Vermont judged first in 'toxic' online commenting

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VTDigger.org

If you've ever felt overwhelmed by nasty online commenting, Vermont's status as the top "toxic" comment state in the union (according to a recent analysis of millions of comments) might have something to do with that.

In an article about the nationwide survey by Lo B nichou, WIRED.com said it partnered with Disqus, an online commenting platform the website and thousands of others around the country use to gather and display reader comments, to create a map showing the percentage of comments from each state considered by Disqus to be in the "toxic" range.

There sits Vermont atop the map, with 12.2 percent of comments judged toxic, compared to New Hampshire, which had the lowest percentage in the U.S., at 4.7 percent

In the region, Massachusetts is shown at 6.8 percent, Rhode Island, 8 percent, Connecticut, 6.9 percent, Maine, 5.5 percent, and New York, 8.3 percent.

Among other notable findings, 8 percent of comments from the District of Columbia, 10.3 percent from Iowa, 9.8 percent from South Carolina, 9.6 percent from Alabama, 7.5 percent from California and 10.1 percent from Nevada were considered toxic under a comment rating system developed by Disqus.

According to the WIRED.com article, the company analyzed 92 million comments over a 16-month period, written by almost 2 million authors on more than 7,000 forums that use the Disqus software.

Over the past two decades, news media sites have struggled to develop strategies to discourage toxic commenting, which emerged as anonymous commenting replaced traditional letters to the editor.

The New England Newspapers Inc. papers in Vermont, the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and the Manchester Journal, once used the Topix online commenting system before switching to Disqus several years ago. In 2016, the company followed a number of other news sites in deciding to end all online commenting in favor of encouraging letters to the editor or telephone calls.

Today, an auto-response message at the end of articles on the NENI news sites states: "If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom."

VTDigger.org articles end with this statement:

"VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

"No personal harassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1,000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy."

Kevin Moran, executive editor of the NENI papers, which include the flagship The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., said in announcing the decision to end online commenting in September 2016, "We're out to raise the quality of discussion about the people, places and things covered on our website. And while we like to blaze trails around here lately, we're following a growing list of news sites to drop online commenting over concerns about tone, incivility and abuse.

"So here is the alternative (and really, it's not an alternative, but a tested, tried-and-true institution of communication): Write us a letter."

Greg Sukiennik, managing editor of the NENI papers in Vermont, said Thursday, "The trouble with story comments was that it was too easy for a person to say horrible things about everyday people behind a convenient cloak of anonymity, with few or no repercussions. Anyone in the news was fair game — not just reporters, sources or public figures, but everyday people who happened to find themselves in a story. It created a toxic, hateful atmosphere and detracted from, rather than added to, the noble idea of newspaper as town square and marketplace of ideas. It became a place where no one dared speak out lest they, too, become the target of bullies. A community newspaper can and should do better than that, and I'm glad we did."

Keith Whitcomb Jr., the day editor of the Banner, said, "The decision to remove anonymous commenting from our websites was a good one. In the case of the Bennington Banner, usage was limited and what comments there were ended up being toxic at best. They offered nothing in the way of improving public discourse and if anything were a liability for us."

A VTDigger influence?

VTDigger got mixed reactions for switching to the Disqus commenting platform earlier this year, but the move may have contributed to at least one major insight when WIRED this week published an analysis of Disqus data showing that Vermont's commenters are the most "toxic" of any state in the country.

[https://www.wired.com/2017/08/internet-troll-map/]

Disqus used [Perspective API], a tool developed by Google's parent company, to score how much each comment reads as "rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable." The result? 12.2% of comments from Vermonters are rated as toxic. "The proportion of crummy comments is higher here than in any other state," WIRED writes.

[https://www.perspectiveapi.com/]

Is VTDigger part of the problem? WIRED and Disqus declined to comment on their methodology, but the article notes that their data comes from a 16-month analysis. VTDigger moved to Disqus in February 2017. If comments from this site are included in the analysis, only about six months of data would be available.

Other Vermont publishers use the platform, including Vermont Public Radio. Plus, the analysis appears to be based on the commenter's location — not the host site's — so comments written by Vermonters on national sites would also count toward the state's trolling total.

The Perspective API site offers a "Writing Experiment" that allows users to test samples of text to see how likely they are to be rated as "toxic." (Note that this is a preliminary estimate compared to the full analysis Disqus conducted using the API.)

To unscientifically analyze how VTDigger comments stack up, the site tested 24 hours of weekday comments using Perspective's Writing Experiment. Here's what they found:

The average comment from this period was about 24.8 percent likely to be rated as toxic.

15.3 percent of the comments reviewed were more likely than not to be rated toxic, scoring over 50 percent.

1.8 percent of the comments reviewed were over 90 percent likely to be rated as toxic.

Other national Disqus analysis findings noted in the WIRED.com article include:

Bellflower, Calif., had the distinction of being the most unlike its neighbors; while it isn't the most toxic city in the U.S., coming in 335 percent more toxic than the rest of California;

Beverly, N.J., had the busiest commenters, with 114 authors responsible for 150,151 comments. That averages out to 1,317 comments each;

Park Forest, Ill., was seen as the most toxic city, with 34 percent of comments hostile. But 99 percent of those came from just two authors;

The most toxic time of day is 3 a.m. — with 11 percent of comments hitting that mark. The most talkative time was 9 p.m., with 10,971 comments on average.

Michael Dougherty is VTDigger's community editor. Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org.


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