Uncivil rhetoric is characterizing this year’s presidential campaign. But compared with the comments found on news sites across the country, the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns seem rather tame.
Online comment sections have become known as places where incivility runs rampant. Many think there is no hope left for comment sections, so there is no reason to try to improve them.
But as a communication professor who studies the comments section, not only do I believe that there is still hope for the space, I also think that comment sections can be beneficial to news users and organizations alike.
With my colleagues at the Engaging News Project, I’ve done a number of studies focused on online comment sections because we know they matter. They matter to news organizations because they can provide a way to increase brand loyalty. And they matter to news users who are seeking online spaces to share their views and to provide a feeling of community.
More than half of Americans, 55 percent, have left an online comment somewhere on the internet, and 78 percent have read the comments at some point. Our survey participants told us they comment on news websites in particular because they want to express an opinion, add information, or correct inaccuracies.
On the flip side, they told us that if they avoided news website’s comments, it was because they wanted to avoid conflict, that they thought the comments were too argumentative, and that they wouldn’t be able to change anyone’s minds.
And that’s where change is in order. There are ways to not only increase the number of commenters, but also improve civility in the comments, making it a more enjoyable place to engage in discussion.
We analyzed 9 million comments from The New York Times website and found that positive feedback from other commenters relates to a higher volume of comments. One way for commenters to interact with one another is with the site’s “recommend” button. In the 30 days after a commenter posted a comment that received at least one recommendation, however, that commenter posted, on average, 2.1 more comments.
Increasing the number of commenters can help to diversify the voices contributing to the discussion. Instead of an echo chamber, the comment section ideally should be a place where people could encounter different perspectives on the news. Positive feedback, such as recommendations, may be one way to work toward this end.
Newsroom interaction matters as well. In our survey, a majority of respondents wanted journalists to respond to factual questions posed in news comment sections. In another study, we discovered that when journalists engage with commenters, the tone improves. We also found that the design of a comment section can play a role in how much activity there is in the space.
As the presidential election heats up, finding ways to create civil spaces for political discussion seems paramount. Newsrooms should experiment with new ways to work toward this goal by engaging their audiences in the comment section.
Our research shows that the comment section — including what is said and how the section is designed — can influence how people engage in the space. The comment section can be a great place if we all work together to make it one.
Natalie Stroud is an associate professor of communication studies and director of the Engaging News Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeard in the McAllen Monitor.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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