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What should we do with Cabin Radio’s Facebook comments section?

Last modified: September 24, 2021 at 1:57pm


Cabin Radio’s Facebook comments. Yeah, we know. And we know you know, too. What should we do?

My name is Ollie. I run the Cabin Radio newsroom. I’m well aware that our reporting sometimes attracts hundreds of Facebook comments in a day when we cover subjects about which people have strong feelings, like the Covid-19 pandemic or politics.

We work really hard to moderate those comments, but we’re not a major broadcaster with a team of dedicated moderators standing by. We’re an internet radio station with a handful of people. (Even major broadcasters are changing how comments are handled. Here’s the CBC’s experiment.)

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Generally, it’s either me or our social media manager handling those comments. We have to wade through dozens of comments, many of them abusive – either of us, of politicians, or of other commenters – and some sharing misinformation that we do our best to counteract.

But it takes a toll. Our social media manager should be spending her day trying to make fun and interesting things for you to read and watch, not reading miserable, hateful comments. I should be working on our journalism about the NWT, the same journalism some of our commenters seem to never actually read. Every cent we are forced to spend moderating comments is money we should be putting into reporting, video, and radio that informs and entertains.

I have spent years trying to keep our comments fully open. I believe in that. I do not like closing comments. It doesn’t sit well with me, and that’s why we’ve kept ours open while other newsrooms experiment with closing them. But we are reaching a point where we no longer have the capacity to manage the sheer volume of comments that require some form of moderation.

That’s why I’m writing this article. I want to hear your views about how we hear your views.

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Here are some options we’ve devised for Facebook comments. Take a look, then let us know (in the Facebook comments!… or you can email us) what you think we should do. You can suggest new options, too. We welcome that.

Option 1: Turn off all comments

No more commenting on any Cabin Radio reports. (Comments would stay open for some videos, contests, and posts that aren’t news-related.)

Pros:

  • You’ll never have to read hateful, abusive comments beneath our work on Facebook
  • We’ll never have to moderate that stuff, either
  • Places the focus squarely on our reporting

Cons:

  • It suppresses one avenue for people to share their views
  • A little harder to ask genuine questions of Cabin Radio
  • Positive contributions are less publicly visible

This is the simplest solution. It solves the existing problem of hateful, abusive commenting outright. (We have never had commenting directly on our website and this isn’t yet a problem on Twitter or Instagram.)

However, there are some times that comments do good, and this approach will get in the way of that. We won’t be able to address questions about our reporting in the comments, for example, and won’t be able to quickly answer questions that we can help with but our report didn’t touch on. (Right now, when people raise points in the comments, we sometimes go back and add information into the report if we think it’ll benefit a wider audience.)

My concern with this is losing some of that valuable input. Will people choose to message us or email us instead? Or was commenting so easy that without, we’ll just never hear those questions or that input?

One thing I don’t think this option does is limit freedom of speech. When we’ve turned off comments for individual articles in the past, the occasional person has complained of being censored. That’s just not the case. You have virtually the whole internet at your disposal to comment on our reporting, not least the option to write something on your own Facebook page about it (and you can choose whether to share it or not).

It fascinates me that people complain if they see a Facebook post with comments turned off, yet not once have I received a complaint about the many reports we never share to Facebook at all – such as virtually all court reports involving sexual assault, reports involving allegations of pedophilia, some other forms of serious crime reporting, and some reports that we frankly just don’t think our Facebook audience will particularly care about and so they never get shared. Reporting that is in some way sensitive rarely gets shared to Facebook because certain commenters so rarely respect that sensitivity. Yet it’s only when an article appears, but commenting is turned off, that anyone raises a freedom of speech issue.

(Often, reports we don’t share to Facebook are among our most-read articles in any given day. Facebook does drive a significant amount of traffic to our website, but it’s by no means the dominant way people find our reporting.)

Note that we already occasionally close comments on articles when we’re certain we’ll be overwhelmed, operationally, if we leave them open – particularly on busy days when many reports are being published.

Theoretically, we could continue that approach and only turn off comments on some posts, but that isn’t a consistent approach and we could be accused of using it to suppress comment on certain topics – particularly if those are always the ones bound to generate many comments in need of moderation.

