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Making Sense of Internet Comment Sections

Jun 26, 2014

Are internet comments sections the new town square, or cesspools of racism, sexism and worse?

Whenever you scroll down through a comments section, at some point you encounter something that makes you cringe.

Can these often offensive comments sections be improved without cutting off free speech?

"It's definitely problematic and if we're going to make the internet work as a form of communication, we have got to figure this out," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-making Project.

And that's just what the New York Times, Washington Post and Mozilla -- the web browser maker -- are going to try to do using a $3.9 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

"Their goal with this grant is to create a commenting platform that would involve algorithms that would make the commentary more sophisticated and less destructive," McBride explained. "Right now, if you look at the sites that have good, healthy, sophisticated conversation, it takes a lot of human resources to make that work... They want to create a robot, essentially, that can do all work so that all of these journalism sites can have healthy comments without investing all the crazy human resources."

Doesn't a robot deciding what comments are acceptable and what comments are not sound a little -- scary?

"The thing is, algorithms already control a lot of what you see on the internet," said McBride. "It's not like the algorithm operates on its own. It has to be programmed by a human being. And so the human beings behind the algorithms would constantly be tweaking them to favor certain types of speech. It's not the perfect solution because you could perversely screen out unpopular opinions and that wouldn't be very democratic at all. But, you could also weed out the destructive, harmful haters who are just trying to take down the conversation."