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May 19 2011

18:45

In Lithuania, an Overdue Crackdown on Online Hate Speech

Online hate speech is becoming more and more widespread in Lithuania and until recently, comments like, "The world needs Hitler again to do the cleansing job," which was posted on a website called Delfi, or "Expel dirty Roma people out of Lithuania" would have gone unheeded by criminal justice.

"Although the Lithuanian Criminal Codex includes sufficient law provisions to prosecute instigators of hate and enmity, these provisions have been largely ignored by criminal judges," Vitoldas Maslauskas, former Vilnius County prosecutor, said last month.

Most law enforcement officials, Maslauskas said, ranging from high-level prosecutors to ordinary investigators, turn a blind eye to the practice of web hate speech for one simple reason: Criminal judges are swamped under real-life infringements and don't have time to chase down Internet bashers who, as a result, go untouched online.

Combatting Hate Speech

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One non-governmental organization though, the Tolerant Youth Association (TJA), is slowly but surely helping to harness the hate speech, with and without help from criminal justice.

"Although we have been actively carrying out various tolerance-inducing projects since the establishment of our association in 2005, it is only in recent years that we have been fighting against the practice of online hate speech," said Arturas Rudomanskis, chairman of TJA.

The association has initiated 58 pre-trial investigations this year into cases instigating hate and enmity: "It represents a rise of nearly double compared to last year's figure of 30-plus-something cases," Rudomanskis said.

"Until last year, we would pinpoint online hate-mongers to prosecutors. This year, however, we changed our tactics by creating an autonomous system allowing people to file complaints against online bashers directly to the prosecutor's office. This has undoubtedly worked out well, as conscious people extensively report hate cases to prosecutors," Rudomanskis said.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tolerant Youth Association, the online slanderers mentioned at the beginning of this article have been traced, prosecuted and punished.

Only a few years ago, it is likely that they would have escaped the law.

Bringing online slanderers to justice

The man instigating hate against Roma people turned out to be a 28-year-old manager of a company in the city of Utena in northeast Lithuania.

The District Court of Utena ruled that the man incited hate against Roma people and instigated to discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity. In his affidavit, the manager admitted the wrongdoing and justified his act by arguing that he had only voiced his opinion. He received a fine of LTL 1,300, which is roughly the equivalent of $535.

In such cases, local courts often seize the offenders' computers as the tools of crime. However, the Utena District Court decided not to confiscate the manager's computer.

Zamzickiene.jpg

A 36-year-old inhabitant of the town of Anyksciai, who had urged to have "all gays" slain in an online response to an article about the first-ever Lithuanian gay pride parade, whimpered at the District Court of Anyksciai, explaining that he had merely intended to express his discontent against the gay march.

The judge was not impressed and punished him with a fine of nearly 400 euros ($570). District prosecutor Vigandas Jurevicius admitted the case was the first of its kind in his career.

"I launched the investigation following a complaint by the Tolerant Youth Association. To be honest, had it not been for the complaint, I would have not sought prosecution, as it is simply impossible to keep track of the post flow on the Internet," the prosecutor acknowledged.

Just starting the fight

In the meantime, TJA chairman Arturas Rudomanskis notes that the number of Internet surfers who report online slanderers is increasing and calls for a "more substantial" involvement of Lithuanian criminal justices against online hate speech.

"Actually, we have just started the fight," he said. "We are far away from seeing any major breakthrough just yet. However, I see much more support in Lithuanian society and in the media for online perpetrators of hate to be addressed in full force by the law."

According to Rudomanskis, online hate speech cases that reach court break down as follows: 70 percent of the cases are related to hate against homosexuals, and the rest is equally split between anti-Semitic and xenophobic abuse.

"Obviously, Lithuania remains one of the most homophobic countries in the European Union. This is directly reflected in Internet posts," Rudomanskis said.

TJA has succeeded in shutting down a gay hate-laden website set up by a member of an ultranationalist Lithuanian organization, as well as its Facebook page filled with anti-gay slurs.

The role of journalists in tackling online hate

"We have to admit that there are many angry people in Lithuania," said Zita Zamzickiene, the Lithuanian ombudsman for Journalism Ethics. "This is partly due to our recent heritage that goes back to the Soviet era. Homosexuals and ethnic minorities, unfortunately, fall in the category of people who most often become a punching bag. We can tackle the intolerance by educating our people and carrying out prevention programs."

