Tag Archives: Digital Society

Comment sections vs. Facebook

Today was a very special day. Today I handed in my master thesis in Digital Culture. I’ve been researching comments on news articles, trying to determine what is the difference between commenting on news articles on a newspapers comment section and its Facebook page. And by the end of it, I ended up creating a website where i present the research, as well as a creative work illustrating the difference between comments on the two platforms, called Comments and Platforms.

Now, after reading and researching comments for what seems like forever, I am left with a new outlook on commenting. I used to think, as many others, that comment sections were vile and horrible places, filled with racism and sexism. But this has not been my experience while researching them. I have read many comments over the past year, and read a lot about them, and I have rarely seen what I would call uncivil behavior. Now, it may be that I’ve been lucky: that the newspaper I have been studying has very civil readers (doubtful), or that its moderators are quick and effective at deleting what may be a swarm of derogatory comments. The latter is more likely, though if that was commonplace I would expect to see signs of it: weird “gaps” in a communication, like replies to comments that aren’t there.

What I have found among the thousands of comments I have read is mostly positive or neutral. There are certainly quite a few idiots writing comments on news stories, but there are also some genuinely informative comments that have shed new light on a story. And of course, there are those comments that are just entertaining to read. And even if 80-90% of the comments are pretty much useless, isn’t that also true for media in general? I’m sure that most of us scroll by most of the content presented to us on Facebook, news sites, YouTube, Spotify or wherever, only being interested in a fraction of it.

I have come to believe that comments, and the comment sections they are written in, can be quite valuable. The world wide web gives everyone a voice. But comment sections gives everyone a voice – and an audience of as much as millions of potential readers. And journalists have reported that comments have positively impacted their work in several ways, including providing enhanced critical reflection and new story leads (Graham and Wrigth 2015).

But there is a problem. Even if I haven’t seen much of it myself, uncivil behavior in comment sections do exist. And anonymity is often blamed for this – wrongly, according to my own research. So many news sites began to use a Facebook plugin to power their comment sections – requiring commenters to user their Facebook profile. And worse: it means that it’s becoming more and more common for a Facebook account to be reqired for participation in public debates.

Some news sites have decided to close their comment sections in favor of using their Facebook pages to engage with readers. This was the reason for my own research. I think it’s important to know what such a move to Facebook is doing to the democratic quality of commenting. What I found was that there is more conversations, debates, questions, arguments and informative comments on a newspaper’s comment section that its Facebook page. Comments on Facebook are shorter, more reactive, and rarely fuel discussions.

So the quality of commenting is much lower on Facebook than a newspapers comment section. But what does improve on Facebook is the spreadability of an article because of the higher number of interactions through commenting, likes and reactions – all of which are automatically shared and spread to other people. The cynical side of me is tempted to think that this is the real reason for some news sites to shift their focus to Facebook.

In the end, the question is what do we wan’t with comment sections. Do we want them to be a place for public debate? Do we want them to be a safe space? Or do we want them to be removed because they’re not really good for anything? Personally, I’m in favor of keeping and trying to improve those platforms that facilitate public debate. And what I have found is that comment sections, even with their shortcomings, are better at facilitating public debate than commenting on articles on Facebook.

 

Sources

Graham, Todd, and Scott Wright. 2015. ‘A Tale of Two Stories from “Below the Line”: Comment Fields at the Guardian’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 20, no. 3: 317-338. DOI: 10.1177/1940161215581926

 

How having more music has made me less interested in it

As Facebook is making a play for the music industry, commentators are speculating about how social media is affecting artists and music producers. Digby Pearson argues that social media is making music fans more fragmented, and that being a fan of an artist has gone from being about going to concerts to clicking “like” on Facebook. Vince Neilstein argues for social media in his article, claiming that social media has helped artists to reach more listeners (Source).

The arguments by Pearson and Neilstein are typical of the debate about music in a social media age. On the one side there are those who praise social media as a way to reach a larger audience. And on the other side there are those who think that social media belittles music by changing and simplifying the relationships between artists and fans. But reading Neilstein’s article made me think about another issue: how does the modern music industry, with Spotify as the main source of music for a lot of people, change our relationship to music as an art form? I have no answers to this question other than to reflect on how my own relationship to music has changed over the years.

 

The first music I can remember owning was a vinyl record by Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, handed down to me from my father. Later, when my childhood bedroom was updated with a CD-player, most of the music I listened to was collections: movie soundtracks and rock- and pop collections. I never had a lot of music, and some of it was bad. But I listened to the music I had again and again, until I knew most of the songs by heart. And I appreciated every song, good or bad.

When I got my first computer at age 14, at a time of dial-up modems and a painfully slow internet connection, CD’s (and occasionally a floppy disk) with Mp3 files were traded amongst my friends. I remember having a collection of about 150 Mp3 files, including rock, rap, pop and some comedy songs. Just like with my earlier CD collection, I listen to these few songs so many times I can still remember the lyrics to many of them.

