Combing through antagonizing remarks in a story's comments section can be an exhausting task for a community manager.
And with newsrooms like NPR, CNN and The Atlantic using third-party commenting services like Disqus, the comments section can become a seedy breeding ground for Internet trolls. But there are ways to lighten the load.
At a recent panel at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, Ro Gupta, who has battled his share of under-the-bridge dwellers as vice president of business development at Disqus, listed the top five "prime trolling conditions," and offered a few ways community managers can avoid them:
1. Lack of clear guidelines and norms.
“You’d be surprised by how many sites, especially professional news organizations, don’t have clear communication of what their guidelines and norms are," Gupta said.
By clearly outlining the kind of discourse you intend to feature on your site, as NPR does, you can thwart the trolls in their tracks, then cite the guidelines if people get upset that their unruly comments are removed. “If you can point to something that you've always stated upfront, that will also sometimes appease the situation," he said.
2. Lack of community manager presence.
Gupta isn't just referring to someone moderating, approving or deleting comments, but rather the feedback of the author, guest contributor or company mentioned in the article.
“Having that presence on a consistent...and visual basis we see correlates pretty highly with successful communities.” Gupta recognized this step as a challenge, citing journalists’ aversion to “what’s down there in the comments,” as well as workflow issues and the time-consuming nature of staying truly engaged, but if the community manager doesn't seem to care, then online aggressors won't hesitate to attack.
3. No sense of community empowerment.
Get a few engaged, sincere commentators on your side, and they'll do a lot of the battling for you, like "helping to enforce the norms, telling people when they’re out of line or when the contributions aren't welcome."
“Once the audience sees that you care enough to be consistently in the conversation, a constant voice of authority, you’ll start to see a sort of citizen empowerment thing happening," he said. "They can often do a lot of work for you in terms of fighting off trolls, and on a more positive point, making [the comments section] a more welcoming environment.”
Gupta notes that community managers have sometimes given moderation rights to regular contributors who had proved they were passionate, responsible and in tune with the type of conversation the site wanted to encourage.
4. Sorting comments in reverse chronological order instead of by popularity or quality.
Taking a bit of inspiration from Reddit, Disqus monitors voting signals to see which comments should float to the top. By always keeping the most recent comment at the top of the thread, you're offering trolls a guaranteed 15 minutes of fame even for a low-quality comment, “rather than incentivizing a really well-thought-out contribution that’s pertinent to the topic."
5. A snarky tone in the content
Snark breeds snark. "If [a publication] is written in a really provocative or controversial way, then naturally people are going to react."
Gupta said he doesn't think a writer's controversial tone is a good excuse for a troll attack, but it does mean the site should expect and prepare for matching feedback. When a reporter at Gawker, a site known for its quippy style, complained to Gupta that cruel comments had brought some Gawker reporters to tears, Gupta retorted, "Well, the natural question is ‘how many of your writers have caused people to cry over the years?' "
"Sometimes you have to embrace that in a way, or at least accept what your tone or voice is going to yield in terms of people who [respond]," he said.
IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.
Image CC-licensed via Cali4beach on Flickr.