Obviously, Lithuanian journalists can play a key role in curbing Internet slanderers by educating the population and promoting universal human values such as tolerance. For a small country like Lithuania that is still suffering from the post-Soviet syndrome, it may be an issue of utmost priority.

Linas Jegelevicius, 40, Lithuanian, obtained his master's degree in journalism at the Vilnius University Institute of Journalism. Between 1994 and 2004, he lived in New York and Miami, where he contributed to the Miami newspaper Wire. From 2001 until 2003, he edited and published his own newspaper, South Beach AXIS. Jegelevicius currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas, in the resort town of Palanga in the west of Lithuania. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times and Ooskanews.com. He has published two books, and his interests include politics, economics, journalism, literature, the English language (particularly urban English), psychology, traveling and human rights.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

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Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

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Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

April 20 2011

14:00

The writing on the wall: Why news organizations are turning to outside moderators for help with comments

When a news organization decides to have someone else to deal with their online comments, it’s sometimes seen as waving the white flag or the equivalent of dumping a problem child at a boarding school. (And that’s before the word “outsourcing” starts getting thrown around.) But look at it from the angle of time and resources in a newsroom: Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?

It’s straightforward arithmetic, though somewhat slanted depending on the value you place on comments (i.e., whether you think they contribute to your site) and whether you have money. To borrow a line from The A-Team, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…comment moderators.”

Most recently, The Boston Globe joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in, as the name hints, moderating online content. The sacrifice in going outside is giving up the hands-on approach to building online community — but some news orgs probably don’t want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool.

Keith Bilous, ICUC’s president, says hiring outside help with comments not only frees up newsroom resources, but also makes outlets consider what they want out of comments. “The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of ‘let’s just get as much comments as we can,’” Bilous told me.

Defining the goals of comments

And that’s because the first order of business when you hire a company like ICUC is to layout your commenting guidelines and procedures — essentially what Bilous calls “the Bible to how we manage the content and community.” While this is a necessary step for ICUC’s moderators to know what’s fair or foul, it’s also a chance to clarify why to have comments and what role they play on a site, he said. There’s a need to guard against slander or libel in your comment threads, not to mention the ever-swelling and always creative list of naughty words — but beyond that things start to vary.

“Moderating for the CBC is different than moderating for The Boston Globe or The San Francisco Chronicle,” he said. “They’re all very unique in the way their content is managed.”

One area where sites diverge is on whether to moderate comments before or after being published. There’s a case to be made for both approaches — the idea of honoring the audience’s ability to have their say immediately versus the ability to carefully tend the garden as it grows. Bilous argues either can work.

“Look at TSN, by volume of comments that come to the TSN website and CBC site — which are through the freakin’ roof frankly — they’re all pre-moderated and going up every month,” he said.

If there’s a more pressing question news sites should be dealing with, it’s knowing when to throw the off switch on comments. Not in the “Christmas is canceled” way, but in the “maybe this isn’t the best story to include comments on” way. Bilous calls it “situational comments,” because he’s seeing more sites become selective with what stories they’ll allow comments on. A number of newspapers, like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, automatically turn off comments on stories about topics like suicide, race, or gay rights. The challenge for editors, Bilou said, is knowing when stories can lead to useful community discussion and when they’ll descend into chaos.

With that in mind, Bilous has three pieces of advice for editors and managers to consider about comments: Be transparent about your policy and decisions. Always be willing to ask if comments are needed on an individual story. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to take a hit if bad things are said about your publication.

“We’re never going back to a web that is static, as in ‘here is a story no one can comment on,’” he said. “The audience is only being encouraged and conditioned to participate.”

March 02 2011

17:20

Facebook Pushes Comments Upgrade, But Will Publishers Bite?

Bit by bit, feature by feature, Facebook is making inroads into sites that live outside of Facebook.com. Major publishers now sprinkle their sites with Facebook plug-ins, from fan page widgets to friend recommendations to the ubiquitous "Like" thumbs-up. And hey, why not? It's a win-win, with publishers getting more engagement and increased traffic from Facebook News Feeds, and Facebook getting more embedded in more of the web.

