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  • Some consider Popular Science's decision to remove public comments as censorship
  • Some consider Popular Science's decision to remove public comments as censorship
    Crushhhh, Creative Commons (2013) ©
CASE STUDY

PopSci: a healthier information diet

In a hyperconnected world, the ability to communicate with society at large has been democratised. But how can so much noise be filtered without impeding on freedom of speech?

Location United States

Scope
"The world is not coming to an end," appealed radio host Jack Paar in 1938. "Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?" [1] Catching snippets of Orson Welles' radio interpretation of The War of the Worlds, an estimated 1.7 million Americans mistook the narrative for breaking news of interplanetary war. [2] Modern society is more sceptical, and most would likely Google the issue on their smartphone before fleeing their homes. But with information being transferred faster than ever – especially online – misinformation is a growing threat.

In a hyperconnected world, the ability to communicate with society at large has been democratised; whether you're a professional journalist, Top Commenter or simply a smartphone-wielding witness to a newsworthy event. How can so much noise be filtered without impeding on freedom of speech?

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Early in 2013, a study required more than 1,000 people to read a science story and form an opinion before reading the comments. To gauge the influence of comments, half of participants read articles with civil comments, the other half with rude. The opinions of those exposed to negative comments were vastly altered after they'd read them, and made many feel "the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought." [3]

Commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded

Suzanne LeBarre, PopSci's online content director (2013)

This is part of the reasoning behind the carefully worded article recently posted by Popular Science's online content director Suzanne LeBarre, announcing the removal of public comments from the publication's site. LeBarre notes that "commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the 'off' switch." [4] Comments have been exclusively removed from articles, while multiple social media accounts and other communication channels remain open.

The decision is bold – directly rebuffing traditional online editorial strategy – and has instigated widespread debate. While many journalists and PopSci readers alike have commended the magazine, others are less enthused. "PopSci thinks its readers are incapable of determining the truth for themselves," wrote one man. "A very patronising and condescending decision." [5]

Negative comments can benefit publications, but they can also influence readers' opinions Negative comments can benefit publications, but they can also influence readers' opinions
Mail Online (2013) ©

Context
The world we live in is increasingly interactive, and public comments facilitate a level of reader engagement that has revolutionised online journalism. Whether comments are positive or negative is irrelevant, and in some cases the latter can actually be more beneficial for the publication. Mail Online is the most popular UK newspaper site, and their best-selling product is controversy: Samantha Brick's 'Why women hate me for being beautiful' amassed more than a million views in two days, many driven by more than 5,000 comments that condemn Brick as "narcissistic" and "not remotely attractive". [6][7][8]

"In the beginning, the technology gods created the Internet and saw that it was good," writes Life Science Communications professor Dominique Brossard. "Then someone invented reader comments and paradise was lost." [3] While Mail Online prioritises metrics, abiding by a no-publicity-is-bad-publicity mentality, PopSci is more concerned with providing readers with unbiased, informative articles. Even YouTube – a hub for anonymous trolling – has been integrating Google+ to moderate comments in a more structured way, prioritising relevancy over recency to insure flagged comments are buried.

In the beginning, the technology gods created the Internet and saw that it was good. Then someone invented reader comments and paradise was lost

Dominique Brossard, Life Science Communications professor (2013)

Yet comment boards aren't the only place people are free to voice their opinions, and filtering unwanted noise is necessary everywhere. As Richard Stallman once claimed, “information wants to be free.” [9] The citizen journalism phenomenon has grown in response to an ongoing race between publications to be the first to publish breaking news. In the smartphone age, everybody is a media channel; consider the amateur video footage of the meteor that hit Russia in early 2013. [10]

When this kind of content runs, it gives the impression of immediacy, and adds to the 'realness' of the event. Yet differentiating trustworthy sources from photoshopped images, edited video footage and articles written strictly for comedic purposes can be tricky. Hoaxes are littered across the internet, from the Chinese blogger who garnered thousands of followers through posting photos of visits to Libya amid political unrest – only to be exposed as a faker – to Twitter-born rumours that 14 One Direction fans killed themselves after a documentary presented the boy band's fans as "insane." [11][12]

The meteor that hit Russia in early 2013 was heavily documented
YouTube (2013) ©

Regardless of how ridiculous some rumours might seem, content virality is rarely defined by feasibility. "People are more likely to spread internet memes when they have strong emotional responses to the content," explains social psychologist Rosanna Guadagno. [13] Combined with the still largely unregulated nature of the internet, the prospect of digital wildfires – the risk of mass misinformation online – looms.

