Big Data — degrading the news experience, or raising the bar for debate?

Helping us achieve the Web We Want

As we’ve heard from Evgueny, the use of data in the news industry is a subject fraught with ethical tension. There is no denying that the use of Big Data for profit is testing the limits of the private sphere. But this vast quantity of information can also generate insight, and perhaps even serve to facilitate positive change. Let’s take a look at how The Guardian used data to try to advance, rather than profit from, the civic sphere.

With the “optimized news feed” now a standard way of consuming news (ie. one that serves up only news that comports with our views and interests) our chances of being exposed to opposing perspectives is significantly diminished. Increasingly, news serves to reinforce our existing opinions and widen ideological gaps with our peers.

It’s little wonder then, that the notorious “comments thread” featured by certain news platforms has become synonymous with abusive dialogue.

Few organisations are more conscious of this issue than The Guardian, whose by-line “Comment is Free” recently provoked the largest ever quantitative study of online abuse. The “Web We Want” project analyzed a sample of over 70 million comments about the divisive subject of climate change.The aim was to better understand the nature of online incivility and work toward a more positive arena for public debate.

“At their best, comment threads are thoughtful, enlightening, funny. But at their worst, they are something else entirely.” — Becky Gardiner, The Guardian

The project yielded a number of insights about both the triggers — and impact — of online hostility.

Findings showed that of 70 million comments, around 1.4 million were “blocked” for being inappropriate or abusive. The majority of these comments were directed toward female writers — in other words, females consistently received more frequent abusive comments than men.

Of the ten writers who received the most abuse over time, eight were women; this is despite the fact that the majority of regular writers at The Guardian are male. Of this same ten, six of the writers were non-white, and three were gay. The results suggest that trolling tends to be aimed at groups who may already be struggling to be heard. It also indicates that online attacks are personal in nature, dismissing authors based their personal details rather than the content of their articles.

The relative anonymity of the digital sphere only heightens these issues. One of the biggest barriers to entry for civic debate is fear of judgement, and in many ways, its removal can be positive, permitting less confident speakers to enter public discussion. However, this same lack of attribution also gives rise to dialogue that is more aggressive than average, and dramatically increases instances of abuse for online conversations relative to “face to face” exchanges.

To this end, the study also offered insight into the effects of trolling on victims, particularly reporters.

“Even if I tell myself that somebody calling me a nigger or a faggot doesn’t mean anything, it has a toll on me: it has an emotional effect, it takes a physical toll. And over time it builds up.” — Steven Thrasher, The Guardian

So what’s the solution? Many news platforms have dealt with the issue by simply having no comments thread. That certainly curtails the trolling, but it also fails to acknowledge the underlying problem. Plus, on a positive note, The Guardian’s figures indicated that despite incivility continuing to be a problem, it accounted for only 2% of the overall online debate — with publishers making news an ever more personalized experience, it seems a shame to scrap any venue that encourages largely constructive civic interaction.

It has long been argued that online abuse is not a real issue — “just words” that could be ignored. However, as we increasingly live through our online presence, it is becoming ever more difficult to argue that digital interaction merits lower standards of personal conduct. It seems that the real changes need to take place at a societal level — and perhaps the notorious “comments” section can actually serve as a measure of our progress.

The Web We Want project allowed the first real quantitative insight into the role of modern news platforms in civic debate, as well as the issues faced by the journalists who have the important role of starting the debate. While it may not offer any immediate solutions to the issue of online incivility, it has nonetheless brought us closer to understanding the role of modern news platforms in our fast-evolving society.