On newspapers’ online comments

The Sunday Times of 18 April 2010 quoted me in its feature article about newspapers’ growing problem of irresponsible or offensive comments on their web versions. As is commonly the case when my words are reduced to a few sentences, I feel I need to clarify and contextualise what I said.

This was what the Sunday Times wrote:

A popular suggestion among media watchers interviewed is to let users rate the comments and display the highly ranked ones prominently.

Assistant Professor Mark Cenite of Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information said: ‘This approach allows users to moderate themselves, and the news site is seen as being sensitive to readers’ values.’

But Mr Alex Au, who runs socio-political blog Yawning Bread, cautioned that this could lead to astroturfing. The term, derived from a brand of fake grass, refers to a fake grassroots movement in which a group wishing to push its agenda sends out manipulated and replicated online messages in support of a certain policy or issue.

His suggestion: user tiers, in which comments by users with verified identities are displayed visibly and anonymous comments less conspicuously.

He said: ‘This approach does not bar people from speaking up, but weighs in by signalling the path towards responsible participation.’

I’m almost sure readers would be wondering about the logic involved. How does letting users rate comments lead to astroturfing? What I meant — and I thought I had been clear to the reporter — was that the result might be akin to astroturfing.

But first of all, what is astroturfing? It is when a few people do one or both of two things: create multiple identities for each of themselves and flood a forum or topic with similar opinions, or get their friends to post boilerplate letters (expressing similar opinions of course) even if they do not totally share them to the same degree. The intent is to create an impression that a certain opinion is more widely held than is actually the case.

What I said to the reporter was that user-rating will have the tendency of giving prominence to widely-shared opinion. Comments expressing unpopular opinions will get fewer “stars” from other readers and sink in display priority. In theory, it doesn’t have to be so. People may very well give “stars” to well-thought-out comments that argue cogently for a view they don’t agree with, lauding the quality of expression rather than the conclusion, but let’s get real. Most people like to hear what they already believe. That being the case, the effect of such a scheme would be to crowd out unpopular opinion even if they have merit; it produces a majoritarian effect in newspapers’ comments sections.

Furthermore, I said, it is open to abuse in that a small group of people wanting to push a particular opinion could repeatedly vote for a certain comment, thereby giving it increased ranking and more prominent display. Such action would be akin to astroturfing.

The value of discussion lies not in hearing what we already know or what we already believe in. It lies in hearing alternative arguments and learning new facts. Structuring a discussion forum by giving prominence to merely popular opinion just makes it an echo chamber. The greater public purpose is better served when contrary opinion is aired. That is why I disagree with a scheme whereby users apply ratings and prominence is given to highly-rated comments.

Readers will also have noticed that I urged newspapers to continue allowing anonymous comments. My suggestion was merely to structure the displaying of comments into three tiers: (1) those by persons whose identity has been verified by the newspaper, (2) those by persons who have offered details of their identity, but these details have not been verified by the newspaper, and (3) those by persons who wish to remain anonymous. This is based on a belief, and I don’t think it is without foundation, that people who are prepared to be identified are less likely to post offensive comments.  By giving bias in favour of this group, the general tone of discussion is less likely to descend to the puerile.

I stressed to the reporter that anonymous comments have their uses. Most obviously, there will be times when whistle-blowing serves the public purpose, and so, even if displayed less prominently, they should still be allowed.

2 Responses to “On newspapers’ online comments”

  1. 1 anony 21 April 2010 at 17:22

    I no longer subscribe to the ST so I did not get to read that article.

    But it seems to me that the purpose of moderating online comments in newspapers is the wider issue of alternative online news in Spore like TOC & TR that touches on controversial issues which state controlled media does not wish to publish.

    State media is PAP so any dissent has to be quashed so its in their interest to rally their own grassroot members to populate as many pro-PAP comments as they can get to counteract what has been written in TOC & TR.

    What these online commentators in ST or CNA sites are doing are simply regurgitating what TOC & TR has covered most of the time that PAP is not happy with.

  2. 2 David MacLauchlan 28 April 2010 at 01:11

    This discussion, of course, is taking place elsewhere too, not just in Singapore. In Britain, the debate has been spiced up by the revelation that one well-known historian was posting negative reviews of other historians’ books on Amazon (see, for example, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/philip-hensher/philip-hensher-anonymity-protects-too-many-critics-1948228.html). Any solutions I have seen, however, have simply been either to leave things as they are or to enforce the use of real names.

    You are so far the only person to suggest a 3-tier structure for comments. I like it. It would seem to be a good solution that gives credit to people who have the courage to sign their comments without any of the supposed disadvantages of removing all anonymity.

    I can see one possible issue. Real-name commenters may still be discouraged from posting if others can safely post vituperative comments about them under an assumed name. That apart, it is an excellent idea and deserves to be pursued.

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