The Quest for Thoughtful Internet Ranting

March 7, 2017

We are all familiar with an otherwise innocuous news posting that quickly devolves into needless posturing, vulgar language, and personal attacks on the original poster or OP. These rants can be found all over the internet, whether on social media or in the comments sections of the news sites themselves. The sections are populated and sometimes dominated by trolls, spam bots, or simply those with an axe to grind.

The idea of civil discussion on the internet has become a punchline, but new technologies and techniques are in development to make civility a reality.

The battle between online speech and censorship was largely waged back in the late ‘90’s. The Communication Decency Act (CDA) was struck down for purposes of censorship, and speech on the internet was granted the highest possible protection under the First Amendment, akin to pure speech. State censorship bills have been passed in the interim regarding screening software, library access restrictions, and other censorship provisions. Comment sections have become so commonplace that we have grown to expect them everywhere. We take for granted that often carefully researched pieces of journalism are followed by thousands of anonymous and often uncivil commentaries.
There is no question that spirited debate can be, or should be, beneficial. An open dialogue and debate is one of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy.  But as a result of the acrimony that comment sections and internet forums can spawn, the internet has begun to retract from open discussion. News, science, and technology sites have begun to roll back or eliminate their comment sections. These sites have chosen to silence the rancor and echo chambers, despite the potential loss to meaningful conversation and an opportunity to fully ventilate a subject. Popular Science eliminated their comment section after determining, based on research out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that an uncivil comment section potentially sways readers beyond the actual content of the articles. The polarizing effect of rancorous comments were getting in the way of Popular Science’s mission to deliver news on scientifically validated topics. Popular Science concluded that Twitter and Facebook offered enough of an opportunity to respond to their content, without the need for a comment section at the bottom of each article.
However, recently there has been a push to develop methods to promote a more civil, or at least more informed, debate on the internet, methods to combat the trolls and axe grinders. To this end, the technology arm of NRK, a Norwegian public broadcaster, has started to require commenters to pass a content based quiz before they can post. Essentially, the site wants some assurance that the poster has actually read the article before commenting. This would help stop trolls from indiscriminately attacking sites that post specific kinds of content, like science or technology. Beyond the promotion of more informed comments, NRK also hopes its quizzes will slow down the vitriol. Would-be-ranters are required to take a few moments of reflection, in order to pass the quiz, before posting. This would leave room to potentially cool off a bit, before ripping into other posters. The quizzes are short and can be readily affixed to the comment sections through a WordPress plug in.
Other tech companies, along with news and media outlets, have also looked at means to quell animosity in their comment sections. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mozilla, and the Knight Foundation have teamed up on The Coral Project, whose tag line is: “Journalism needs everyone.” The goal of the project is to create new tools for news sites to interact with their communities in more meaningful and productive ways. Meanwhile Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is currently working on a machine learning program, called Perspective, that would identify and scrub out “toxic” commenting. While there is certainly room for abuse, by censoring specific viewpoints or molding the conversation to fit a specific agenda, it is a start to create an environment more suitable to meaningful dialogues.
The development of new tools to manage unruly message boards could be very useful for smaller or underfunded sites without the resources, like those of the New York Times, who spend considerable amounts on moderating their comments sections to keep them relatively civil. Sites that cannot afford to keep such a close eye on their comment sections, but still want to provide what has become an internet mainstay, could depend on these new tools to quell rude, hateful, racist, or personal attacks in their comments sections.