So it is not a bit surprising that along comes a Facebook Comments plug-in upgrade, offering added moderation for comments on publishers' sites with these very nifty features:

> Simple upgrade: Publishers only need to add one line of code to their site for the new comments box.

> Enhanced moderation: Publishers get control to make specific comments private (only seen by the commenter and their friends); or publishers can delete comments and blacklist users.

> Commenting in the News Feed: Users can now share the comments they've made on publishers' sites in their Facebook News Feed; their friends' comments on the News Feed update are automatically posted back to the publishers' sites.

The last feature is perhaps the most important viral/social element of the Comments system -- the chance to get comments to reach beyond a website and into the Facebook social stream and bounce back to the website itself. That kind of easy sharing was missing from comments previously.

So, for instance, when I posted a comment on the Facebook blog, I made sure to share it with my News Feed on Facebook, as you can see here:

comment on news feed.jpg

And then, when Jen Lee Reeves and I commented on that comment on my News Feed, our comments were posted both on the News Feed, as seen above, and on the original Facebook blog post, as seen here:

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Plus, there's the much vaunted advantage of making people comment with their real names and affiliations showing, cutting down on trolls and ne'erdowells. (At least, that's the hope -- until they figure out a way to create fake Facebook accounts and return with their invective flowing.)

The new Comments upgrade was announced yesterday, with publishers such as Sporting News, Examiner.com and Discovery jumping on board (and TechCrunch is trying a test as well). According to a discussion summary at Quora, the pros of Facebook Comments on TechCrunch so far are real identities, while the cons are loss of anonymous comments by people who are uncomfortable saying who they are. And more troubling is that you can't log in to Facebook Comments with Twitter or Google.

I spoke to Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky yesterday to do a quick interview about the release of the upgraded Comments. Below is the full audio interview, and the edited transcript of that call, including one interjection by Facebook spokesperson Jillian Carroll.

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Q&A

What was your overarching goal with the update of Comments?

Justin Osofsky: We're always working to iterate on our products, and this update is a natural evolution of our existing plug-in, which we first launched in February 2009. Over the past couple years, we worked really closely with partners, and listen to their feedback all the time. One of the consistent themes we heard related to Comments was that partners wanted a system with great moderation, which led to a quality discussion on their site and provided great distribution. That was the spirit behind the product we released today as an upgrade.

My team works with media partners, and listens to their feedback and helps them understand how to use Facebook's tools to derive value for their business. In regards to Comments, we heard two themes from [publishers] outside of moderation. One is they use Facebook as a distribution platform. Comments offer a great opportunity to get distribution. Users can easily share their comments back to Facebook; the average user on Facebook has 130 friends, so they can extend the conversation around the web.

The other theme we heard from partners is that they really wanted a quality conversation around their content. They cared more about quality than quantity. And as the number of blogs and content sites we visit every day grows, it should be easy to see the highest quality comments first -- based on feedback from your friends and the rankings from other readers.

Many people have said, including social media power user Robert Scoble, that they like the new Comments feature because it will lead to more civilized discourse because people have their names associated with comments. But I've seen the opposite on well trafficked Facebook pages because people can punch in their comments so easily without having to register first. Sometimes they will throw things out quicker than they should.

Osofsky: We think we can facilitate a higher quality conversation. The Comments plug-in makes commenting online more like having a conversation in the real world by leveraging authentic and persistent identities to create more quality and meaningful dialogue across the web. We think that will lead to a higher quality conversation when it's your real identity and you're representing your real self in the comments you're making.

How have you seen publishers adopting the new Comments plug-in? Are they using just Facebook Comments on stories, or using other types of commenting systems as well?

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Osofsky: We're seeing a lot of publishers who adopted Facebook's commenting system as the exclusive commenting system on their site. Sites like SportingNews.com and Discovery Communication and SBNation launched with Facebook Comments today.

You allow either Facebook or Yahoo log-ins now to comment on these sites. Where are you at with allowing people to use Google or Twitter log-ins?

Osofsky: As part of the update, we added Yahoo as a third-party log-in and we hope to add additional major providers in the future. We're always looking for ways to improve the product and add more flexibility for partners, but we have nothing further to announce today.

Who do you see as the main competition for your Comments plug-in? Do you think there's a way for you to co-exist with established players like Disqus (used on MediaShift), Echo, and others?

