Johanna Blakley

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How Do We Detox Online News Comments?

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Ramona Pringle, a colleague of mine at Ryerson University, invited me to join a wonderful panel for South by Southwest (SXSW) this year that tackled the daunting problem of toxic online news comments. As Ramona put it, how can we build systems that lead to constructive conversation rather than Lord of the Flies horror stories?

One of the best things about doing a panel like this is the conversations it spawns before and after the event. I was surprised that every time I mentioned this topic to people – including journalists, Austin ride-share drivers, academics, waiters, coders, you name it – they showed a lot more interest than I anticipated. A huge number of Americans comment on news (you’ll find some interesting stats below) and just about everyone I talked to had some thoughts about what needed to change in order to make online comments more civil. I share a laundry list of those ideas at the bottom of this post, but first, here’s a bit about our conversation at SXSW:

Ramona brought to the panel her colleague at Canada’s CBC News, Steve Ladurantaye, who was been working on the frontlines of news and UGC since he was the director of news and politics at Twitter Canada. This guy’s seen it all and he was dead serious when he said that the psychological effects of being a comment moderator can be compared to PTSD.

She also brought in Sean Stewart, a game designer and science fiction author, to discuss how we might approach online commenting as a design problem. In fact, the germ of the idea for the panel had come from a conversation they’d had about how surprisingly well-behaved people were in the online comment boards for The Beast, Sean’s break-out Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which engaged the public in an international, real-time online and offline murder mystery that promoted the release of the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. After the snarky film news site Ain’t It Cool News caught wind of the game, The Beast website received 25 million hits in one day.

Since  Ain’t It Cool News is infamous for its commenter’s anti-social behavior, everyone – the game designers and the players – were shocked that interactions among players of the game were collaborative and constructive, as they helped one another gather real-world clues and solve the mystery together. Everyone wanted to know, “Why are we assholes when we’re on Ain’t It Cool News but we’re angels on The Beast?”

Sean’s theory was simple: people behave better when you give them something to do. He noticed that whenever the participants were given problems to solve they collaborated beautifully, but once they were less occupied they’d start reverting to the kind of aggressive, anti-social behavior that characterizes comments on so many news and information sites.

Giving participants rewards for certain types of behavior – particularly the type of rewards that translate into social proof – could be integrated into news comments sections, much as they have in gaming leader boards. This might mean giving news commenters points, badges, status, and rewards for engaging in desired actions. The key is, once again, social proof: other people need to be able to see these indicators of quality or engagement in order for them to have social currency.

Steve from CBC has experimented with different ways to positively engage audiences and found some success. One method that worked was sorting comments by most recent, rather than most popular (which are often the most polarizing). But some topics have proven too difficult to attract civilized comments. The CBC currently will not allow comments on stories about indigenous populations because public commentary is so toxic.

Another tactic that Steve has found to work quite well is having the journalist contribute to the conversation. His impression was that most aggressive commenters back-off quickly once they are reminded that the reporter they’re railing against is, in fact, a human being who is reading those cruel comments.

Let’s Look at Some Data

The Engaging News Project at UT Austin, which has done a lot of terrific research on online news comments, found support for this tactic in their research. However, I was surprised that their December 2015 national survey of news commenters and comment readers revealed some resistance to inviting journalists into the public commenting space. 61% of commenters said they welcome factual clarifications from journalists, but only 41% said that they’d like journalists to actively join the conversation and only 26% sought their guidance there.

This sentiment was echoed in other parts of this fascinating survey, which used a national representative sample. Among those who participate in one way or another in online news comments, either as readers of comments or writers of them, 42% said that they don’t want any policing of comments whatsoever, and another 31% weren’t sure either way. It seems that the Wild West insanity that we witness there now seems to be A-OK, or at least acceptable, to most of the inhabitants of this world.

You might be wondering, who are these people? The survey found that half of Americans either read or write comments on news sites, and most of this activity takes place on local news sites. Among the most striking findings for me was that commenters are more male and have lower levels of education and income compared to those who read news comments.