Option 2: Zero tolerance

You can still comment, but we’ll shift how we moderate significantly from the current last-resort mode (hide comments and ban people if we’ve tried everything else) to a much stricter policy.

Pros:

  • We establish a clear policy. Respect the rules, as we see them, otherwise you’re no longer able to comment
  • Comments remain open and none of the positive, constructive comments are lost
  • Attempts to foster a better environment rather than abandon comments entirely

Cons:

  • All the hateful stuff is still going to need policing by our staff, taking time and inflicting a toll
  • Zero tolerance means drawing a firm line somewhere, and not everyone is going to like the line
  • Requires constant vigilance to adequately enforce it

On the face of it, this makes sense. We can develop a policy that sets out where we draw the line, then we just stick to it. If people cross that line, they are banned. Simple as that.

But this might be trickier to operate in practice. For a start, it means devising a policy that most people are happy to accept, which isn’t necessarily straightforward. Then it means applying it consistently, which is not easy when multiple people are trying to moderate hundreds and hundreds of comments. Someone is going to get angry when their comment triggers a ban, even though it’s identical to one a month ago that didn’t.

Plus if we have zero tolerance, when are we enforcing these rules? Working hours? Around the clock? Someone could post something in clear contravention of the rules and it could stay up for 10 hours if they time it right and our staff aren’t available to catch it.

One possible solution is to recruit volunteers who want to help with moderation. But that in turn creates the requirement for some kind of recruitment and screening process and so on, and potentially sets up a whole different minefield to navigate.

Option 3: Letters to the editor

An old-school approach: No comments but you can write in, and we print the ones that further the conversation.

Pros:

  • All the advantages of ‘no comments’ option above
  • Still preserves a clear, public avenue for dialogue
  • We can weed out abuse and hate before it reaches the public

Cons:

  • Not everyone will like the idea of an editor choosing which contributions are valuable
  • Slows down the pace of conversation (may also be a pro)
  • We still have to read the hate and abuse, but not as often

I quite like this idea, although I need to spend more time thinking it through. The idea is: we close comments but provide an email address people can write to if they have a view on any report of ours that they feel is important.

Each Sunday, we print a collection of that correspondence on our website and share it to Facebook. (Do we leave comments open beneath that post? Or do we close those, too? Discuss.)

That way, people with valuable contributions can still submit them to a public forum and, if anything, have them published in a higher-visibility format: on our website, where they will reach a much wider audience than Facebook.

This essentially becomes a letters-to-the-editor page that allows discussion of topics to go forward with new perspectives without having to wade through everything else currently found floating in the comments.

To be clear: there are and always will be a lot of ways to reach Cabin Radio if you want to contribute an opinion, submit a news tip, complain about reporting, or talk to us for any other reason. At the moment you can call us, email us, Facebook message us, or even use encrypted channels like WhatsApp or Signal. Closing comments has no impact on how easy it is to speak to us. But preserving a weekly digest of the best correspondence would ensure an avenue remains for some of that to be made public.

A note where each comments section used to be would explain the change in policy and the email address to use for correspondence.

Our weekly published collection would include responses to correspondence where appropriate.

(I realize that if you already think Cabin Radio holds some form of editorial bias, the idea of us editing a correspondence page each week probably isn’t an improvement. I’d simply point out that we have always had the ability to remove comments and ban people from our Facebook page. Us holding ultimate editorial control of our own page and website is not new.)

Option 4: ???

You tell me. What are the other options? How can we do this right? Is leaving it exactly how it is an option? The pros would be that if you like it the way it is, it stays that way. The cons would be the impact on our staff – and, sometimes, our readers too.

Have your say by leaving a comment on Facebook, by writing to me, or any other way you choose. We expect to make a decision in late September or early October.

I appreciate you reading this and contributing to how we make the experience of reading and engaging with our journalism better for you and more sustainable for us.

(If you like our work, you can support it by making a monthly donation of your choice via Patreon. All funds go toward paying our reporters to produce original journalism about the Northwest Territories.)

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