Osofsky: When we develop products, we focus on meeting the needs of our users and developers in creating really good solutions. Basically, this release is based on feedback from users and developers and partners. We plan on continuing to iterate on it, but we think that the greater moderation that's built into this product, the distribution of reaching Facebook's more than 500 million users, the higher engagement through the conversations -- threading on both the publisher's site and on Facebook itself -- and the quality makes us a really compelling product for publishers.

One of the features that's interesting is that when you see someone's comment, a friend of yours, on your News Feed on Facebook, you can respond to it, with the comment going back on the third party site. Do you think that might take people a little while to get used to?

Osofsky: I think users will understand the natural conversation. What's cool about this product is the most interesting content on Facebook is the stuff I discover through my friends. Over 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It's a way to find content through friends and other people.

What the commenting system enables now is -- when I am commenting on an article on, say, MediaShift -- I immediately have social context and the opinion of my friend that is being delivered on whatever the article is on your site. From that, I think there's a very natural discussion that takes place that's unified on both sites. So users will see that lead to a richer, authentic dialogue on publishers' sites and on Facebook.

One thing I'd like to see is all the conversations happening about an article all over the web in one place. And Facebook has FriendFeed, which does that a little bit. Can you see sometime down the road that this might be a unified comment system that brings together comments from other sites too? So you'd see them all in your Facebook News Feed?

Osofsky: We see the News Feed as a way of discovering content from your friends. So if I comment on an article on the Sporting News and Discover and the Examiner, my friends can now see it on their News Feed. So it's a great way to discover the conversations that are happening among the friends you are most interested in.

But as far as being an aggregator of comments from other systems, you don't see that happening at some point?

Osofsky: No. The News Feed will always be a good way to make social discovery of content, but that's the way we view it. You go to Facebook to find out what your friends like. When you show up to Facebook.com and I show up to Facebook.com -- even though we typed in an identical URL -- we're having fundamentally different experiences because we have different friends and different interests, and they are sharing different things about their lives and from publisher sites. That's the experience that will continue on Facebook.

When I look in my Facebook News Feed I can see when people connect their tweets to their status updates. So I am seeing things from other services outside of Facebook. That's why I'm wondering whether other comments could be brought into the News Feed like that.

Osofsky: When we launched the platform in 2007, we basically opened it up for developers to allow people to connect with the things they care most about, and the entities they care most about -- whether it's a sports team, whether it's a celebrity. And because of that, I think that Facebook is a great way to find things in your life, and that's the way that Facebook works, and that's the way it's going to continue to work going forward.

When you talk about comment moderation, you said comments from friends and top-rated comments would rise to the top. Some comment systems have a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." Will you continue to have just the thumbs up or would you consider a thumbs down as well?

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Osofsky: We will listen to feedback on how to best surface the best and most relevant comments. We have no immediate plans to change what we launched today. But essentially we want users to see a really quality conversation, and we think the way you do it is you first see the comments from your friends and then the comments ranked highly from other readers on a publisher's site.

There is a way to block comments that you don't like, or report them?

Osofsky: As you're reading, you can mark comments as spam or report them as being abusive.

And it's up to the publisher to decide what to do with those reports?

Osofsky: We will naturally surface the most highly ranked comments, those will be the ones you'll see more than other comments. And we also give moderation controls to publishers. Based on their feedback, we added a lot of moderation controls as well as "blacklist" controls so website administrators can control the visibility of a comment from making it private [i.e., only shown to the commenter and their friends] to hiding it completely. Or they they can block content or specific words -- such as foul language and spam -- all from their own moderation dashboard.

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Will a reader see a highly rated comment above their friends' comments or which one comes first? And can the publisher adjust that?

Osofsky: Each individual reader that goes to a publisher's site, on the site, they would see a different view. Just like you or I have different friends, from that, what you see in a comments box and I see would be different. The publisher has an administrative dashboard that also shows the comments that are being made on their site.

So which would be ranked higher, the friends' comments or the ones ranked high by readers?

Osofsky: The product seeks to surface the highest quality comments first, and the way in which we built it, we'll continue to evolve our approach to this to make sure there's really quality conversation.

Part of what you see with the comments is the person's affiliation or where they went to college. Is there a way to adjust what shows there alongside a person's name next to a comment?