Already there's evidence of the real-world repercussions of online rumours. Computers in the stock market buy and sell based on rapid information processing, and programmers create algorithms around buzzwords that show up on approved sources. When the Twitter feed of respected news source The Associated Press was hacked, a tweet reading "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is Injured," sent the stock market into a brief spiral. [14]

In an effort to prevent such misinformation, services are emerging to purify information diets. Citizen journalism platform Blottr combines complex algorithms with human staff to verify their content. Anybody can sign up and upload breaking news in the form of photos, videos or articles from either a smartphone or desktop. Articles can also be edited by other readers – it's a Wikipedia-esque system intended to minimise mistakes. Meanwhile, existing sites are being more vigilant with regard to moderation, with YouTube and PopSci attending to distasteful comments, while Twitter has introduced a 'report tweet' button.

Mass misinformation is a risk that could have catastrophic repercussions in the real world Mass misinformation is a risk that could have catastrophic repercussions in the real world
Salon (2013) ©

Insights and opportunities
Comparisons between the internet and the 'Wild West' have been drawn since the early '90s, and the digital landscape seems to have only grown more wild. People have grown accustomed to the free-for-all mentality of online; a place where anonymity reigns and freedom of speech is a given. But moderators are being forced to action. It was only in 2012 that Reddit introduced a "no suggestive or sexual content featuring minors" policy, despite a years-long backlog of complaints regarding similar content. For Reddit, boycotting censorship was their core priority, regardless of what they were being asked to censor.

But this attitude is shifting, due to demand. The last decade has seen digital facilitate a close relationship between brands and consumers, where people are given a voice to express their needs and brands respond accordingly. By removing comments, PopSci is taking a different stance, asserting its authority to improve the experience of their readership by prioritising their own expert knowledge over customer opinion.

We're trying to shift from comments to meaningful conversations

Nundu Janakiram, YouTube product manager (2013)

While distasteful or offensive material native to trolling territory is one clause in online censorship, it also attends a deeper issue: credibility. For all the benefits of having live updates as events unfold, the relationship between accuracy and speed is inverse. The truth has become a proverbial needle amid a haystack of shrewd, satirical and misinformed voices. People are once again seeking expertise; an elevated intelligence that can verify what they're reading.

Ultimately, less misinformation and less abusive comments attribute to a more intelligent conversation between publications and their readerships. PopSci's comment removal is rooted in the idea that comments are such a prominent part of online journalism, they can influence the way other readers feel about content. Whether removing them was a good decision remains to be seen, but services and sites that are improving the moderation process are creating a new layer of content that hits a sweet spot between mainstream media and the public voice. As YouTube product manager Nundu Janakiram put it, "we're trying to shift from comments to meaningful conversations." [15]

popsci.com

Key statistics
- In 1938, around 1.7 million Americans mistook a radio reading of The War of the Worlds as a news broadcast [2]
- Samantha Brick's 'Why women hate me for being beautiful' amassed more than a million views in two days [6]
- Brick's article provoked more than 5,000 condemning comments [7]

Related on Canvas8
'Digital disclosure: the bear that makes people share' (August 2013)
'Hypersensitive! The new political correctness' (March 2013)
'The Young Turks: YouTube’s new media mogul' (March 2013)
'Search for an Expert' (June 2012)
'Honesty billboards' (August 2011)
'The ‘ignorance’ industry: hysterical or horrifying?' (April 2010)

Related TABS

Accelerated Learning - The internet has changed the way people learn, whether it’s fixing a sink or particle physics.
Search for an Expert - Consumer distrust has caused the authority figure to return to a position of influence.
We Are All Media - People are becoming aware of their potential as a media channel.

Sources
1. 'The Tonight Show – Jack Paar biography', About.com (2013)
2. 'Terror on the Air! Horror Radio in America', Richard J. Hand (March 2012)
3. 'This story stinks', International Herald Tribune (March 2013)
4. 'Why we're shutting off our comments', Popular Science (September 2013)
5. 'PopSci readers comment on the removal of comments', Real Clear Science (September 2013)
6. 'Top sites by category', Alexa (October 2013)
7. 'The I'm so beautiful backlash', Mail Online (April 2012)
8. 'Why women hate me for being beautiful', Mail Online (April 2012)
9. 'Understanding Gilmore's Law', The Human Network (March 2006)
10. 'Meteorite explodes over Russia, more than 1,000 injured', Reuters (February 2013)
11. 'Phoney 'citizen journalist' exposed', The France 24 Observers (January 2012)
12. '#RIPLarryShippers trends on Twitter after 'Crazy About One Direction' documentary prompts rumours of fan suicides', The Huffington Post (August 2013)
13. 'What makes videos go viral?', Psychology Today (April 2013)
14. 'False rumour of explosion at White House causes stocks to briefly plunge; AP confirms its Twitter feed was hacked', CNBC (April 2013)
15. 'YouTube gets the yuck out in comments cleanup', CNET (September 2013)

Author
Lore Oxford