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Publishers: Read the comments to find misinformation you need to debunk

March 23, 2022 | By Olivia Collette, Director of Content and Communications – Viafoura @viafoura

Uncertainty has been prevalent over the past couple of years thanks largely to a deadly and contagious virus. That’s only been exacerbated by right-wing extremism triggering dangerous protests in two North American capital cities and an armed conflict in Ukraine.

In times of crisis, uncertainty propels questions that come more quickly than answers, which creates the perfect breeding ground for misinformation.

“In these last couple of years, there’s been too much information, and not enough time to vet it,” says our director of moderation, Leigh Adams whose team manages comments sections for media brands in North America, Europe, and Latin America. And, increasingly, “audiences turn to online news instead of watching TV because they don’t have the time to wait.”

Comments reveal valuable insights

A media organization’s comments section is the perfect place to identify issues that need to be fleshed out and contextualized, because that’s where your eager audience will post its questions first. The added bonus is the comments also reflect what readers actually want to know about.

Adams’ exposure to the media sites of multiple major media organizations provides insights into what audiences are thinking, relative to different events. Her experience can also help publishers understand how to mine the comments for information that will help them better serve their audiences. So, let’s dig in.

Russian invasion of Ukraine

During the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine, Adams’ team found that many people want to know what’s real and what’s not. This tracks, because many of them are aware that Russia ran a tireless disinformation campaign to interfere with the U.S.’s 2016 presidential election. In light of allegedly fake videos and photos that have circulated since the beginning of the conflict, commenters also want confirm whether what they’ve seen on social media is true.

“If the news responds specifically to misinformation, it’ll be productive and perform well,” Adams says. “Stories that fact-check will help users filter out the noise.”

Trucker convoy in Ottawa

The beginning of 2022 in Canada was marked by the organized protest against vaccine mandates on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, which protesters contested would impact the livelihood of many truckers. Despite the fact that the majority of Canadian truck drivers are vaccinated, a “convoy” of truckers and supporters of unvaccinated truckers marched or drove to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, where they staged a disruptive blockade for a few weeks. The movement inspired other similar protests elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. It was even compared to the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

In the early days of this protest, Adams says that commenters wondered how protesters could take that much time off — many protesters were not from the Ottawa region and spent several full days participating in events — and whether or not they had jobs. This line of questioning led journalists to dig into the protest’s financing, and it eventually emerged that the convoy was largely funded by American donors.

This means commenters’ questions at least partially influenced important reporting about the protest and who was behind it.

From the very beginning of this specific crisis, the situation has been in constant flux. Learning about the virus, reacting to it, adapting to it, treating it, vaccines, resurgences, plateaus: every ebb and flow of Covid-19 has been, and is still, happening in real-time.

Two years later, Adams finds that readers still tend to use the comments section to fact-check the latest developments in the pandemic. What is the science behind the lock-downs? What mitigation or preventive measures are they employing elsewhere in the world? What is Ivermectin? How do we measure what’s working and what isn’t? What does “living with the virus” really mean?

The pandemic

The other thing Adams observed is that commenters consistently turned to local media as a source of truth. Perhaps because pandemic strategies are decentralized and differ from one country to the next, when audiences turn to local media for pandemic information, they know they’ll be able to wade through the clamor and find content that’s both relevant and applicable to their region.

Cut through the confusion

“Comments are the most valuable data point if you want your audience to come back,” Adams says. “They’re like eavesdropping on water cooler conversations.”

By listening carefully to what your audience is saying, you can generate stories they’ll care about and want to return for. But during crises, Adams has seen that readers especially rely on media to answer their most pressing questions and give them the facts they need to stop worrying about the fiction.

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