Jillian Carroll (Facebook Communications): It's an interesting situation. If you made your school network public but not your work, then your school would show up even if it's more relevant where you work. Part of this will be addressed by privacy controls and people adjusting those.

Osofsky: When we release products, we respect people's privacy settings. And if they want to change their privacy settings, we give them the control to do that.

One other piece of feedback I heard was that TechCrunch had implemented Facebook Comments and they're not seeing a number on the number of comments for each article, that there are "48 comments" or whatever. Is that something you will be adding?

Osofsky: We believe our product encourages quality instead of quantity of comments. What I think you're seeing today on publisher sites is a very real and interesting dialogue in the comments section. One of the consistent things we heard from publishers, who we've been talking to the past couple years, is you often get so many comments, one can't surface the relevant and interesting comments. That's what this product is trying to address.

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What about people who aren't on Facebook? Would they still be able to comment on a story?

Osofsky: You can log in on Facebook or you can log in on Yahoo, and we'll be looking to add additional flexibility going forward in terms of log-in providers.

So at the moment if you don't have Yahoo and you don't have Facebook, then you're not able to make comments in the system.

Osofsky: The two ways to comment in the system is through Yahoo and Facebook, correct.

*****

What do you think about the upgraded Facebook Comments plug-in? If you run a site, would you use it? What do you see as its strong points and drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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12:06

Guest post: Do we need moderation guidelines for dealing with mental health issues?

Last month the Press Complaints Commission made a judgement in a case involving discriminatory comments on a newspaper article. The case highlighted the issue of journalism on mental health and how it is treated by publishers alongside similar considerations such as sexuality, gender, religion and ethnicity. The complaint also led to a change in The Guardian’s moderation rules.

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog the person who brought that case, Beatrice Bray, writes about her experiences of comment abuse, and the role she feels publishers should take in dealing both with comments relating to mental health, as well as writers with mental health issues.

Last April I wrote a rallying cry for the Guardian for all who have endured taunts about mental ill health. In my reply article Cartoonists should be careful how they portray mental health (23/4/10) I reclaimed the word “psychotic”. Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson had used the word to abuse Mrs Thatcher. I put him right.

I am a long-standing reader of the Guardian newspaper but I did not know the website audience. Being a proud campaigner I told Guardian readers that I had bipolar disorder and had experienced psychosis.

I expected a civil hearing. Newspaper readers did oblige but many online readers were foul.

The Guardian’s managing editor Chris Elliott did not warn me about the impending abuse. That was a mistake. I think Mr Elliott knew I would face hostility but I do not think he realised how badly I would be hurt.

Those insults made me physically sick. My head was sore for many weeks. This was all so pointless. If Mr Elliott had given me a chance to discuss the risks involved we both could have taken precautions. Instead there was a row.

Guardian staff gave me an apology but told me to grow a “thick skin”. That jibe spurned me into going to the Press Complaints Commission. It is free. It is also less adversarial and less costly than a disability tribunal.

I was not asking for anything unprecedented. The BBC has guidelines on working with vulnerable people. We need to extend this to new media.

Working with vulnerable people

For example when dealing with discussion sites moderators need to deal swiftly with abuse. They also must facilitate discussions so that they do not turn nasty.

Staff should appreciate the reasons for this action. This is not prima donna treatment. This action is necessary because the writer and many of the readers share a common disability. They all have mental health problems.

Section 2 of the PCC Editors’ code promised fairness to complainants. I thought it only fair to ask for warning of abuse but in my PCC ruling the Guardian and the PCC disagreed with me. The PCC did not say why.

However, I did score other points.

Before the PCC ruling the Guardian at my request did add the word “disability” to its moderation rules.

The PCC and the Guardian and did apologise with regard to the abuse.

Guardian online readers called me, amongst other things, a “nutter” and a “retard”. Unfortunately both the Guardian and PCC refused to accept that this was discrimination as defined by the terms of section 12 of the Editor’s code of the PCC.

This is not just semantics. To me the word “discrimination” is a word with power. It holds the abuser responsible but the PCC fights shy of doing that online.

I now know that you can only complain to the PCC if a staff member makes a discriminatory remark about you. Comments made by non-staff members do not fall within the PCC’s remit. My abusers were not Guardian staff.

It is a shame. By being discrimination deniers both the Guardian and the PCC cut themselves off from a store of knowledge on handling disability and mental health in particular.

