How UK publishers keep comment threads civil

Community managers have the unenviable task of policing publishers’ comments sections that can often turn vitriolic. Terms like “flaming,” “griefing,” “trolling” and even Godwin’s Law (the amount of time it takes for a conversation to bring up a mention of Hitler) have all entered the lexicon in recent years and, therefore, reflect how widespread the problem is.

Some news sites, like Vox, have opted to forgo user comments altogether for this very reason. YouTube star PewDiePie turned comments off due to the bile being posted beneath his videos. Other publishers, like Gawker, are taking the exact opposite approach and turning user-generated posts and comments into a core part of their business model.

Digiday asked some of the U.K.’s leading community managers how they manage to keep things civil online. Here are a few tricks of the trade:

Have a defined comment-moderation policy.
Sure, nobody like rules, but they help prevent situations where people feel wronged. If you set expectations up front, they will save a world of hurt later, according to Adam Boult, social media editor, “Having a clearly defined comment-moderation policy is key, and enforcing it consistently pays dividends,” he said. “People will often cry ‘censorship’ if a comment of theirs has been removed – but often, if you take the time to explain to them the reason for its removal, and suggest how they might put their point across in a less problematic manner, they will genuinely value the feedback and can become helpful, civil and constructive members of your community.”

Get reporters involved.
Many reporters steer clear of the comment areas. You can’t blame them since they’ll often find personal insults and trolls questioning their intelligence. Still, the key to a well-tended comment area is for writers themselves to take the lead and set a tone.

“We actively encourage journalists to get involved in conversations on the site where possible, in both comment threads around their own articles and those of others,” said Laura Oliver, U.K. social and communities editor at The Guardian. “A few years ago we conducted a study of the impact of Guardian staff getting involved early on in comment threads, and the impact was very positive, drastically reducing the need for moderation later in that thread.”

Put filtering in the hands of users.
Commenters might be the minority of visitors, but they’re often the most passionate. For that reason, they’ll want to take active control over the comment section to make sure it doesn’t become a cesspool.

“Giving an upvote helps show readers we think this is a good-quality and well-written comment,” said Ed Walker, digital development editor, Trinity Mirror Regionals. “We also use the comments box for story tips offs and reference back to them in stories, so our readers know commenting is something we reward.”

Hold people accountable.
At State, log-ins are required to leave comments. The publication can then assure itself that people will take care to protect their reputations.

“Because State handles opinions differently, we have an advantage,” said Martin Clark, head of community at State. “If you are both accountable for your opinions but know they are being considered by like-minded people, the debate should tend to a civil one.”