A Norwegian news site is now asking its readers to take a short reading comprehension quiz before allowing them to post comments below certain articles, according to a report from Nieman Lab. “The goal,” writes Joseph Lichterman, “is to ensure that the commenters have actually read the story before they discuss it.”
The site, NRKbeta, which covers technology for Norway’s public broadcasting company, sees the quiz as a way to certify that readers are beginning a discussion from the same place, and as a “count to ten before you speak” preventative buffer. NRKbeta thinks the feature has improved the civility of its conversations and may add the quiz to all of its stories if the experiment continues to perform well.
NRKbeta’s solution may be novel, but the problem it addresses is not. Across the web, publishers and social platforms are struggling to improve the quality of online discourse. Toxic conversations can escalate to harassment, or at least discourage participation from a diverse representation of readers. (When NPR removed commenting from its site last summer, ombudsperson Elizabeth Jensen cited estimates showing that 83 percent of its commenters were male, while overall readership was only 52 percent male.) And comment threads gone wild can work against the journalistic goals of news sites if they change how readers interpret a story, as some research suggests. Meanwhile, sites are often unable to dedicate more resources to moderation, and many are reluctant to constrain the free exchange of ideas and debate. Given these challenges, it’s understandable that many publishers have thrown in the towel, either removing comment sections from their sites or outsourcing their conversations to platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
A premise of NRKbeta’s experiment is that many commenters haven’t read the article they intend to discuss. In a 2016 survey of commenters, the Engaging News Project offered some evidence to support that idea, finding that more than half of commenters spent the same amount of time or more in the comment threads than reading the article. Nineteen percent of commenters spent more time commenting than reading.
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