Here’s another kicker: 40% of people who read comments (but don’t write them) say that they read comments because of their entertainment value. This was the second most popular reason, after learning about other people’s opinions (46%), suggesting that the informational aspect of news comments may not be as important as we thought (or was that just me?). While we presumably consume the news to find out accurate things about the world, we don’t necessarily consume news comments for the same reason. However, in this age of “news as entertainment,” these findings might feed a growing fear that facts are not the only things, or maybe even the main things, that audiences are looking for in news media.

The Laundry List

Here’s a quick overview of some of the tools we might use to improve civility in online news comments:

Artificial Intelligence

Jigsaw, Google’s AI research arm, just released Perspective, a tool that identifies toxic language and can flag comments that are most likely loathsome. In conjunction with human moderation, this appears to be an incredible tool. Some fear, however, that it will be left to run on its own, which could trigger the removal of perfectly civil posts and the retention of some carefully cloaked hate speech.

Prompts

Using AI like Perspective, it could be possible to intercept posts before their posted, warning commenters, right after they hit “submit,” that the language they’re using is toxic. This would give posters an opportunity to reflect on their language and resubmit (or leave the site in a huff).

Metadata

What if each comment included some relevant metadata about the commenter? One big complaint about news comments is that it’s often evident that the poster didn’t actually read the article. What if the site posted the amount of the time the poster spent on the page, or the number of comments that person had posted that day? (Thanks to Cyrus for this one!)

Social proof

This is a specific subset of metadata: information such as the number of likes and followers someone has confers status and can help create an environment in which people have some guidelines for behavior.

Ranking

There are all kinds of comment ranking systems, but the one we talked about the most on the panel was Reddit’s. On that site, users can upvote or downvote posts and so universally panned posts sink out of visibility pretty quickly. Since attracting attention is a key motivator for certain flame-throwing commenters, invisibility is a painful price to pay. I was fascinated to discover that Reddit goes a bit further: it also programs its algorithm to give a lower ranking to controversial posts that get similar amounts of upvotes and downvotes. So a post with the same number of upvotes, but a lower number of downvotes, will be more visible to users, creating (presumably) more civil discourse.

Kicking the bums out

The main reason that people generate any kind of user generated content is because they hope to attract some attention to their thoughts, ideas, products, weird proclivities, what have you.  By depriving people of attention (kicking them off the board after X number of infractions), a news site can create a rational disincentive to bad behavior

Constructive journalism

I’ve been doing research on solutions journalism – reporting that focuses on responses to social problems, not just the problems themselves – and so I really perked up when someone suggested that the kind of combative, gotcha journalism that we often encounter these days triggers the vitriolic exchanges we see in the comments section.

Formatting

The Engaging News Project performed a study where a one-column comment section (the typical format) was compared to a three-column format. The topic was the legalization of marijuana. In the three-column format comments were clustered by whether they were pro-legalization, anti-legalization, or if they had questions/other comments about the issue. There were some mixed results, but they found that people preferred the three-column format and they were more likely to leave comments there.

As you can probably tell, I’m just scratching the surface here. I can’t wait to hear the results from the University of Connecticut, which recently received a $2 million investment from the Templeton Foundation to fund ten scholars working to improve online civil discourse. Let’s hope they come up with some game-changing ideas for re-vamping our online public sphere, where there are far too many barriers to meaningful civic engagement.

The Unintended Consequences of Technology

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An article of mine on the “Technologies of Taste” has just come out in Technology & Society, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). It’s a fascinating special issue exploring the “Unintended Consequences of Technology.” As the guest editor, Ramona Pringle explained it to me that the focus wasn’t on “the dark side” of tech, but rather the complicated nature of our increasingly connected lives.

The call for papers, however, emphasized the danger of not carefully examining our relationship to new technology:

With all great innovation comes responsibility; and with the exponential growth of technology, the window within which we can examine the ethics and consequences of our adoption of new technologies becomes increasingly narrow. Instead of fear mongering, how do we adjust our course, as a society, before it is too late?

