That is not to say that the state of Internet comment sections, or the Slate comment section, is ideal. Far from it. I agree that moderation is essential and also quite difficult, and is rarely done well.

Marcotte: I love the idea of “substantive, ongoing, multiperson discussions that are tied to a single, specific article or set of ideas,” but that is simply not my experience.

Larimore: I think that there is a difference between “hosting comments” and “making a writer beholden to reading/responding to them.” As writers, compared with the commenters, we have the larger and more visible platform. We have the advantage. It's easy to get caught up in the vitriol, but we can also choose to ignore it and remember that far fewer people will ever read the craptastic comments than will see our pieces.

Marcotte: Certainly, we can all ignore the comments. In fact, most writers I talk to agree that you should ignore the comments. But that says a lot about the value of comments. I'm reminded of the rule for cleaning out your closet: If you haven't worn it in a year, throw it out. Same with comments: If you generally regret reading them and just wish you hadn't wasted your precious time, it's time for them to go.

Hess: I've been enjoying our Slate Plus comment sections, where only those with a mutual investment in the site are granted access and where moderators are not just weeding out useless or vile commentary but actually spending a lot of time conversing with commenters, responding to complaints, and setting the tone. It's a worthy goal. I'm just not sure it's worth the investment across the site, given how much content we're producing now. Right now, we're totally half-assing moderation. And I'd vote to put those resources toward paying writers to do great work as opposed to having them hang out in the comment section.

Marcotte: Oof, just checking the comment thread under my latest post and the first comment, up top, was a man who used my boyfriend's last name. It's a typical genre of comment I get, the “diagnosis” of me as a broken, sad person because that's what the commenter wishes were true. But by mentioning my boyfriend by name, the actual message of the comment is that I am being watched, carefully and obsessively, by someone with a rather unhealthy obsession.

Oremus: That is creepy.

Marcotte: I envy writers who feel that their comment sections give any insight whatsoever into how people are genuinely reacting to your arguments. But when it comes to writing that touches on class, race, or gender issues, a cesspool is a near certainty, unless you have rigorous moderation.

Obviously, one problem here is that different comment sections, even within Slate, have different values.  

Oremus: I do think it's true that Internet commenters tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, and that they tend to view comment boards as a safe space to vent all the sexist and racist thoughts that they'd never share in public. And I think stories by and about women and/or people of color come in for disproportionate amounts of abuse.

Hess: I'm curious: Are these the same people? As in, are the commenters who drop into DoubleX to take their dicks out the same ones filing rational and challenging arguments about technology under Will's posts?

Oremus: I've probably overstated the quality of comments I typically get on my stories. Plenty of them are lazy, asinine, or vicious in one way or another. It's just that a) the proportion of personal attacks is much lower on stories about topics that people don't take as personally as, say, gender or race, and b) I've grown accustomed over the years to scanning quickly past the idiotic comments to find those that contribute something of value.

Marcotte: I think comment sections often devolve to their lowest common denominators. Here's a great piece in the Washington Post that explains one reason why: Whoever is the biggest jerk in the comment section will always “win” the comment section, probably for the same reason that someone who throws up in a subway car invariably empties it out. For some blogs, this isn't really a problem because their lowest common denominator is probably not that bad. Like, with a tech blog, it's probably just going to be the people who compete to see who can be most cynical about the newest gee-gaw on the market—annoying but not hurtful. Feminism, however, attracts a crowd of men who are deeply threatened by the gains that women are making.

Larimore: I don’t think that the experience you’ve had, Amanda, is exclusive to women writing about feminism, and I worry that keeping it narrow makes the solution seem too simple. I’ve received plenty of venom—from men and women—whenever I’ve written about being pro-life. William Saletan is one of our least predictable writers, and whenever he takes a position that much of our audience would consider contrarian—even if he’s just playing devil’s advocate—there are personal insults mixed in with all the intracommenter debating that’s going on. No one here thinks that comment sections function as well in practice as they do in theory. People are wedded to their own ideas, they don’t like to have them questioned, and many times they can be humorless. Does that mean we burn the house down? Call me stubborn, but I don’t like the idea of letting the jerks win.

Oremus: I was really disappointed with Popular Science's decision to shut off comments. I explained why here.

Hess: I don't have time to sufficiently respond to this right now, so I'll just drop in to ask: If you like comments so much, Will, why don't you marry them?

Larimore: Wait wait wait! Is Amanda Hess trolling us?

Hess: It's kind of fun!

Larimore: I think we need to look very hard at the costs that come with giving into the screechy, hostile, angry people. I am opposed to just throwing up our hands and letting trolls win. We have many readers that provide thoughtful commentary, or point out problems, or really pour their hearts out. Cutting them off because there are thoughtless, attention-seeking commenters trying to gum up the works seems self-defeating.

If comments are largely productive and beneficial on most of our sections, then we shouldn't deny those readers who enjoy conversations because of the bad apples. And I worry about the message it sends if we shut down comments to just one section or department. There are incremental steps—blocking specific commenters, making people use real names—that don't lead to the baby getting thrown out with the bath water.

Hess: I agree that comments sections can be really wonderful with the right moderation—Ta-Nehisi Coates' comments section is oft cited as a rare jewel, always civil yet challenging—but that takes a lot of time and work.

Oremus: Moderation is onerous, and that is a problem. Human moderation is expensive and slow. No matter their size, most sites can't afford it: Small sites are too poor to pay human moderators, and large sites have too great a volume of comments for human moderators to keep up with. The result is that moderation across the Web tends to be insufficient at best and nonexistent at worst.

Another way to improve comment sections is by employing some combination of human moderation and crowdsourced moderation, wherein a comment section relies on its own members to flag or downvote offensive or unhelpful comments. Reddit is an example of a site that relies heavily on upvotes and downvotes, and while Reddit certainly has its share of ugliness, some of the better-moderated subreddits have comment sections that are among the most intelligent, entertaining, and useful on the Web.

Marcotte: I think requiring people to login with Facebook does help with the ugly comments on pieces about race or gender. A lot of people would not like future dates, for instance, to find out what they say anonymously to women on the Internet.

Oremus: That most online comment boards allow people to comment anonymously is another big problem. Anonymity has its merits, and I'm not against it in all cases. But it does make the task of moderation far more difficult. When you ban someone with an anonymous account, he can just start a new one. That makes it harder to make people accountable for anything they say.

Forcing users to log in through something like Facebook or Google Plus is annoying and problematic in some ways, but it does go a long way toward addressing the anonymity/accountability issue. And it's still less heavy-handed than dropping comments altogether.

Hess: I agree that anonymity is a problem. I've found that when people criticize my work on a forum that is more open than Slate's, like Twitter, there is a social imperative for a critic to say, “Amanda Hess is being much too easy on this source,” instead of “Why is Amanda Hess giving this source a BJ?” There are at least reasonable actors in those forums who shoot down sexist commentary and demand good-faith arguments. (And even with that it's still really sexist!) Slate has a few commenters like that, and bless them, but our half-assed approach to comment moderation has resulted in a population imbalance between the trolls and the more benign, helpful, interesting, and funny smart-alecks.

We’ve disabled commenting on this piece—the irony! It’s because we want you to join Slate staffers and Slate Plus members in an open thread discussion, "How Should Slate Improve Its Comments Section?” We’ll publish the best comments in a transcript late next week.