As internet speeds improved, and I discovered torrent sites, my music collection started to increase. For the first time I couldn’t listen to all my music in a day. I had to start organizing my files into folders. My collection of music, although not dramatically large, became something I had to manage. And even though all the music in the world was now easily obtainable, I built a carefully selected collection of music – I only wanted to have music I liked.

From my first vinyl record to my collection of less then legally obtained music, one thing was always true: I knew my music. I knew what music I had, what I liked and I knew some of it by heart. Today, I don’t own any vinyl records. My CD collection is very limited. And I don’t have a collection of downloaded Mp3-files, because I eventually grew up and wanted to get my music legally.

 

Today I have a Spotify subscription, and all the music in the world has never been so easily available to me. But what does that mean for my relationship to music? Unlike before, I no longer know my music. In stead of CD’s or folders with Mp3 files, I now have a collection of playlists on Spotify, many of which are labeled “something something – check out later”. Ironically, I felt more of an ownership of the music I previously downloaded from torrent sites. I at least had to work for that music – I had to battle sleazy ads for magic pills and dating sites, search for and find the right files, and risk getting a computer virus or a Scientology documentary instead of music (yeah, that really happened once).

On Spotify I don’t have to do anything. And everything is there. And yet, I never feel like there’s anything to listen to (talk about a first-world problem). There’s too much music to browse through, too much to feel any kind of ownership over. And Spotify is filter-bubbling me the same music suggestions all the time, so even when I do try finding something new, it’s still the same.

Of course I enjoy Spotify, and I’m not going to end my subscription anytime soon. But I can’t help feeling that, with the massive music library Spotify offers, something has been lost. And yes, I am spoiled – complaining about too much and too easy to find music. I guess if I have to find some sort of moral to this rambling, it’s that the more you have of something, the less it is worth.

Can news papers create better comment sections through social influence?

It’s an almost established truth that comment sections on news papers are filled with trolls that write hateful and hurtful comments. In my own research, I have been reading dozens of comment sections. And I must say that I don’t recognize this description. In fact, I have seen very few hateful or hurtful comments. This could be because the moderators on the news paper I am studying are doing a good job, or that trolls simply do not comment here.

But of course, I know that trolls are out there and that their commenting is a problem. And while I haven’t seen much of this myself, I have observed a lot of meaningless comments that do not add to the informed discussion that comment sections should be.

So, if we want comment sections to be a place for discussion, sharing of informed opinions and argumentation, what can the news papers do? Moderators is not the answer. They can delete comments that violate community guidelines, but not much else. And you don’t have to brake any guidelines to post a comment that does not contribute to a good discussion.

 

An answer may be found in the importance of social influence, specifically indirect social influence. This is the phenomenon where a person’s opinions and behavior is affected by the information about other people’s action (Cheng et al. 2015, 2). What this means is that people, especially when they are uncertain about a situation, look to other people to find clues about how to act. Cheng et al. found that users of an online bulletin board were affected by indirect social influence. The users conformed to trends in the bulleting board by adopting both positive and negative information.

So how can the effects of indirect social influence be used to better comment sections? In his book, Net Smart, Howard Rheingold writes about virtual community organizers, and compares them to party organizers: “You don’t automatically throw a great party by hiring a room and buying some beer.” (Rheingold 2012, 165). On news paper comment sections, the news papers them selves are the community organizers. And they have “thrown parties”, or created the platforms, by setting up the technical possibility of commenting on articles. But Rheingold writes that the party organizers also needs to “invite an interesting mix of people, greet them at the door, make introductions, start conversations, avert fisticuffs…”

As community organizers, the news papers could potentially better the quality of commenting by being good party organizers. They could set the tone of the discussion by starting the conversation with a well thought-through question to prompt some informed replies in the first comments. And if Cheng’s findings about indirect social influence are correct, this might be enough for later commentators to conform to an established intelligent conversation.

I don’t know if this idea would work, and of course: trolls don’t conform to anything positive (which is where the moderators come in). But I would love to see this at least being tried by a news paper. I’m sure plenty of news papers already start comment sections by writing a generic question like “What do you think?”, or “Are you happy with the election results?”. But I would like to see the journalist ask a more thoughtful question based on unresolved issues in the article, one that forces any potential commentator to stop for a few seconds to think.

Again: I don’t know if it would work, but I think it’s worth trying.

 

References

Cheng Shu-li, Wen-hsien Lin, Frederick Kin Hing Phoa, Jing-shiang Hwang, and Wi-chung Liu. 2015. “Analysing the Unequal Effects of Positive and Negative Information on the Behavior of Users of a Taiwanese On-Line Bulleting Board”. Plos One 10, no. 9. Accessed May 7, 2017. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137842

Rheingold, Howard. 2012. Net Smart: How to thrive online. Camridge: MIT Press

Fake News: When Crap Detection Backfires

In chapter 2 of his book, “Net Smarts: How to thrive online”, Howard Rheingold presents us with a few tools to detect crap online, such as incorrect information and false news reports (Rheingold 2012, 78-79). These tools include:

Look for an author. Professional journalists tend to “sign” their articles. Articles that are false, however, tend to be signed by the “News paper” publishing them, or not at all. This makes sense, because most people would not want to sign an article intended to spread false information. But that does not mean that unsigned articles are false – I myself have written technology articles that were not signed by myself, but for whatever reason were published (by myself as editor) without any information about the author.

