Al Jazeera English announced Thursday it is disabling the comments section on aljazeera.com, joining a number of media outlets that have found the feature to be nothing more than a nuisance and a drain of resources.
In a Medium post, the Qatar-based media company said it had hoped comments on the site would “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.”
Instead, Al Jazeera found the comments section “was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent.”
And that’s a big problem.
The blanket of anonymity and lack of face-to-face interaction seems to bring out the worst in people when they comment on articles. Conversations devolve into “I know better than you because (insert one-time experience here),” while the dreaded trolls spew political propaganda slogans or conspiracy theories. (Cue the “I won’t respect anything you say because you voted for a Muslim president born in Kenya.”)
In July, MSN temporarily removed commenting on its sites to block “abusive and offensive posts,” according to iMediaEthics, joining sites like The Daily Beast, Mic, Reuters and the Chicago Sun-Times.
What publisher wants to be a platform for hurtful comments and hateful speech, especially when protests like the one in Charlottesville underscore just how divided our country is?
Al Jazeera said “healthy discussion” is an important part of its mission, but now encourages its readers to engage in conversation on social media, which it finds “the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them.”
In addition, Al Jazeera did not want to waste resources on moderating the comments section, noting it would rather dedicate its engineering and editorial teams to building “new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.”
Just last week, NPR celebrated one year of going comments-free. It found only a small portion of its visitors were commenting on articles — and NPR didn't suffer from the decision.
The NPR site has grown since — the number of users for the May-to-July period grew 18% in 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier, interim managing editor for digital news Sara Kehualani Goo told NPR ombudsmen Elizabeth Jensen, citing Google Analytics data.
And Al Jazeera is right about one thing — readers are sharing their opinions on social media. Facebook comments for NPR posts were up year-over-year, reaching a high of 700,000 in January — though Jensen notes Goo cannot say if that number is due to commenters migrating to Facebook because NPR.org removed the feature. Or, because of what happened in January — the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration," according to President Trump's former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Now, the empty space left by the former comments section is dedicated to podcast and newsletter signups, which Goo says has grown by 100,000 and 500,000, respectively. There may be a future in determining how to encourage healthy discussions online.
For his next project, Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, who was sued into bankruptcy, wants to build internet forums to foster online communities and public conversations.