Indie publishers are redefining the comments section

Why banning people from your outlet’s page is OK.

Moderating IndigiNews’s comment section was exhausting for Kelsie Kilawna, a Syilx & Secwépemc storyteller and journalist. “We’re trying to moderate something that is directly attacking us.”

At first, the editorial team aimed to put their 10 intentions into practice, which includes building bridges of understanding and creating communities of learning. But it wasn’t working. “Trying to educate everybody, it just wasn’t good for our own mental health and wellness,” Kilawna says.

Their solution? Prioritize the safety of BIPOC voices. “If you can’t come to our comment section with a good heart and good intention, then you can find another outlet because we just don’t care to engage those kinds of people on our platform,” says Kilawna. “Part of trauma-informed reporting is continuing that work in our comments section.”

Here is how two indie publishers are working to clean up online spaces during periods of growth. 

“If people are really trying to debate our Indigeneity and debate our trauma, then that’s just not the kind of readership that we’re interested in keeping.”

This is especially critical when indie publishers choose to promote posts online to grow their audience. “The comments section completely changes,” says Kilawna. “Almost to the point where we need to pick and choose what [posts] we need to sponsor … depending on our capacity to be able to moderate.”

She says that when people make racist or violent comments, the team also files a screenshot of  the poster’s profile to protect themselves and their readers from threatening behaviour. “We just don’t risk it. We just don’t make space for that.”

For Matthew DiMera, founder and publisher of The Resolve, a publication focused on Black, Indigenous and racialized communities, healthy comment moderation means “evolving from an ‘all speech is important’ mentality to something that’s more aligned with how things actually work online.”

“Trolls attract trolls,” he says. (As DiMera points out in a recent newsletter, this is especially true for Black, Indigenous and racialized people who engage with systemic issues like racism and colonialism online.)

Like Kilawna, he doesn’t argue with commenters. “If I don’t feel like the person’s coming from a genuine place, then this isn’t a place for them,” he says. “If you can sort of keep the space clean within whatever parameters you decide are important, they’ll go elsewhere, and they’ll go to places where they can provoke people and not be challenged.”

“We need to find something that is constructive and healthy.”

A healthy comment future

Both outlets have turned their efforts to the future of online spaces.

A zero-tolerance approach to harmful comments creates space for Indigenous youth to see themselves represented in a positive light, says Kilawna. “I love what we call the ‘auntie and uncle energy’ in our comments section, where people are just cheering each other on.”

IndigiNews is also hoping to bring on community volunteer moderators. “We do have a lot of people who are like, ‘Oh, I’m totally willing to do the labour,’” says Kilawna. “Whereas we can’t, we don’t have that energy.”

At The Resolve, DiMera emphasizes the importance of considering the comments you don’t have. “Is this a space where people feel like their contributions, no matter how big or small, will be welcomed?” 

He’s written extensively about creating space for more meaningful conversations and reflects on how a thoughtful email, though less visible, shows that people are interested in contributing.  “Just because comments are the way that people have traditionally participated doesn’t mean that that’s the way it needs to be going forward,” he says.

“It’s not about how we can get more comments. It’s: How can we engage people wherever they are, in whatever way works for them?”

Whether that’s in a closed online space or offline, they’re committed to this investment long-term, he says.

“These are really challenging and difficult and painful conversations for a lot of people. If people decide that they want to participate one-on-one, as opposed to in a group setting, then that’s what we’ll do.”

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