Can we make comments sections great again?

Philly.com's comment section has been a bare-knuckle space since news stories first went online. But this election cycle, it's felt more like a combat zone.

WILLIAM HEANEY, a retired Philadelphia police detective, is a polite conversationalist on the phone. Gracious, even.

But when Heaney goes by "Harbo" in the comment section of Philly.com, he shares his opinions on the superiority of the white race.

"What can Puerto Rican people point to with pride in Philadelphia that they built or achieved? Same thing with black people," Heaney, 73, wrote last month on a column by Helen Ubiñas, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

Two weeks later under a column about President Obama written by Jenice Armstrong, who is black, Harbo wrote:

"Where can we visit black African achievement? I lived in Philadelphia and know it well, and slaves were free here well over 200 years, some over 300 years, what have they wrought?"

You get the idea.

Comment sections have been a bare-knuckle space since news stories first went online. But this election cycle, they've felt more like a combat zone.

Tell us: What you love and hate about comments sections

Many are dominated by anonymous trolls who treat them like the digital equivalent of a rest-stop bathroom stall waiting to be defaced.

Women are the most-frequent targets, according to a study published by the Guardian in April that analyzed 70 million comments left on the British news organization's site since 2006. Eight of the 10 most abused writers were women. The two men were black.

Last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced a plan to crack down on the "most toxic users" in a Trump forum that has featured abusive comments, fake news, and racism.

"Since Trump it has escalated," Ubiñas said. "People we always joked were probably living in their mother's basements while writing this are now making us frighteningly aware that they are everywhere."

Recent comments posted to an Armstrong column about the election of Donald Trump were so abusive that black male readers volunteered to act as her security team during public events.

"They were concerned about my safety based on what they read online," Armstrong said.

So where do we go from here?

Can comment sections survive in the hyperpartisan Trump era? Or should more news organizations pull the plug like NPR, Reuters, Popular Science, and others that have disabled comments?

"I'm all for shutting it down," said Anita M. Samuels, author of the book Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got a Monopoly on Commenting About News Online. "I understand the tenets of free speech, but it's gotten so out of hand."

Samuels, who has written for the New York Daily News, collected comments between 2008 and 2015 as "editors were just being blindsided by this groundswell of racism."

"I never wanted to read the comments, and one day I did it and was sorry that I did," Samuels said. "I really started immersing myself in online comments and it was horrible. I was depressed."

Many experts and web-savvy journalists say news organizations should double down on improving comment sections with new technology and stricter moderation and by asking specific questions that shape the feedback.

"There is a powerful and compelling argument for how conversation and community needs to become part of journalistic practice," said Andrew Losowsky, of the Coral Project, a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, New York Times, and Washington Post connecting journalists and communities online.

"The current tools allow a very small amount of people to dominate and create an unpleasant atmosphere that no one wants to be in," he said.

Losowsky's group is working to break the cycle, so abusive comments are no longer able to rise to the top through a voting system that can be gamed.

Tell us: What you love and hate about comments sections

Journalists who adopt a don't-read-the-comments approach risk widening the divide with readers.

"It's a vicious cycle," Losowsky said. "Comments are terrible because people are not policing, which makes comments terrible."

Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, said journalist participation and moderation can help clean up comment sections, but connecting with the audience earlier in the story process could be the future of journalism.

"One problem with comment sections is they only bring readers in at the end of the journalism process," he said. "The story is done, the reporter is done thinking about it and talking about it, and we let readers react."

Sonderman said he was optimistic about groups like Hearken that seek to engage readers during the reporting of a story.

The mobile-first news platform Billy Penn launched in Philadelphia in October 2014 without a comment section, intentionally outsourcing reader feedback to Twitter and Facebook.

"If you let people be anonymous idiots on the internet, they will be," said Billy Penn's editor, Chris Krewson. "I've lived through comments at a bunch of different places, local and national, and I've seen far more awful than good."

Krewson recalled being "deluged with the worst comments I've ever seen" when news sites he had run got an external link from the right-wing Drudge Report.

Abusive responses below an article can steamroll into more negative comments, which can cause readers to doubt or misunderstand the article itself, studies have shown. But well-moderated comment sections can thrive - and surface talent.

Yoni Applebaum, the Atlantic's politics editor and Washington bureau chief, first came to the magazine's attention by commenting on writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog.

"I've seen comment sections do remarkable things, develop a community of people that can engage constructively with each other," he said.

Applebaum said Coates' blog was successful because he responded to readers and policed it himself. But self-moderating can become difficult or impossible once the comments get into the hundreds or thousands.

Kevin Coe, who coauthored a 2014 study funded by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, said about one in five comments they analyzed included some form of incivility. And it wasn't just a handful of trolls, he said, but also infrequent commenters who got caught up in the moment.

"You can look at it as 20 percent have incivility. But 80 percent don't," said Coe, a University of Utah communications professor. "There are plenty of people making comments that are perfectly civil."

Coe said news organizations can cleanse comments by banning anonymous users. Although that isn't a cure-all, either, research has shown.

"I always want to err on the side of more speech," Coe said. "That's not always possible, but if we can find ways to make that discourse meaningful, I think it's worth saving."

Christine Flowers, a lawyer and columnist for the Daily News, said some of her commenters have "always been pretty hostile," with the repeat offenders starting new accounts when they get banned.

"Once, I had someone suggest I should be raped," she said.

But, Flowers said, other commenters have left constructive feedback and grist for future columns. She doesn't want to see comment sections die off.

"I'm really not happy with this whole safe space idea," she said.

Philly.com asks readers to remain on topic and treat one another with respect, but it reserves the right to remove inappropriate comments. Commenters can click a "Report abuse" button if they see an objectionable post.

Marie Shanahan, a University of Connecticut journalism professor who has studied online commenting, said news organizations need to find ways to push thoughtful comments to the top and recognize points of consensus, while efficiently filtering out trolls. That will likely require new technology but also hiring more moderators, she said.

"We need some smart people to realize how subversive humans are, and to temper that subversiveness so we can do something constructive," Shanahan said.

Until the industry solves the problem, she said, "it's a horror show down there."

As for Heaney, aka "Harbo," he hopes comment sections remain open.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I like reading the others' opinions. Some of it is nonsense."

Before hanging up, Heaney asked: "Pizzagate. What do you think of it? I think it's legitimate."

Tell us: What you love and hate about comments sections

benderw@phillynews.com
215-854-5255
@wbender99

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