A New Era of Letters to the Editor: Are Readers Comments a Chance to Troll or to Speak Out?

In a world of varying opinions and ideas, newspapers today offer readers the chance to comment online and share these thoughts. Where this is seen as a positive outlet for communication and interaction, there are those who view this as an opportunity to troll as their anonymity is protected.

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Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

The Guardian were a pioneer among newspapers in the development and use of online comment sections in 2006 when they introduced ‘Comment is Free’, “the first collective comment blog by a British newspaper website.” The implementation of this section aimed to make change and introduce a new way for consumers to interact with published content.

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This is one example of the daily update posted at the bottom of The Guardian’s articles showing the amount of comments moderated.

However, in 2016 The Guardian then published an article titled, ‘The Dark Side of The Guardian Comments’. The article revealed that out of their 10 most abused writers, eight were women and two were black men. It stated: “New research […] provides the first quantitative evidence for what female journalists have long suspected: that articles written by women attract more abuse and dismissive trolling than those written by men, regardless of what the article is about.” Proving that comment sections can become an easy place for people to troll journalists. 

Freelance journalist Elle Hunt understands this issue, saying: “Online abuse is, unfortunately, a reality of being a female journalist, just as it is for any women of profile online. Successive analyses have shown that work published under a female byline is likely to attract more criticism than under a man. I think it’s important that editors bear this in mind when commissioning and are mindful of how they might be able to support their writers.”

In an Internet Health Report article titled, ‘Women journalists feel the brunt of online harassment’, it brings to light how prevalent the issue is as “several studies show that women journalists experience depression and anxiety, avoid engaging with readers, reporting on certain topics, or say they consider leaving journalism altogether.”

So what is being done to stop such abuse online?

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Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

The New York Times uses ‘Machine Learning Technology’ a form of AI to moderate comments. Other publications such as Popular Science, Vice and Reuters have been forced to shut down comment sections due to inappropriate use. There has also been a government crackdown on hate speech posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites as some MPs have recognised the way social media can amplify abuse. You can also help yourself by altering privacy settings and reporting anything offensive you see both on social media and readers comments’ sections. 

With abusers hiding behind computer screens and anonymity it gives them power to act as they wish. They feel they have freedom of speech and it allows them to say what they want without consequences. This call for harsher censorship comes after countless journalists have seen the darker side of comment sections first hand and have had to deal with harassment. As we are moving from print newspapers to online journalism, there needs to be safeguarding in comment sections to allow people to express their opinions but not at the expense of a journalist.

Eleanor Yates

Eleanor Yates

Hello! My name is Eleanor Yates and I am a journalist and visual creator.

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