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.
Were they surprised----really? What else could one expect, especially as there was no attempt to moderste the forum or to make the posters fully identify themselves----I presume.
Ed got it right; ... unmoderated comments that allow anonymity are an invitation to chaos. It puzzles me that this very simple lesson has not been learned by all news websites.
I've been fortunate enough to have been taught the basics by those who essentially invented online community forums and guidelines, dating back to The Well. A well-run comments section can be an extremely valuable tool for any website, but the emphasis is on "well-run."
Comments that are left in the wild west mode will drive the "good guys" away, in a hurry. Conversely, a peaceful comments section will often be more popular and more valuable than the content of the site itself. But nothing in life is free, as usual. Good moderation takes an intelligent and ever-watchful hand. A good legal department is also a big help.
Too bad. We have enough one-sided media services already. AJ was one of my favorites. Without comments, I marked it as spam. The free press should belong to the people and not just a handful of reporters.
Richard Price; ... you are my new hero. You put it exactly right. "One-sided media" is a disease we cannot afford to let run rampant, especially now that we have an internet that should allow us to voice our opinions; emphasis on "should."
But (a big but) we cannot discuss the shutting-down of forums without pointing a finger at the very concerted, and directed efforts of the Far Right to invade and disrupt such sites. This is not a guess nor is it some crazed conjecture; ... I've seen it, first hand. I've had long conversations with both hired and volunteer alt-right trolls (human ones), and I've been on the receiving end of a number of attempts to have me join them, before "they" realized I was essentially trolling them.
And the truly depressing part of it all is that their efforts are working very well.
I think another important aspect to remember is that a lot of commenting has migrated to social platforms. For example, if AJ posts a story on Facebook or Twitter, readers will comment and discuss the story there. I think it allows for discussion, and the publisher doesn't have to be responsible for moderating comments on their own site.
Sara: There are problems with relying on a third-party comment site such as Facebook for user comments. Some people who would like to comment on an article have very real concerns about the way Facebook harvests user information, as well as how easily trolls and doxxers can access personal information about the person commenting on FB.
Another drawback is that adding any extra steps to the commenting process often practically eliminates commenting. I've seen this happen at a number of sites who enjoyed very lively reader interaction, right up until they switched to only allowing Facebook comments, at which point the comments all but stopped. In fact, this switching method is recommended to sites who want to slow down discussion, while appearing to still be open to it.
Good points, Chuck. Really interesting came out recently about this exact subject. It makes the point that commenters on O&O site actually support three important things to publishers: number of views, time spent on a page, and the loyalty of the audience.
"Who spends the most time on the page? People reading comments after the article and engaging in the discussion. Who creates multiple page views? Commenters who return to reply to conversations they’re involved in. Who are the most loyal audience members? Almost certainly your commenters."
Sara: Thanks for that link.