Jigsaw is fixing comment sections, one language at a time

May 29, 2019

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

There are a handful of places that every reporter dreads.

Town hall meetings with indeterminate lengths. The front step of a home after some tragic occurrence. And, for quite different reasons, the comments sections on their own websites.

News site comment sections often offer a noxious cocktail of unprovoked ad hominem attacks, casual racism and advertisements for products that could get this newsletter sent to your spam folder. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

For the past few years, some news organizations have used a tool called Perspective to filter the worst comments from their sites. The tool comes from the nonprofit Jigsaw — a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — which aims to use technology to tackle tough problems facing democracy.

Perspective focuses on comments “because it’s where a lot of conversations happen by volume,” said Patricia Georgiou, Jigsaw’s head of partnerships and business development. “People don’t think of a political debate in a vacuum — they start when it’s surfaced by the news. A lot of that is happening in comments sections of news publishers.”

The problem is that people use comments for nefarious purposes. “You can hide behind anonymity to attack people at scale with a few three clicks,” Georgiou said. “This level of toxicity is making people turn away from the internet as a sphere for exchanges.”

Perspective uses machine learning — a fancy way of saying that Jigsaw threw loads of comments at it and pointed out the bad — to scan comments for “toxic” words or phrases and assign a score based on its perceived level of “toxicity.” The score reflects a probability that the comment is toxic.

News organizations can choose what to do with that number, but many hand them off to human moderators for review before publishing. In that way, Perspective transforms a taxing, manual process into a back-and-forth conversation between human and machine.

Until late last year, “it was working in English extremely well, really successful and filling a huge need in the ecosystem. But it was only in English,” Georgiou said.

In December, after a “not trivial” process of gathering millions of comments and teaching Perspective the nuances of a new language, Jigsaw launched in Spanish. And last week, just before the European Parliament elections, Jigsaw released Perspective in French.

As with most tech solutions to human problems, Perspective has been the subject of a fair share of criticism, and though it is free it takes some coding knowledge to install (though Georgiou says the open source Coral Project can lend a hand it getting it up and running). But at a time when many news organizations are jettisoning their comments sections, a solution to news sites’ most toxic problem is a breath of filtered air.

LOW IMPACT: Want to try Perspective before you commit to using it? Jigsaw offers an experimental Chrome plugin called Tune that can filter comments that contain attacks, insults, profanity and other “toxic” talk on popular sites like YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter.

PICTURE THIS: At a time when 43% of U.S. adults get their news from Facebook, it’s important for media organizations to make sure they’re getting it right. A new Pew study found that men appear twice as often as women in news images posted to Facebook, with a majority of photos showing exclusively men (on the cover of Time, the opposite seems to be happening). The study also found that women rarely appear in news images about the economy and, oddly, women’s faces appear smaller in all photos except for those about TV, music or movies. One possible explanation: It’s not just the photos. Journalism has a gender representation problem.

PROTECT YOURSELF: When I’m not writing this newsletter (or slinking around in the internet’s fresh growth in search of new tools), I’m often teaching digital tools to journalists and other communicators. Out of the 75 or so tools I share the most often, the most popular by a mile (that’s 1.61 kilometers for you non-imperial folks) is Canva, an amazing tool for designing graphics. The beauty of Canva is that it enables lousy designers and the Photoshop-less to create attractive graphics for social media, presentations and just about anywhere else. But bad news, fellow Canva lovers: The site has been hacked. The culprit seems to have obtained usernames, real names, email addresses and city and country information, but was unable to access passwords because of Canva’s security. There’s not much to do, but it’s a good reminder to keep an eye on your credit card and use a variety of passwords across the internet.

JOT IT DOWN: As more journalists move from focusing on one medium to blending them all together, so too must our tools. Have you ever tried to organize an interactive longform story with a Google Doc? I love Docs, but between the tool’s middling support for visuals, confusing multi-app functionality on mobile and linear format, it’s a nightmare. And yet I keep turning to it. I’m planning to try Milanote next time. It’s a browser and app-based tool to organize ideas and projects into drag and drop boards, complete with checklists, workflows and more. Some of my non-journalism designer friends swear by it.

INSPIRATION: The New York Times wrote a story about how big cities have big problems with rats. The article is both informative and interesting — pretty standard for the Gray Lady. Not so standard is the rat that runs across the bottom of the screen as you scroll down. When I wrote about how news products can invoke a sense of wonder a few weeks back, small yet thoughtful touches like this are exactly what I had in mind. If that’s not your cheese, check FiveThirtyEight’s look at where Republicans and Democrats live in your (U.S., obviously) city.

FRESH TYPE: From faded paperback covers to ’70s LPs, Honda Civic odometers to Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign materials, fantastic fonts exist everywhere where there are eyes to gawk at them. Fonts In Use is an independent archive that is trying to document them all. The next time I update my portfolio site or put together a flyer, I fully intend to spend hours on it hunting for inspiration. (h/t Burkhard Luber, a lecturer in international politics and international crisis areas based in Germany.) Oh, and if you’re looking for something a little less static, I’ve got just the thing for you.

JET SET RADIO: Have you ever wanted to listen to recordings from NASA missions concurrently with ambient music? Or perhaps John F. Kennedy announcing the Peace Corps over ominous chimes? Police dispatch audio from Los Angeles with shimmery guitars? No? Just me? Erm … Give it a try. It’s oddly relaxing and might help you focus.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.