January 10 2011

08:40

‘UGC’ and journalism: the Giffords shooting and Facebook page moderation

Sarah Palin's Facebook page - comment condoning killing of 9 year old

The Obama London blog has a post looking at the moderation of comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page (following the Giffords shooting) which raises a couple of key points for journalists dealing with user generated content.

Editorially selected, not UGC

The first point is that it can be easy to assume user generated content is an unadulterated reflection of one community’s point of view, but in many cases it is not. A political page like Palin’s is, in many ways, no different to any piece of campaigning literature, with quotes carefully selected to reflect well on the candidate.

Political blogs – where critical comments can also be removed, should be subject to the same scepticism (Nadine Dorries’ claim that 70% of her blog was fiction is a good example of this).

Taking a virtual trip to a Facebook page, then, is not comparable to treading the streets – or even a particular politician’s campaign team – in search of ‘the feeling on the ground’.

Inaction can be newsworthy

The second point, however, is that this very moderation can generate stories itself.

The Obama London post notes that while even constructively critical comments were removed almost instantly, one comment was left to stand (shown in the image above). And it appeared to condone the killing of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green:

“It’s ok. Christina Taylor Green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as ‘they’ say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly.”

Drawing on the campaign literature analogy again, you can see the newsworthiness of Palin staffers leaving this comment to stand (even when other commenters highlight its offensiveness).

Had Obama London been so inclined they could have led more strongly on something like: ‘Palin Facebook staff refuse to condemn comments condoning killing of 9-year-old’, or chased up a response from the team on why the comment was not removed.

But regardless of the nature of this individual example, you can see the broader point about comments on heavily moderated Facebook pages and blogs: they represent views that the politician’s camp is prepared to condemn or condone.

Comments

By the way, the extensive comment thread on that post is well worth exploring – it details how users can flag comments for moderation, removing them from their own view of the page but not that of others, as well as users’ experiences of being barred from Facebook groups for posting mildly critical comments.

Dylan Reeve in particular expresses my point more succinctly for moderators:

“The problem with the type of moderation policy that Sarah Palin (and others) utilise in places with user-contributed content is that they effectively appear to endorse any comments that do remain published.”

Oh, and on the more general thread of ‘analysis’ in the wake of the Giffords shooting, this post is well worth reading.

UPDATE: More discussion of the satirical nature of the comment on Reddit (thanks Mary Hamilton)

h/t Umair Haque

March 27 2010

08:08

February 07 2010

21:04

December 11 2009

00:00

Is It Legal for an Editor to Unmask an Anonymous Commenter?

On November 13, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website, StLToday, asked readers to comment on a story titled, "What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?"

Soon, a commenter posted a reply that included a "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy," according to an online account by Kurt Greenbaum, the paper's director of social media. Editors at the website promptly deleted the comment, only to see the commenter repost the same word just a few minutes later.

What happened next has been the subject of discussion and debate within the world of online journalism.

For his part, Greenbaum summed it up in the title of his blog entry about the incident, "Post a vulgar comment at work, lose your job."

Sick of the commenter's shenanigans, he located the person's IP address, and tracked them to a local school. Greenbaum then called school officials and told them about the comment. The school's IT coordinator was able to pinpoint the post to a specific employee who was confronted by school officials and "resigned on the spot."

Greenbaum, who declined to be interviewed for this story, soon published another blog post explaining his actions. He admitted that he may have overreacted by calling the school, but stated, "I am constantly frustrated by the difficulty of dealing with this kind of language" on the paper's website.

Greenbaum's blog entry was republished on the Post-Dispatch's website and has received over 450 comments. In an angry response, an anonymous person created a website mocking Greenbaum, repeatedly calling him the same "vulgar, two-syllable word for a part of a woman's anatomy" that started everything.

Aside from the ethical debate about this incident, there are two important legal questions to consider.

Can He Do That?

The first question: Is what Greenbaum did legal? Answer: yes, probably.

The paper's privacy policy states that the Post-Dispatch and its employees "will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information."

However, the policy also states that a commenter's IP address "does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally." Thus, the Post-Dispatch would argue, Greenbaum's use of the anonymous commenter's IP address is not a violation of the website's privacy policy.

