Comments on Facebook
In the last decade there have been many attempts at cleaning up the comment sections. Employing moderators is one popular, but expensive, solution for larger news sites. Some sites, such as stack overflow, have tried using meta-moderation, where users moderate each other. But this system has been criticized because it often allows for a group of moderators to abuse their power. Similar criticisms have been made about comment systems where users can rate each other’s comments (Reagle 2015, 7-8). Registration systems where users have to register with their real name has been shown to reduce the number of unwanted comments (Gonçalves 2015, 3), but at the expense of anonymity – which might raise the bar for participation. Systems such as the integrated Facebook commenting system also raise concerns about privacy (Reagle 2015 8-9) – not to mention the fact that it may lead to a future where a Facebook account is a requirement for public participation.
Over the past few years, more and more newspapers and websites have closed down their comment sections, citing bad behavior by commenters and spam as reasons for doing so. The Chicago Sun-Times closed their comment sections in 2014, and the newspaper’s managing director said at the time that “There’s got to be a better place we can offer people to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.” (Bilton 2014). Several news sites have closed their comment sections and are instead making an effort to use their Facebook pages for public debate and interaction with the readers. Popular Science, claiming that comments are bad for science, closed their comment sections in 2013 (Bilton 2014), followed by Reuters, The Week, The Verge and USA Today (Ellis 2015). Some news sites, like CNN, don’t close their comment sections, but makes commenting impossible on some or most of their articles (Finley 2015). And some newly opened online news sites, like Quartz and Vox, have decided not to implement commenting from the start (Bilton 2014).
In Norway, Dagbladet, one of the country’s largest newspapers, closed down its comment sections in 2016. The reason given by the newspaper was that they wanted to have the staff members responsible for moderating the comment sections working with social media instead, because there is more user activity there. At the time about 3000 active users contributed to the discussions in the comment sections each month. But on Dagbladet’s two Facebook accounts, Dagbladet.no and Dagbladet meninger, they receive as much as 6-7000 daily comments (Ramnefjell 2016).
The ability to comment on articles has become an expectation for a lot of people, and Finley (2015) called comment boxes a staple of the online experience when questioning why so many of them were closing. It is important to note that comment sections do not appear to be in any immediate danger of becoming extinct, as 82% of newspaper managers and editors reported that they were unlikely to close comment sections (Stroud, Muddiman and Scacco 2016, 2). But as we have seen, in the past years a growing number of news sites are closing their comment sections and forcing public debate to be moved to Facebook. This creates a situation where newspapers have less control over any public debates that their articles spark. They cannot do anything to control the design and labels of the comment input sections, the level of anonymity of the commenters, or how the comments are being presented. And it creates a privacy concern, as news sites will no longer be able to control the was private information about the commenters are being used. Also, if we are to make Facebook the arena of public debate and commenting on articles, it is important to know what this does with the quality of commenting. Even if such a move were to lower the number of derogatory comments, it is important to know what else it changes, so that we can ask ourselves an important question: is it worth it? And in order to answer that question, we need more information about the difference between comments on a news sites comment sections and Facebook.