Look for and evaluate sources. It is important to ask where the author has his or her sources from. If there are none, it does not speak well for the authenticity of the article. But having sources doesn’t automatically mean that the information is correct. Non-serious articles tend to be read by and influenced by like minded individuals who use each other as sources. It reminds me of the “historians” who write about the ancient aliens-hypothesis about aliens visiting ancient cultures, who are all publishing articles and books citing each other’s articles and books in a never-ending circular dance of affirming each other’s points of view.

Look for an owner. If there is no sign of an owner or publisher of the article other than the name of the website itself, there is a good chance the site is not serious. There should also be some contact information. Rheingold mentions the existence of a comment section as a sign of a website being serious. I personally disagree with this point, for two reasons: 1) Plenty of serious websites do not have comment sections, and several serious news websites have over the past few years closed down their comment sections (Ricardo 2014; Clothilde 2016). 2) Plenty of non-serious websites do have comment sections, because this might add to the website traffic.

Look for design flaws and grammatical errors. An amateurish design would indicate a non-serious publisher. The problem with this statement is that it’s becoming increasingly easy for people who know little or no coding to create a professional looking website using, for example, WordPress. I have myself created a news website using WordPress, and it would not be a problem to create one that looks like what one might expect from a professional news organization. Grammatical errors – especially if they are often occurring and obvious – is something that should be taken into consideration when trying to judge the credibility of a website.

Look for what other people think of the website. Who are the people linking to the website? And what are other people online saying about it? I personally find it challenging to judge the validity and seriousness of a website based on what other people think, which is something I will explore in the following section.

Fake News

The most popular election story of 2016 was a false news story.

During the 2016 Presidential Election, the phrase “fake news” became a very popular term. The election saw a new level of false news articles, with 17 of the 20 most popular of them being directed towards the democratic candidate (Silverman 2016). An unprecedented crap detecting operation was undertaken by journalists, and to some degree social media giants such as Facebook (although, not nearly enough). This lead to more awareness surrounding the problem of false news stories, and their potential impact on society – which sounds like a good thing. But is it?

At the time I remember thinking that the awareness of the fake news-phenomenon could easily backfire because of what psychologists have named the Confirmation Bias. This refers to the tendency of people to embrace information that confirms to their established beliefs, while rejecting or ignoring opposing information (Heshmat 2015). This is a purely psychological phenomenon which was discovered long before we became connected to the Internet. So this is how the mind works and process information even before we bring concepts such as the filter bubble and echo chambers into the discussion.

When the term “fake news” became popular, I feared that this would make it easier to fall victim to the effects of confirmation bias. Rejecting and ignoring information that opposes our established beliefs can create a situation of cognitive dissonance, where our actions (believing in X) is contradictory to newly received information (X is wrong). The term “fake news” gives us an easy way to resolve this conflict (the people reporting that X is wrong are lying).

Of course, thinking that people are lying about information that one doesn’t agree with is nothing new. But as the term “fake news” becomes mainstream, it becomes easier to use. And we have seen the effects of this over the past year. The term, which was originally meant to be a description of falsified news stories, have become a standardized response to critical news stories. We see this in President Trump’s response critical journalists, and I have seen it several times during the current Norwegian election – by politicians and voters on both sides.

It is a worrying development. Politicians, and their voters, should be allowed to say that they disagree with news articles, even say that they are wrong. But there is a big difference between “This article is wrong” and “This article is fake”. Fake means wrong by design – an intended action to mislead. And if we start to convince ourselves that some news articles by a news paper are faked, then the whole news paper becomes untrustworthy. And if all we are left with are the few news papers not being critical about the things we believe in, we will be so trapped in our own echo chambers that the very thought of new and opposing information becomes an alien concept. And if that happens, crap detection becomes unnecessary – because we believe that we have already eliminated the crappy news papers – which just so happens to be the ones that we don’t agree with.

 

Sources

Bilton, Ricardo. 2014. “Why some publishers are killing their comment sections” Digiday UK, April 14. Accessed May 8, 2017.http://digiday.com/media/comments-sections/
Goujard, Clothilde. 2016. “Why news websites are closing their comments sections.” Medium, September 8. Accessed May 7, 2017
https://medium.com/global-editors-network/why-news-websites-are-closing-their-comments-sections-ea31139c469d
Heshmat, Shahram. 2015. “What Is Confirmation Bias” Psychology Today, April 23. Accessed September 4, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias
Rheingold, Howard. 2012. Net Smart: How to thrive online. Camridge: MIT Press
Silverman, Craig. 2016. “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook” Buzzfeed News, November 16. Accessed September 4, 2017.                        https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.ciAa8gO1xz#.akxjNlR845