Guardian comments are destroying civilisation, Part II

Becky Gardiner just published a fascinating and damning study on the endemic hostility towards women and minorities in Guardian comments:

By using blocked comments as a proxy for abusive or dismissive comments, I found that articles written by women attracted a significantly higher percentage of com- ments that were subsequently blocked than those written by men, regardless of the subject of the article. This effect was heightened when the articles ran in a particularly male-dominated section of the site [e.g. Sport, Film, Technology]. I also found evidence that articles written by BAME writers attracted disproportionate levels of blocked comments, even though the research was not designed to reveal this.

The preliminary findings of the research were shared on the Guardian, and predictably, the commenters did not react well. Of course, Gardiner also analysed the content of those comments:

Half the comments (1,235, or 50.24%) … were coded as negative; 294 (11.96%) were positive; 799 (32.51%) were neutral.


Two-hundred-and-twelve (17.17%) of the negative comments criticised the research methodology, mainly on one of two grounds: either claiming that the research had failed to take moderator bias into account (this is discussed below), or that it had failed to consider the quality of the articles (for example, they said that articles by women may be more “worthy of complaint”). The study did not control for article quality, but assumed that, taken as a whole, articles written by women are not of poorer quality or otherwise more “deserving” of abusive or dismissive responses than articles written by men. In the author’s view, this “methodological” criticism is an implicit form of victim-blaming.

A further 277 (22.43%) of the negative comments were overtly victim-blaming. Some asserted that female and/or black journalists in general were more likely to write poor quality or controversial articles—for example,

“I would hardly say that all woman writers write daft things. But a lot of them do,”


“Male author: Neutral / economic / sport / war / politics (general) articles; Female author: More click-bait / anti-male articles / feminist articles.”

Others blamed individuals for the abuse they received—for example,

“Thrasher gets negative feedback because he racebaits, not because he’s black.”

These commenters failed to engage with the finding that the gender disparity was not confined to a few individuals, but was seen across the entire corpus, or that articles written by women got more blocked comments regardless of the subject they were writing about, and that this proportion increases when they write on subjects traditionally regarded as “male.”

Part of the problem is that many of commenters reject the value of moderation entirely:

Some commenters argued that all moderation was a de facto attack on free speech, and what the Guardian sees as self-evident—that commenters should abide by the community standards—was far from being universally accepted. This points to a fundamental breakdown between the assumptions of the Guardian and a significant cohort of its commenters, and will complicate any attempt to manage comments.

Gardiner ends with a couple of recommendations:

Moderation is not endlessly scalable, and although technologies (better filters, machine learning tools, and so on) will be an important part of the solution, they will not be enough. What is needed is a change of culture. If comment threads are to be diverse and inclusive, media organisations need to create small, curated comment spaces where journalists can genuinely engage with what is said, even when it is critical; they will also need to develop anti-racist and feminist strategies to counter racist and sexist speech, and offer stronger institutional support to journalists and others who do experience this.

Secondly, this research indicates that the hostility to women and people of colour below the line mirrors a historical institutional hostility to women and people of colour “above the line”—the discriminatory hiring and commissioning practices over many decades that have left them struggling to get published at all.

I’m a paying member of the Guardian because I value the journalism they perform. But while it’s worth noting that the comments on BBC News, The Daily Mail, and many parts of Reddit are far worse, I expect much more of the Guardian.

Three years ago, I wrote a post here, facetiously-titled Guardian comments are destroying civilisation. Life comes at you fast.


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