I have had a long post in the works about comment moderation following on from Part 1 in this series from September last year, but RealLife™ intervened and I hadn’t been able to complete it.
Luckily Bora Zivkovic at Blog Around The Clock has a long and detailed post full of relevant links which includes pretty much every point I wanted to make. I’m providing a summary of his headings with some meaty quotes below, but please make sure to click through and read his post in full in order to see all the points he makes and the many link citations he provides.
A couple of weeks ago, an article was published in Science about online science communication (nothing new there, really, that we have not known for a decade, but academia is slow to catch up). But what was interesting in it, and what everyone else jumped on, was a brief mention of a conference presentation that will be published soon in a journal. It is about the effect of the tone of comments on the response of other readers to the article on which the comments appear. [...]
They specifically chose a topic about which most people know very little and do not already have any opinion. Neither the article nor the comments contain sufficient information to turn the readers into experts on the subject. So they have to use mental heuristics – shortcuts – to decide what to think about this new subject. Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.
about 1% of the participants produce most of the content, another 9% participate regularly by editing (e.g., on a wiki), commenting (on blogs and articles), occasionally producing new content (in forums, etc), and the remaining 90% are ‘lurkers’ who do not publicly participate but only read
Where are the comments?
most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog [to social media platforms], but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.
The question every blogger in this situation has to ask is – what to do next?
What does it mean to moderate comments? Different people have different ideas about it, but many focus on technical fixes.
i.e. Spam filters/Pre-comment moderation/Post-comment moderation/Sophisticated graded moderation/Modifying comments/Engagement
Engagement – the most important element of comment moderation is the presence of the author in the commenting thread. Responding to readers’ comments, thus showing that they are being read, observed and appreciated, is the most effective way to make sure that the discussions stay on topic and do not veer over the line of appropriateness. Sometimes a comment hurts, or makes you angry. Sleep over it. Then come up with a smart, witty, civil and firm response. Be in control of your own commenting threads:
So, why are so many comment threads so nasty?
Because they are not moderated! [...] If you don’t delete or disemvowel inappropriate comments, people will think you are not even reading the comment threads. If you don’t show up in person, nobody will know you are even interested in their thoughts. If you don’t delete the trolls, the trolls will take over and the nice people will go somewhere else.
“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In this section Bora is especially addressing science blogging, which is his area. Other areas of inquiry may not share every rigorous convention of the scientific method, but the following point extrapolates well to most discussions of sociopolitical interest:
Now let’s go back to the very beginning of this post and the forthcoming article about the effect the tone of comments affects readers. If we leave the creationist or denialist troll comments up, what does it do to the rest of the readers? It polarizes them, it makes them more certain about things than what their actual knowledge warrants, while at the same time repelling experts from wading into the mud-pool to correct, over and over again, the untrue statements and anti-facts posted by denialist trolls.
Those of us who have pursued an education, even an amateur one, in history/anthropology are often struck by how ignorant many anti-feminists are regarding the breadth of social variations regarding conventions of gender expression over time and location. When contrarian commentors post anti-factual comments which are left to stand by the moderator, then those comments distort and suppress the subsequent discourse.
How do you decide what is a trolling comment?
If you want your comment threads to remain clean and civil, and to stick to the topic in the article, you HAVE to delete off-topic comments.
[...] I am certainly not using cowardly, mealy-mouthed He-Said-She-Said mode of writing my own posts, so I will also not allow for a He-Said-She-Said pseudo-debate to develop in my comment threads. You don’t like it? Deal with it. Go and complain in the comments on [a more sympathetic blog], or on your Facebook wall.
Those whose comments are deleted, for whatever reason, on one blog/forum? They remain free to repost those comments on another blog/forum. Their freedom of speech has not been denied.
Bora’s moderation rules
Now, I know that I used the example of Global Warming Denialism here the most – mainly because it is currently the most acute problem on our site – but the same goes for people harboring other anti-scientific ideas: creationists, anti-vaxxers, knee-jerk anti-GMO activists, and others.
This post is not about climate denial, it is about commenting and comment moderation. It is about the fact that eliminating trolls opens the commenting threads to more reasonable people who can actually provide constructive comments, thus starting the build-up of your own vigorous commenting community.
I’ll leave it to readers to make their own analogies to feminist/anti-feminist tropes in place of the science/anti-science tropes noted by Bora.
Take Home Message
Civil rights of Free Speech do not come bundled with any rights to a free audience.
On the contrary, audiences are the ones with the right of Free Association in terms of to whose words they pay attention. Don’t let yourself be bullied into publishing disruptive comments that drive away the commentors who add value to discussion of your posts. Nobody is obliged to listen to anybody who is being a jerk.
There are seven billion people on the planet, many of them potentially useful commenters on your site. Don’t scare them away by keeping a dozen trolls around – you can live without those, they are replaceable.
And as a final rebuttal to the asinine Freeze Peach arguments – in the words of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who happens to be rather a Glibertarian icon, people who have built a platform are not obliged to share it with anybody else – folks remain free to build their own platforms:
Hire your own hall. We paid for this one.
Don’t let other people hijack what you have built. You owe your readers more than that.
As they say in the classics, read the whole thing.