Facebook has been under the spotlight recently for questionable practices that increase polarisation and aggression online.
That's led some media—including Yle News, the English-language service at the Finnish public service broadcaster—to limit users' opportunities to comment on stories on the platform.
"Moderating Facebook comments can take a lot of our time, and for us that time is always taken from content production," said Egan Richardson, team leader and producer at Yle News.
The unit first reduced the frequency of posts on Facebook, and then reverted to posting all published articles but turned off comments on most posts.
"Doing 'well' on Facebook means playing to their algorithm, and that rewards polarising content that generates a lot of angry comments. We felt like trying to do that was not a good use of our time, and we want a more constructive relationship with the audience," Richardson explained.
Yle's Finnish-language service still allows comments on all Facebook posts, and has dedicated resources for moderation. The Yle News page is moderated by reporters on their normal news production shifts.
Turning off comments on Facebook allows that time to be used to create original content, rather than moderating discussions.
Tool for polarisation
Researchers say it's a problem that's particularly acute on Facebook.
Paul Reilly,a Senior Lecturer in Social Media & Digital Society at the University of Sheffield, told Yle News that the platform encourages certain types of interaction.
"I think it encourages instant reaction," Reilly explained on the All Points North podcast. "Most people who comment on things or respond to things do so in a hurry in an emotional state. And often the content that gets pushed towards them that they comment on is often designed to trigger that emotional response. It's often antagonistic."
Paul Reilly discussed the issue on the APN podcast. You can listen to the full show using the embedded player here, via Yle Areena, Spotify (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or Apple Podcasts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or on your usual podcast player using the RSS feed (siirryt toiseen palveluun).
Article continues after audio.
Facebook continues to rank content in users' news feeds according to what will receive the highest engagement.
That means that content that generates angry responses does best on Facebook, and the company seems unable or unwilling to change that.
The Wall Street Journal's 'Facebook Files' reporting has revealed how Facebook allows high profile figures to skirt its rules, and shows that Facebook researchers knew about Instagram's toxic effect (siirryt toiseen palveluun) on teenage girls' mental health but the company did not act on the problem.
"Facebook Inc. knows, in acute detail, that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm, often in ways only the company fully understands," said (siirryt toiseen palveluun) the WSJ.
MIT Technology Review has reported how Facebook's own studies have confirmed that content "more likely to receive user engagement is more likely of a type known to be bad. (siirryt toiseen palveluun)"
And earlier this year the Guardian reported that Facebook's moderation guidance allows users to call for the death of public figures (siirryt toiseen palveluun), including journalists.
Many media outlets are re-evaluating their relationships with social media firms after noticing how toxic platforms can become.
In June Canadian public broadcaster CBC turned off Facebook comments (siirryt toiseen palveluun) on its news posts, saying it had become a burden to moderate "obnoxious and hateful comments."
Brodie Fenlon, Editor-in-Chief at CBC, said at the time that the company wanted to try a different way to interact, to benefit journalists and their audience.
"If public discourse is a litmus test of the health of a society, the conversation on social media suggests we have a problem," wrote Fenlon. "It's one thing for our journalists to deal with toxicity on these platforms. It's another for our audience members who try to engage with and discuss our journalism to encounter it on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where they are almost guaranteed to be confronted by hate, racism and abuse."
Since then CBC has covered a general election campaign without comments on its Facebook page, and some 50,000 comments a day were made on its own website in the last week of the election campaign.
Speaking to Yle News in September, Fenlon said that that the CBC experience of life without Facebook comments has been largely positive.
"We're pleased with the experiment so far. We are posting a greater diversity of stories to Facebook now that we're not afraid of the impact the comments might have on our story subjects, especially those who come from communities often targeted by hateful comments. We have certainly heard from staff and commenters who say their mental health is better; that the comments led to stress and anxiety."
When the Yle News decision was first announced, the majority of the reaction from the audience was positive. But some were unhappy about the inability to comment.
Despite the multiple serious issues around Facebook as a platform, many Yle News readers and listeners felt it served a purpose. There are limited ways to connect for foreigners in Finland, and some were sad to see this one restricted.
"People are angry when they feel they lose their community," said Suvi Uski, who runs a company selling anti-bullying services to firms and individuals dependent on social media. "Once you take the comments away, it's no longer a community, it's one-way communication."
Long-time reader and commenter Jamie MacDonald concurred, saying, "I think people hate being limited in any way, but I'd rather see the journalists at Yle News being able to focus on the news, even though I miss the comments section sometimes."
Uski noted that studies have shown that on Facebook in general, users often do not click on articles, they simply react to headlines.
"People have in general developed an entitlement where they think they have a right to comment on everything all the time. Commenting on news articles on Facebook is not a human right," MacDonald said.
Over the past few years, the volume of comments has grown and so has the share of aggressive ones, making it a less than welcoming place for many people.
"If you see 30 hateful comments below a news article, you may start thinking that there is so much hate, when in reality it's an automated bot," MacDonald, who is familiar with social media management, said of the platform’s tendency to reward extreme positions that generate "engagement."
Despite the platform's negative aspects, Yle News' Facebook page had become a space where some foreigners in Finland felt they could connect, according to longtime reader Stefano Petri.
"People felt betrayed by the comment function closing because there are few forums like this for foreigners here," he said, emphasising that immigrants pay the Yle tax just like Finns, which should entail access to a social media community in English, similar to what's available in Finnish.
Uski said that ultimately, the issue of social media moderation is a question far exceeding the English-language news unit, it's about how the public broadcaster wants to interact with audiences.
Yle's Finnish news operation has staff designated to moderate comments, but keeping discussions safe and healthy remains an uphill battle.
"We filter 1.4 million comments a year. We do our best to moderate Facebook, but with these volumes some comments that shouldn’t make it through may slip in," said Riina Malhotra, executive producer for digital services at Yle’s Finnish-language news unit.
Although CBC readers and reporters are happy with the switch away from Facebook, there's one key difference.
CBC encourages users to comment on its website instead of using third-party platforms like Facebook. That's not currently possible at Yle News.
"During the election, we saw a lot of commenting activity on our website—up to 50,000 comments a day for the last week of the campaign," said Fenlon. "We can't prove a correlation, but we believe there are many other places our audience can comment and have a say on our stories."
Richardson meanwhile said that Yle News and its reporters do interact with audience members via Twitter and WhatsApp, but admitted it's an imperfect solution.
Ideally Yle would be able to open comments on articles on the English news website, but that requires signing up for an Yle account—a feature not yet available in English, but one that may be on the way.
"We are working to get the English version of the Yle account up and running in early 2022," said Anne-Mari Silvast, who manages engagement at Yle.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Yle News offers a weekly newsletter and a Twitter (siirryt toiseen palveluun) feed, as well as WhatsApp (+358 44421 0909) for people who want to discuss issues. The unit reads and responds to messages there in its weekly podcast, All Points North.
Feedback, tips and contributions are welcome at email@example.com.