This Is Why Comment Sections Are So Important

Photo: Courtesy of Jigsaw.
Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
Look at any online publication's comment section, replies to a celebrity's tweet, or Facebook message board, and you're statistically likely to see some form of online harassment. Over the years, we've watched multiple media outlets and individuals address this harassment by turning off comment sections and deleting entire social media accounts.
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You can't really blame them: The scope of the internet makes moderating every comment posted next to impossible. But getting rid of online conversations is not the right solution — and can actually have a negative impact.
“The internet is our public square,” says Yasmin Green, the director of research and development at Jigsaw, a tech incubator owned by Google's parent company, Alphabet. “It’s where people come to share their ideas, confront opposing viewpoints, and to learn new things. We ought to care about whether the internet is a place where people can discover and debate new ideas — agree or disagree — with civility.”
Finding ways to use technology as a weapon against online harassment is Jigsaw's latest focus. It's fitting, given the incubator's dedication to tackling what it calls “some of the toughest challenges of our time.” In the seven years since its inception, Jigsaw (formerly known as Google Ideas) has developed products for fighting violent extremism, censorship, and corruption, while also creating tools to make the internet more accessible in countries like Iran, where the freedom to browse online is not a given like it is here in the U.S.
At the end of February, Jigsaw unveiled a tool called Perspective. Using machine learning, Perspective can identify comments that are toxic, helping moderators sort through comments faster, and letting users know just how egregious their words are before posting them. Try typing something into Perspective here and the program will give you a percentage that shows how toxic other users would rate your comment.
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In the past, we'd probably refer to people who post highly toxic comments as trolls, a characterization that Green doesn't like. "It’s too easy to label someone a 'troll' and not examine all the factors that contribute to online toxicity," she says. "Let’s look at the data: A study released earlier this year found that a quarter of all posts flagged as abusive come from people with no prior record of abusive posts. This suggests that much of the online toxicity is attributable to ordinary people. The researchers found evidence that a trigger for antisocial online behavior is prior exposure to harassing online comments, which supports the intuition that individual instances of toxicity can lead to overall toxic environments."
Perspective's creators hope to stop this cycle in its tracks by providing users with a key asset: information. Green believes that if people can understand how toxic their words are before posting them, they'll start making better decisions about what they write.
The end goal is not to make to make the internet a happy-go-lucky place where everyone agrees with everyone else. That would be unrealistic and ineffective.
"With technology, let's achieve what we couldn't before: discourse to understand others' opinions and to have empathy without having to agree on everything," Green says. "The more opinions that we can include, the more likely we are to come up with a well-informed view [on an issue], even if we disagree."
Perspective is still in its early stages and for now, only four outlets, The Economist, Wikipedia, The Guardian, and The New York Times, are experimenting with it. The version that was released is just a small part of what Green says is a much larger project looking at different ways to improve conversations online. In the future, this might include tools to keep comment sections on topic, focused on the article at hand and not veering off — as many comment sections do — into extraneous issues.
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At the end of the day, it's about creating technology that allows different online communities to have different conversations, all of which are inclusive and governed by specific engagement rules. "When I'm at work I want to have a different conversation than the one I have when I'm with my husband," Green says. "I can do that and I think that's the kind of flexibility that we should be aspiring to do with technology, too."
That flexibility may be a ways off, but if the current version of Perspective is successful, it might create what the internet hasn't yet seen: spirited debates that are shockingly civil.
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