News websites have too few moderators, not too many anonymous commenters

This weekend the Quad-City Times shut off comments on its website. Executive editor Autumn Phillips had been “debating this for months” and discussed the change with some longtime readers as well as with the newspaper’s staff. The last straw was a stream of racist or otherwise offensive off-topic comments below a story about man who had died after being attacked in an area public park.

I’ve been watching this for years at newspapers across the country. It’s not unique to the Quad-City Times, though the prejudices vary by region. Every once in a while, I see a lively, on-topic debate. In a sea of ridiculousness, hate speech and online bullying, I occasionally read thoughtful perspectives I hadn’t considered. Unfortunately, that isn’t the norm and it’s been a very long time since I believed in the dream media companies once had about providing a town square for the community to meet and use our journalism as a launching pad to connect, debate and bring about change. […]

Today, if you want to comment on an article, you won’t be able to post anonymously on our website. You’ll need to use one of the other forums we provide. […]

It takes courage to share an opinion when your name is attached. Knowing that, it’s my hope that disabling comments on qctimes.com will contribute to a civil equilibrium, a return to thoughtful discourse and elevate the discussion around the important issues we are facing in the Quad-Cities and as a nation.

I support Phillips’ decision and wholeheartedly agree that for the most part, newspaper comments sections are a “sea of ridiculousness, hate speech and online bullying.”

But the key problem isn’t anonymous commenters. It’s the failure to moderate.

A growing number of media outlets have eliminated online comment sections. Phillips referenced this article from Wired, in which Klint Finley chronicled “A Brief History of the End of the Comments” at sites such as Popular Science, CNN, the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Daily Beast. According to Phillips, National Public Radio will soon shut off comments. Iowa’s second-largest daily newspaper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, stopped publishing online comments years ago.

Many news sites have turned off comments for the same reason Phillips took action: “trolls” continually hijacked threads, contributing nothing of value and often engaging in harassment.

The Des Moines Register’s editors sought to address that problem by requiring commenters to post on the newspaper’s site through Facebook. The theory was, making people use their “real names” would curb the worst behavior.

Of course, it didn’t work. As the Register’s Metro Voices columnist Daniel Finney pointed out in this thread, “scores of people … set up fake Facebook accounts to make comments on our website.” The Register’s comments section is a disgrace, containing almost no useful dialogue or respectful exchange of ideas.

I understand why journalists often view anonymous commenters as the source of the problem. The most obnoxious online harassers typically don’t use their real names. Journalists who put their bylines on every story may understandably view someone who publishes under a pseudonym as a coward unwilling to stand behind his or her words.

Not surprisingly, since I chose to blog as “desmoinesdem” for many years before publishing my name on this site, I’ve always viewed the issue differently. From its inception in 2007, Bleeding Heartland has had many commenters with handles that obscure their identity, either because they value their privacy or because using their real name could cause problems for them at work. Hundreds of threads have been enriched by insights, opinions, or links shared by those users (to name just a few, ModerateIADem, 2laneIA, corncam, cocinero, rockm, DCCyclone, and x).

Websites with much larger readerships than this one have had thriving comment sections including regular anonymous contributors. Funny, on-target postings at Eschaton helped launch the blogging career of the much-admired “Digby,” only revealed to be Heather Digby Parton years later. The late Steve Gilliard’s News Blog had a strong community including “Mrs. Robinson” (Sara Robinson of the Orcinus blog), “Lower Manhattanite,” and “Hubris Sonic.”

The president and chief operating officer of The Atlantic, Bob Cohn, reflected on the pros and cons of online comments:

At their best, comment threads can put topics in a new light, stir discussions, create community, even uncover new talent. Richard Lawson, now a senior writer at The Atlantic Wire, rose through the Gawker ranks from anonymous commenter to star writer. At The Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates had a particularly incisive commenter who went by the handle Cynic. We thought his observations in the comments section were so good that we asked him to contribute to the site under his own name. Now Yoni Appelbaum, a doctoral candidate at Brandeis, writes for us on everything from the Civil War to presidential politics to Amtrak.

Of course, commenters frequently are not at their best. Too often, comment sections are cesspools of vitriol, magnets for haters and trolls and spammers. Threads get hijacked so they are only tangentially connected to the topic of the underlying post. The lack of friction — mere seconds elapse between furious keystroking and posting to the world — can privilege snark over enlightenment.

The main issue here is whether comments create such a negative environment that they detract from the reading experience, a proposition to which many would answer yes. But some researchers fear the problem is deeper than that. A study by professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who read a neutral article about nanotechnology followed by uncivil comments were more likely to perceive risks with the technology than people who read the exact same article with civil comments appended. The alarming implication here is that the comments affect how readers understand the journalism.

NPR covered Applebaum’s journey from anonymous commenter to named author here. The Daily Kos website employs several regular contributors who began blogging under screen names (for instance, David Nir, formerly known as DavidNYC). Mark Blumenthal used to publish online as the “Mystery Pollster.”

Last year Eva Holland provided an in-depth look at “How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet.” Coates didn’t magically attract a group of well-behaved, knowledgeable commenters. He put a lot of effort into moderating.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, the nature of his forum was a deliberate choice from the outset. “I wanted a comment section that I wanted to read,” he told me. As an African American, he said, he was turned off by the naked racism that was routinely permitted to stand below most political blogs. His gaming background also played into his vision of the comments and the blog posts as a cohesive whole, an ongoing discussion. The comments, he believed, should be part of the content.