Tom Curley, an attorney with the media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, said that the legal rules surrounding comments and message boards "can vary widely from site to site." Curley said some websites may provide an absolute promise to not reveal any identifying information, while others may offer only conditional promises.

Additionally, websites are a form of private property, and can be managed as such.

"There are some websites that are open forums, which is perfectly fine," Curley said. "But there is nothing that stops a website, legally, from deciding that there are some things that shouldn't be published."

Ethical Implications

In his blog post, Greenbaum stated that the Post does not routinely "take the steps I took in this case. For particularly bad cases of abusing our guidelines with vulgarity and obscenity, we would not rule it out."

malcolm moran.jpg

Malcolm Moran, a professor of media ethics at Pennsylvania State University, questioned Greenbaum's approach. "The main ethical question I would raise in this case is: When does an editor decide the rules change?"

The Post-Dispatch's terms of service state that the website "encourage[s] a free and open exchange of ideas in a climate of mutual respect." However, Greenbaum's actions could chill that climate of open exchange and mutual respect.

"What happens if a person comments about a controversial issue and has legitimate reason for staying anonymous?" Moran said. "Next time, will an editor identify that person if he or she disagrees with the commenter's views?"

Attacking the Editor with Anonymous Speech

The second legal question is whether Greenbaum can sue the anonymous individual who created a website ridiculing him. The likely answer: no.

The anonymous website created in Greenbaum's name is vulgar, to say the least. But that does not make it defamatory. In order to sustain a lawsuit for defamation, a plaintiff must show that the words in question state or imply false facts. Simply calling an individual a degrading name does not imply a fact at all. Rather, it is a non-actionable figure of speech.

Thomas Dienes.jpg

Thomas Dienes, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the mocking website may be in bad taste, but is not defamatory. "This case would be thrown out of court so fast that I can't imagine a lawyer would take it," Dienes said.

"Over the years, there have been a number of these types of websites devoted to a particular reporter. It's rare but not unheard of," Curley said. "Normally, the reporter just shrugs and it all blows over."

This incident is a case study in the struggle that news organizations face when it comes to allowing anonymous speech on their websites. On one hand, this speech can be vile, cowardly, vengeful and tasteless. On the other, anonymous speech can be valuable and is also constitutionally protected.

"The tradition of anonymous speech in this country is incredibly important," Curley said. In fact, media organizations themselves have noted the importance of confidential sources and anonymous speech.

Anonymous Speech Being Tested

Two Supreme Court cases, often referred to as Talley and McIntyre, have affirmed the idea that "an author's decision to remain anonymous...is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

Although this constitutional right only exists in the context of government regulation, the importance of anonymous speech, even if it is in the form of an anonymous comment on a news outlet's website, still holds its importance.

That does not mean, however, that all anonymous speech on the Internet is free from liability.

Recently, plaintiffs in New Jersey, South Carolina, and California asked judges to subpoena the identifying information of anonymous bloggers and commenters in order to sue them. The frequency of these types of subpoenas has reached a dizzying pace.

Generally speaking, courts have taken two different approaches in determining when to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger or commenter. First, some courts require that a plaintiff make a "good faith" showing that the he or she has a viable lawsuit before a judge will subpoena any identifying information. These courts offer anonymous speech a particularly low level of protection, believing that everyone should have their day in court.

A second group of courts require that higher standards be met before an anonymous poster is revealed. These courts employ either the Dendrite test or the Cahill tests, as they are commonly known. The Dendrite and Cahill procedures require plaintiffs to show a litany of factors before receiving any identifying information.

The law concerning what you can and cannot anonymously publish on the Internet is undergoing change on almost a daily basis. This back-and-forth has left the legal state of anonymous speech on the Internet as uncertain at best.

Rob Arcamona is a second-year law student at the George Washington University Law School. Prior to attending law school, Rob worked at the Student Press Law Center and also helped establish ComRadio, the Pennsylvania State University's student-run Internet-based radio station. He writes the Protecting the Source blog.

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November 08 2009

12:06

November 05 2009

19:43

FT's Long Room Uses Velvet Rope Approach to Online Community

What determines a successful community? The number of unique visitors or page views? The number of comments?

Those metrics can be important, but there are also qualitative aspects to consider. Are the discussions on your site respectful and insightful? Are members deriving value from the community? Or are you hosting flame wars that lack intelligence and decorum?

