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'The Guardian' Launches New Series Examining Online Abuse


For years, many of us have taken for granted the toxic combination of arguments and insults common to the comment sections under the articles of news sites. Women writers in particular have talked about the level of vitriol they deal with online. The Guardian actually looked into the problem for their writers, and in response launched a new series, "The Web We Want."

For more, we turn to editor Becky Gardiner. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: And writer Nesrine Malik. Welcome to you.

NESRINE MALIK: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So Becky Gardiner, apparently you guys researched the 70 million comments left on your site over the past 10 years.

GARDINER: That's right.

CORNISH: And what did you find in terms of, I guess, number of abusive comments?

GARDINER: Well, what we were looking at was all 70 million of the comments which had been left over 10 years, like you say. But about 2 percent of those had been blocked by our moderators. So we looked at the blocked comments and patents in those.

And what we found was that of 10 of our most regular opinion writers - one of whom is Nesrine, sitting here - who got the most blocked comments, eight of those were women, three of those were men who were nonwhite, and there were two black men. Now, as with most papers, most opinion writers are not black men or women sadly. And so this was quite a startling finding.

CORNISH: Nesrine, you were one of the writers, as Becky mentioned, that got this abuse. Can you give us an example of a typical comment that might be blocked?

MALIK: Well, the most popular type of comment that I got was relating to me going back to Saudi Arabia and marrying a terrorist. One I often get - I think a lot of writers get - is I can't believe you get paid to write this or I get graded which is, you know, two out of 10 for logic, six out of 10 for your face or I get that I'm being a pseudo-intellectual. And it's this sort of faint sneering, dismissive comments that are meant to undermine without abusing you directly.

CORNISH: How do they personally affect you, these comments, things people say?

MALIK: Well, they don't personally affect me very much. But I'm loath to speak for other people. I know people have different tolerances.

CORNISH: But it's coming at you from all directions, right? I mean, we're talking about the comment sections. But there's also social media. I know I went home to a bunch of tweets with someone calling me racist last night.

MALIK: Yeah.

CORNISH: I can't imagine yours are all that much easier.

MALIK: No, they're not. But social media is in a way better because once you block those people, you never see them again. The worst reaction I usually get is just frustration because I feel that a lot of thought has gone into writing about something quite difficult. And it's just been derailed by someone who wants to have a pop at me rather than engage with the issue.

GARDINER: I will say this - Becky here - I'd also say that when I was comment editor, that I really struggled sometimes to get women and people of color to write comment pieces. And they would sometimes say that the reason they wouldn't do it is 'cause they didn't like the reaction they got, not just on the site but on social media. And they just couldn't face exposing themselves to that. And so certainly, there were some people for whom it has a very strong, chilling effect. You know, they don't want to raise their voice because they don't want to get shouted down.

CORNISH: How do you tackle this problem? I mean, you've done this research now - right? - essentially found data backing up what you already know. What are the options for trying to improve the situation?

GARDINER: I mean, that's the sort of $60 million question, really. At The Guardian, we have asked readers to tell us what they think. We've had - about 1,500 readers have written quite long pieces to us explaining to us things they would like to see. We're in the process of working through those now.

Then internally, we're doing a lot more work about how to strengthen the moderation team, how to support them better. We're sort of exploring a lot of different ways.

And in the meantime, a decision's been taken not to open comments on some of the really difficult subjects. So, for example, conversations about some of the recent migrant crisis has been very difficult, immigration threads, pretty difficult. So we're just on those at the moment while we're trying to work out ways of dealing with the problem better.

CORNISH: As we mentioned in the introduction, the title of this series is called "The Web We Want." Becky, I'll start with you and then go to you, Nesrine. What is the web that we want?

GARDINER: I think we - speaking for myself - I would say that we want a place where it lives up to its original promise, really, which is that people can speak freely and whoever they are, so that they - that it isn't dominated by some voices at the expense of others.

CORNISH: And Nesrine Malik?

MALIK: I think the web we want is one where women or people of color are not a minority. I think that people need to make more of an effort to make sure that there are more women and more people of color writing, not just about female issues and not just about minority issues, so that when people do see them commenting, they don't think, how dare you talk about something that's not just about you as a minority status.

CORNISH: Editor Becky Gardiner of The Guardian, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GARDINER: Thanks very much for having me.

CORNISH: And Guardian writer Nesrine Malik, thank you for sharing your story.

MALIK: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.