My piece explores the role that recommendation systems play in our online pursuits of knowledge and pleasure. How is our personal taste affected by finely-tuned commercial algorithms that are optimized to sell us products and monetize our attention? While Eli Pariser and others have argued that these systems place us in “filter bubbles” that insulate us from new ideas, I argue that companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix have strong commercial incentives to develop recommendation systems that broaden their customers’ horizons rather than limiting them, effectively bursting filter bubbles rather than reinforcing them.

This couldn’t be a more timely argument considering that concerns about filter bubbles have grown exponentially during the last presidential election cycle. What complicates the debate about filter bubbles is that each site — whether it’s primarily an ecommerce, social media, search or content platform — has very different goals in mind and different proprietary algorithms in place to achieve them. I hope this article triggers a more thoughtful conversation when people claim that ideological insularity is the obvious outcome of filtering and recommendation technology.

 

Advancing the Story: The Next Chapter in Media Impact

The Norman Lear Center and the Paley Center for Media held an event on November 2 exploring how technology and storytelling are raising awareness about important social issues. I gave a presentation (which you can watch here) addressing how we can connect the dots between media exposure and social or political action. Summarizing results from the Lear Center’s impact studies of the documentary film Waiting for “Superman,” the narrative feature film Contagion, and the Guardian’s global development news website, I explained how mixed methods research can be used to assess changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior from media exposure (You can read full-length reports here).

The evening started with a very timely panel discussion about how new technologies are informing and invigorating public discourse about social issues. Justin Osofsky, Vice President of Media Partnerships and Online Operations at Facebook, discussed how “humbled” the organization was by the profound impact that Facebook Live video streaming has produced. Wesley Lowery, National Reporter at The Washington Post and author of the forthcoming They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, explained how his fluid use of Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope transformed his journalistic process. Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer of Frontline, weighed in on the expanding use of VR among newsgatherers, and her “Aha!” moment at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Jennifer Preston, Vice President of Journalism at the Knight Foundation, which sponsored this event, joined the panel in a nuanced conversation about the difference between journalistic ethics and online community ethics, which are becoming more deeply interwoven as citizens move to social media platforms for news.

The second panel of the night addressed the impact of storytelling in entertainment, bringing together the grandfather of social issue TV, Norman Lear; Kenya Barris, creator of black-ish; and Gloria Calderon Kellett, Co-Showrunner of the Netflix reboot of Lear’s classic  One Day at a Time. Moderated by Marty Kaplan, the group addressed the critical need for entertaining stories about real people and real problems on screens large and small. Sensitive to the historic lack of diversity on primetime TV, Barris and Kellett discussed the need to dislodge the notion that there’s one monolithic experience for each ethnic group. By injecting their own lived lives into their storytelling, all three writers felt that they could trigger conversations that could lead to social change.

Check out the lively Twitter feed from the event: #mediaimpact 

Talking About the Culture of Technology with Katina Michael

I had a wonderful conversation with Katina Michael, professor of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, and editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. She wanted to have a chat about my forthcoming article on “Technologies of Taste,” which explores the social impact of recommendation engines. But the conversation ranged far beyond that topic, touching on the behavioral biometrics of game play, the privacy implications of Samsung TVs that can listen to your conversations, and the attention economy as a “zero sum game.” Clearly, I may just have to fly to Australia to continue this conversation in person.

 

 

Gender & (Anti)Social Media

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I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.

This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.

It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.

Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.

I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”

It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.

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However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:

2015 Saudi Election

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I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.

Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.

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I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.

#DelhiGangRape

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Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

 

I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.

The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.

And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.

Cosby

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Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case,  the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.

 

Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.

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All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.

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There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.

When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.

Mobilizing News

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The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.

As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting. Read the rest of this entry »

New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience. Read the rest of this entry »