If you’re looking to find convivial discussion on an article you’ve read, the comments section is usually not the first place you’d think to go. Although comments sections are a fantastic way for readers to engage with each other and journalists, and they can be a source of worthwhile and necessary debate, too often you scroll below that line of safety and find abuse and anger. This has become enough of a problem that some small sites, including Gadgette, have had to get rid of their comments sections altogether being unable to keep up with the moderation required. Larger websites can cope with the moderation demands and try to get the best out of the community.
The Guardian’s comments sections are no strangers to trolling and abuse either but rather than close them they’ve decided to face these comments head on, all 70 million of them, and treat them as data to be mined. The hope is that this data will give a clearer picture of trends in abuse and where it’s focussed and possibly make it easier to tackle. The results have basically confirmed what we’ve suspected all along.
It’s long been posited that articles written by female journalists attract more vitriol in the comments sections than those written by male journalists. By analysing their own comments, the Guardian have indeed confirmed this and claim their research is “the first quantitative evidence” that articles written by women attract more abuse and trolling than those written by men.
The majority of regular opinion writers at the Guardian are white men, so that makes it especially shocking that none of the 10 writers who received the highest levels of abuse and trolling fall into this demographic. In fact, 8 out of these 10 writers were women (4 white and 4 non-white) and 2 of them were black men.
You won’t be surprised to know that the 10 regular writers who received the least abuse were all men.
It was found that articles written by women received more abusive and disruptive comments across all sections, but that it was particularly bad in male-dominated areas such as sport and technology. The only section where men consistently received more blocked comments was fashion. On average since 2010, articles written by women have received more blocked comments than those written by men. It was also found that articles on the subjects of feminism and rape attracted extremely high levels of abusive comments.
The primary intention of the Guardian’s research was to test the gender disparity of abusive comments, but their research also found that ethnic and religious minorities as well as LGBT people were subject to disproportionate amounts of abuse.
In terms of the form this abuse took, the Guardian state that threats to “kill, rape, or maim” were fortunately “extremely rare.” A significant proportion of the blocked comments took the form of dismissive and insulting speech targeted at the author of the piece or another person the comments section. They also found that though illegal Hate Speech was rare, the xenophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments were not.
We see people dismiss abuse in online comments sections all too often as ‘not real life’ and something we shouldn’t take personally or seriously but these results show that we absolutely need to face up to the fact that these comments sections are a depressing reflection of the way our society works. The people who are most likely to face oppression and abuse offline are also facing it online and it’s a massive cultural problem that we need to fix together.
The Guardian want to keep their comments open, with good reason, and this research is part of their attempts to make these sections places of reasoned discussion and inclusivity. If you’d like to help them achieve this, they’re looking for feedback here. It’s great to see a large publication be so positive and proactive in their approach to reducing online abuse.
Via the Guardian
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