On Tuesday, Google quietly announced that they have added commenting functionality to Google News (US only), but with, as they put it, “a bit of a twist”:
We’ll be trying out a mechanism for publishing comments from a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question. Our long-term vision is that any participant will be able to send in their comments, and we’ll show them next to the articles about the story. Comments will be published in full, without any edits, but marked as “comments” so readers know it’s the individual’s perspective, rather than part of a journalist’s report.
[…] we’re hoping that by adding this feature, we can help enhance the news experience for readers, testing the hypothesis that — whether they’re penguin researchers or presidential candidates– a personal view can sometimes add a whole new dimension to the story.
Google are starting off with the very old-school tactic of asking for comments to be emailed to them, along with:
– A link to the story you are commenting on
– Your contact details: your name, title, and organization
– How we can verify your email address.
It is important that we are able to verify your identity, so please include clear instructions with your comment. If further information is needed, we will follow-up over email.
You can see a (rather dull) example of the new comments in action on this Google News link, a listing for an Arizona Republic article (syndicated from Bloomberg News), Kids: Food in McDonald’s wrappers taste better. The article says that a Stanford University study found that McDonald’s packaging makes pre-school children think that chicken nuggets, hamburgers and fries taste better.
The first comment is from Walk Riker, VP, McDonalds’s corporate comms, and is the sort of predictable corporate whitewash that you’d expect from McDonald’s. The second comment is from Dr Vic Strasburger, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, University of New Mexico, who discusses the problem with allowing advertising to small children.
Google have said that they’re limiting comments initially to “actual participants in the story in question”, but they seem to mean “anyone quoted or referenced in any of the stories in a cluster”, because Dr Strasburger is not mentioned in the Arizona Republic article, but is mentioned in a related Time article. That’s potentially quite a tangle of “actual participants” to sort out, and it looks like comments that refer to a specific article will end up getting lumped in with all the other comments on all related articles. Hardly the clear, transparent, relevant use of comments that we’ve become used to with blogs.
But I think that rule is deeply flawed, anyway. One of the things that frustrates me most about the media is their propensity to publish industry press releases seemingly in toto, without any balancing views. In these cases, it’s important that people not quoted in the story be able to comment in order to balance out poor or biased journalism. By only allowing the previously quoted to comment, Google News are, as the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart once said about MSM blogs, “giving a voice to the already voiced”.
I also wonder about the feasibility of scaling up full comment moderation. Google News is tracking 4,500 sources and linking to thousands of articles, just one comment on each is going to create a massive workload for the moderators. Even normal moderation of comments on a medium-sized media website is highly onerous, so much so that many news sites prefer the “report abuse” approach, rather than have to moderate each comment as it comes through. The volume of comments can be just huge, and if you add in verification of the commenter’s identity, you open up a whole new can of worms.
For starters, what type of verification are they going to do? Validating that a commenter is actually a human being is the most common sort of verification, and it’s pretty easy. KittenAuth can help you with that. Validating that a person is who they say they are is slightly trickier – people do have this nasty habit of pretending to be other people, and they can be really quite good at it. How far is Google going to go to make people prove that they are who they say they are, just so that they can leave a comment on a news article?
Once your identity has been satisfactorily verified by Google, and they’ve ascertained that you were at some point mentioned by a journalist in one of the articles that’s been clustered together as related, then you get to comment. I can see the logic behind this – Google thinks that if you are commenting under your real name, you’ll somehow be more responsible and provide a higher quality of comments. Sorry Google, it doesn’t work like that. Businesses will simply spin their corporate line, just like McDonald’s did, and individuals will still be capable of showing horrible lapses of judgement over what they think is suitable for public consumption. Putting a name against a comment doesn’t guarantee that that comment will be high-quality, or even factually correct. It just means it’s got a name against it.
I wonder if they are going to moderate the content of the comments too? I should imagine they would have to. If comments are to be “published in full, without any edits”, then they will have to delete anything which could be seen as libellous, defamatory or obscene, because otherwise they are at risk of legal action. What about comments that are just a bit sweary? I guess they’ll go too.
However, I’d bet good money that factually inaccurate, ill-concieved or woo-woo-based comments will get published without a problem, along with all the whitewash, propaganda, hype, disinformation and spin. And because, of course, only “participants” are eligible to comment, no one else will be able to debunk the nonsense that gets published.
Overall, I can’t say that I’m impressed by this – it’s both too messy and too orderly. It’s too messy because comments on different articles will all be bundled up in one heap and attached to the news cluster, thwarting any attempt to understand the real context within which the comment was made. And too orderly because only the incumbents get to take part – they are given the opportunity to make and remake their points, but the wider community doesn’t. Will this breed a good debate? I doubt it very much indeed.