Beyond the ongoing political coverage, Coates quickly began to establish some of the blog’s secondary themes and enthusiasms: music, poetry, football, comic books and Dungeons & Dragons. All the while, the ranks of regular commenters were growing—and they were becoming an essential part of the whole project: Coates frequently highlighted particular insights, pulling them into blog posts of their own, and, as he’d promised from the start, he increasingly turned to the commenters for information about areas he didn’t know well—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for instance. Blog posts sometimes consisted entirely of a request for input in the comments.

The rules of the space were evolving, too. Trolling was verboten, and commenters were discouraged from responding to people who were obviously looking to provoke; he didn’t want the discussion devolving into an un-resolvable argument. (The blog’s homegrown etiquette was later codified in what became known as the “dinner party rules.”) As the blog grew in popularity, Coates’ reminders about bad behavior became more frequent; repeat offenders were banned, and sometimes, he had to resort to closing comments on a post entirely.

Holland noted that Coates’ blog no longer fosters the tight-knit community long known as “the Golden Horde.”

If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.

That sense of community has declined or ceased to exist on many politically-oriented websites. Finley noted in his feature for Wired last year, “in many cases, the most vibrant conversations about a particular article or topic are happening on sites like Facebook and Twitter.” Over the past five years or so, I’ve noticed that readers are less likely to post comments on Bleeding Heartland and more apt to share my posts on their own social media feeds, where they discuss the topic with Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

I don’t agree that every news or political site would be improved by abandoning comments, though. A former journalist shared some useful feedback on Tom Witosky’s post last week about the essence of good reporting. Just today, a pseudonymous commenter pointed out a defect in local news coverage of an Olympian with Iowa roots. Unfamiliar with the backstory, I learned something from that comment.

I moderate all Bleeding Heartland posts and delete comments that:

• offer nothing but bigotry or ad-hominem attacks;
• appear to violate copyright or defamation laws;
• include spam links;
• attempt to “out” people who write under pseudonyms;
• have the hallmarks of “sock puppetry”; or
• impersonate a public figure.

Granted, moderating here is much easier than staying on top of comments at a site like the Des Moines Register or local broadcasters KCCI-TV and WHO-HD. In addition, some publishers do nothing about abusive or harassing content out of fear that moderating online comments could make them liable for users’ words.

But the high-traffic site Salon.com was able to fix its “embarrassing” comment section, in part by hiring a full-time moderator. Incidentally, Salon didn’t ban the use of pseudonyms. That site’s “community adviser” Annemarie Dooling explained in a guest piece for Wired why “Forcing Commenters to Use Real Names Won’t Root Out the Trolls.” People setting up phony Facebook accounts isn’t the only reason.

The thought process behind non-anonymity is simple, in that anyone who has their identity attached to their comments will be more careful about what they say in a digital forum because it can be traced back to their family and career. But to believe that a system of name verification would deter uncivil discourse, we’d have to believe that all off-color comments are the results of malicious intent, that is, comments specifically for the purpose of aggravation, to cause harm or instill fear. Purposefully hurtful comments would be embarrassing or harmful to attach to your name, the opinions you want to hide from your family and job. But, the truth is that many vitriolic comments come from readers who are proud to associate these views with their identity.

Men’s rights activists, thought to live primarily in the shadows of reddit under fake identities, use their names to refute feminism, proudly display photos of themselves and have even created a live conference; read Jessica Roy’s account of their Detroit meet-up for just two minutes to understand their connection and passion to their movement and you’ll see that there’s little shame involved. On PornHub, amateur videos are shared back and forth between members, with no regard for states of undress and vulnerability. Climate deniers, gun advocates and white supremacists proudly display their points of view, and within open communities with little editorial involvement, conversations grow perilous quickly.

Even Google recently pulled back on their forced real-name policy on G+. To enable real names for all commenters, you leave your civil readers open to cyber-bullying on multiple outlets, and real-life danger and you’ve mistakenly created a dangerous and antagonizing forum. And even still, the names give us no immediate indication of that community member’s background, qualifications or truthfulness. What information has that name really given us, and if useful, can we find that information without putting our readers in danger?

The Atlantic’s Cohn got it right three years ago: “Either commit to aggressive moderation or reconsider commenting’s utility.” Writers like Coates and Gilliard made it a priority to enforce their site’s rules and were able to keep anonymous commenters more or less under control. On the other hand, unmoderated comment sections degenerate into name-calling, especially by misogynistic or racist keyboard warriors.

If the Quad-City Times was unable to devote the resources needed to police the comments section, the editor made the right choice this weekend, as did the publishers of the much smaller Above the Law blog earlier this year. Other Iowa media should either charge staff with setting a constructive tone or pull the plug on comments.

  • I like the comments on the Register's web site.

    The comments are sometimes more interesting than the articles.

    • I rarely look at them anymore

      because the signal to noise ratio hasn’t been good in the past. I don’t hear many say they like them. Do you see constructive debates happening?

  • Timbre of the Times

    I’ve been reading and commenting via online public forums since the late 1980’s. The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) in San Francisco was one of the first. It began as an online support forum for everything from cancer recovery strategies to motorcycle repair. Ever since that time there have been heated, intense discussions. (Don’t know if you’ve ever pissed off a bunch of coders with uniformed comments about stack registers but believe me…you don’t want to go there.)
    The point is that adults could handle the implications of sharing their online (or offline) comments, opinions and observations about the modern world. That was the promise of the web.
    The current racially antagonistic, purposely hurtful comments we suffer merely mirror the miasma of media madness now masquerading as news and opinion. What hath Rush Limbaugh, Micheal Savage and Roger Ailes wrought?
    Comments will improve when we begin to acknowledge our collective humanity. Like the tide, consciousness must rise and fall. Witness the current low tide.

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