In order to create a community of quality, perhaps it makes sense to cut down on quantity, and create an exclusive members-only structure. Few media companies have done a better job of building this kind of exclusive community than the Financial Times. Its Long Room was created as part of the paper's FT Alphaville blog. The Long Room is an "exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others."

In order to learn more about how the Long Room has created an exclusive community of value, I spoke with New York-based Alphaville editor Paul Murphy.

Some Background and Context

It's important to first understand that Alphaville and the Financial Times are unique properties. The newspaper's website, FT.com, has a frequency-based pay wall. This means you can read a set number of articles for free, but have to subscribe if you exceed that number.

However, Alphaville is a free daily news and commentary service. Its mission is to give "financial market professionals the information they need, when they need it." On a typical day, the blog gets between 40,000 and 50,000 unique visitors. It generates roughly 500,000 uniques per month.

paul murphy.gif

Alphaville was launched roughly three years ago. Murphy said the goal is to serve a community of "deep specialists in their respective areas. They know more than we journalists know."

In addition to the blog, Alphaville offers email newsletters, news alerts, and Markets Live, a kind of chat session where two journalists instant message each other about the financial markets. (The community can also add comments in real time.) Alphaville also regularly links to news and reporting generated by other media outlets.

"We are a blog and we acknowledge that people are promiscuous," Murphy said. "So we tell them what to read elsewhere if they have half an hour of spare time, and we tell them what they should read in the FT. Being financial professionals, it's a navigational service. We allow them to sample."

The Long Room

The Long Room exists as an extension of Alphaville. It is "an exclusive comment and analysis arena, where finance professionals are invited to share their research and offer thoughts on the work of others." It is free to join, if you can get through the vetting process to be accepted.

The Long Room was inspired by a famous restaurant in the City of London that was a favorite haunt of financial pundits and market movers during the 1980s. The online version of the Long Room aims to be as exclusive as the real-world place. The site says it clearly: "The Long Room is reserved for financial professionals and for people with a clear understanding of how financial markets and products work. Our members-only policy and application vetting process allow us to ensure that these criteria are met."

Indeed, when a colleague of mine applied for membership, he received a call from London informing him that he had been accepted. But they also told him that he could not report the discussions taking place in the Long Room. "What happens in the Long Room stays in the Long Room," he was told.

Murphy confirms the application process is taken seriously. In fact, he handles many applications personally. He said the Long Room's exclusivity and careful vetting process have helped it reach the target group of financial experts and decision-makers: "I'm really impressed by the seniority of the people applying for the Long Room," he said.

Listening to the Community

The Long Room is an example of how intimate knowledge of a community can lead to a compelling service. The Alphaville team discovered that there was a willingness among financial specialists to share ideas and research, and so they created a safe place that encouraged them to do so.

"We simulated the way groups of financial professionals operate in the real world: in small email communities of 20 to 30 people," Murphy said. "They are trading research and commentary, and we wanted this functionality [as part of the Long Room]."

Murphy said the sharing of research and insight had to be done "in a walled garden in order to give them a certain comfort level."

The discussions inside the Long Room are organized using topic-specific "tables," such as those dedicated to market strategy or finance 2.0. Members can apply to host a table. So far, Murphy said, everyone is getting along well. (He mentioned one case when a person was kicked out because they engaged in constant self-promotion.)

Why it Works

Alphaville has been profitable since its earliest days. "It's a very light structure, especially compared to a newspaper, which typically requires a massive industrial process," Murphy said. The Long Room also enables the Financial Times to gather important insight about its readers. This information helps the paper sell itself -- and its special community -- to advertisers.

Alphaville also helps the Financial Times enhance its position as a hub for the financial community in London and beyond. This unique focus is a big factor in the structure and success of the Long Room. Financial professionals need timely and correct information, and so they can't ignore the Financial Times (or the Wall Street Journal).

But the question remains whether or not this kind of exclusive community could work at other newspapers and news organizations.

For his part, Murphy has no doubt.

"The model is applicable elsewhere, whether we talk about cycling or tennis communities," he said.

*****

What's your take on this "exclusive" strategy? Do you think it's elitist, or that it introduces an element of civility in online interactions? Could this strategy be used by other media organizations? Finally, a last question for the MediaShift community: could this approach help media to survive financially?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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