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Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Southeast Missourian joins Google in test to elevate civility

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Southeast Missourian will be participating in a pilot program with Jigsaw, a division of Google's parent corporation, to test whether technology can help elevate online community discussion. Your participation and perspective will be vital. Together, we have an opportunity to shape future online commentary not only locally but across the country (and world).

Is this project important? Yes. The recent tragedy in Pittsburgh, where a crazed anti-Semite was revealed to have egged himself on via an extremist social network, underlines the danger of toxic commentary. It also underscores the trend for people to huddle within groups of the like-minded, creating echo chambers, which turn differences of opinion into tribal warfare. Newspaper commentary zones are an anti-thesis to the echo chambers, because they exist for the broader community and not just for specialized interests (or self-selected "friends").

The challenge is to create a robust, inclusive place for the free exchange of ideas, which elevates community discussion without egregiously limiting it. One of our questions in this project is determining whether lowering the obnoxiousness of comments broadens and increases participation. (Confession: 19 months ago we removed anonymous commentary from semissourian.com with the goal of elevating comment quality. The identities of commenters are now verified and comments must be "signed". Fewer people are commenting.)

Is this project complicated? Yes. There are many people who are concerned that big technology companies -- let alone media organizations -- are biased against their perspective. To combat suspicion, we are going to be fully transparent about what we're trying to do. Meanwhile, the Southeast Missourian has to do this all in a way that is sustainable -- which can live beyond a pilot program. For example, some digital sites retain a large staff to review commentary before it is posted. That's not possible for us. It would cost too much. Instead, we are going to rely on Google's technology and you to help us weed out uncivil comments. We appreciate Google providing this technology, as well as a grant to offset programming and personnel expenses during the trial.

As background: Semissourian.com already looks to our community -- you -- to help police comments. If a reader comes across something objectionable, if registered, he or she can alert a review team to inspect the comment for removal. The drawbacks of the current system, however, are many, including: 1) If no one reports the objectionable content, it can sit on our site for hours or longer, infecting the flow of the discussion. 2) The review team does not work 24 hours a day, so, even if something is reported, it might be several hours before it is reviewed. 3) Only those registered for commentary can report content, something that was implemented after more than a few online users abused the alert function by reporting comments they disagreed with, but which were not toxic. 4) Our biggest accountability tool is banning users who flagrantly (via a single incidence) or regularly (via constant pushing of the envelop and thus sapping our attention) violate community standards, which in itself is a blunt instrument.

Here's the plan.

Starting today, we are turning on Jigsaw's technology (called "Perspective API"), which will internally rate comments on a continuum of civility from non-toxic to toxic with "uncertain" in between. Upon completion of a comment, before it's posted live online, the commenter will receive feedback. Comments that fail community guidelines (defined by us through interaction with our user community and not by Jigsaw) will be rejected immediately. Those in a questionable range will be posted for others to see but at the same time be immediately forwarded to an expanded review team. Meanwhile, we very much want users to continue to use the "report comment" button to let us know when they see objectionable content. This will allow us to review how the technology is flagging content. Lessons we learn will be shared with Google.

Finally, if you make a comment that you feel is within community standards or otherwise worthwhile, but which is disallowed, we'd like you to send us a note about that, too. Understanding "false positives" is a key aspect of the test.

Launching in a few weeks, we'll also test the technology on our sports-focused semoball.com site, which still allows anonymous commentary.

Over time, on semissourian.com and semoball.com, we will tweak thresholds to determine how such changes affect participation. Important to us with this whole project is elevating commentary style -- making it more civil -- while not limiting commentary topics or perspectives. The exceptions: Comments under news articles are meant to be germane to the story content so, if notified, we're more likely to remove comments that belong elsewhere even if they're within community standards. More freewheeling discussions are encouraged to take place in the forums. We also reserve the right to shut down and ban users for obscenities and other violations of community standards, including racist comments and charges of racism. Decisions about these exceptions remain the purview of Southeast Missourian staff and not Google's technology.

Let us know your thoughts. Try out the new commentary tools. And send feedback to commenting@semissourian.com. We're looking to learn along with you.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.com.

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