Analysis: On feeding the trolls, and a new NBR comments system

On Thursday at InternetNZ’s Nethui, Peter Griffin ran a session on “trolling”, or how to handle abusive commenters whose whole purpose in life is to bait others

At one point in his session, Peter invited me to say a few words on how NBR ONLINE handles comments from readers.

Taking the mic, I was unsurprised to see a lot of hostile faces in the Sky City Convention Centre – where last year at the same event Rod Drury laid into NBR’s anonymous comments policy (with a cheerful lack of irony, several in the “anti-troll” camp immediately slagged me off on Twitter). Many people don’t like NBR’s post-live, moderate later policy; those who have copped flack in NBR comments often throw some pretty raw opinions my way, and I can appreciate their anger.

But it was a good chance to re-iterate why NBR allows anonymous comments, and to point out some new comment features we’ve introduced on the site recently.

The key point is that NBR believes whistleblowers (who often first break cover in comments) are crucial to democracy, and crucial to good business coverage (while NBR is pro-business, it is not mindlessly so; often a dose of tough love is in order – as when a commenter pointed out some curious fine print to Xero’s annual report).

People often say, Why not make commenters register, even if their names are not published?

The answer: whistleblowers will only let loose if they know their comments are truly anonymous.

In terms of general comments, NBR’s publisher has a strong commitment to free speech (a principle that everybody across the political spectrum should embrace).

Establishment threatened

The Herald and Stuff censor comments by default, eventually letting some through.

NBR publishes all comments live (bar those blocked by profanity and spam filters).

Sure, some are pretty blunt, but that’s the price of freedom of speech – you’ve got to take the crunchy with the smooth.

NBR doesn’t tolerate mindlessly abusive comments. Contrary to popular belief, dozens are deleted in a typical day as the author of each story, and chief sub-editor Wayne Butler monitor posts (automated alerts go to several NBR staff each time a comment is left).

We’ve also recently introduced a “Report this comment” button. That doesn’t necessarily mean a comment you report will get deleted, but it will get a second look from Wayne and the reporter concerned.

Someone in the Nethui audience asked why we don’t delete comments from company’s slagging each other off. Sometimes we do if, if they’re defamatory. But otherwise, it’s patronizing to think readers can’t recognise a self-interest comment for what it is.

On a more positive note, regular readers will have noticed a number of other enhancements to NBR Comments.

By popular demand, there are now threaded conversations (putting a reply to a comment immediately below it).

While still anonymous, comments are now numbered, so at least you can refer to a specific post.

You can now also like or dislike a comment, the better for people to immediately identify a hot area of discussion.

And if you leave a particularly clever or insightful comment, you might find it gets featured on our home page.

Some readers do put their names to their posts. Good on them. It means their words carry a lot more weight. But you also want to know when, say, “Seeby Woodhouse” is the real Seeby Woodhouse. To that end, we’re also hoping to add verified comments shortly.

If you’ve got a suggestion on how we can further improve NBR comments (he typed, biting his lower lip), feel free to leave a reply below.

Back at the Nethui, Griffin noted that the US state of Arizona and the UK parliament are both looking at possible legislative remedies for trolling.

I had to shoot out before the end of the discussion as news of a certain telco deal broke, but Griffin reports the general mood of Thursday's audience was that self-regulation was a better option.

That's not palatable to some.

But as NBR publisher Barry Colman has noted, " It's interesting how freedom of speech always horrifies The Establishment when it is freely practised.”

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