Newspaper comment forums: Public or private?

by David Esrati on March 26, 2010

in Social Media as a change agent, The Dayton Daily News isn't your friend

People have made death threats against me on the DDN site. They removed the comment after I flagged it (actually, they closed comments altogether if I remember correctly).

Although there has been community support for better moderation- including a facebook group and a discussion on Dayton Most Metro- nothing has happened. And although I allow a lot of you to post under the cover of a screen name, I only allow one- and try to keep it honest. I also prohibit nasty name calling- unless it’s at me (at least here- I can respond- on other site, I may or may not be able to).

The Dayton Daily News has been asked to put in some kind of community moderation tools- but has ignored all input from the community.

There is a mess up in Cleveland- with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and its Cleveland.com site at the center. Apparently when you make comments about the mental competence of a Plain Dealer employee- that reveal private information about the mental health of an employee’s relative – you’re fair game for being exposed investigated and then exposed-  but, not if you libel public officials incessantly.

This may end up in the courts- and rise as high as the Supreme Court. It will take years to get something definitive on the books, but when it happens it will have far reaching implication for the Web 2.0 world.

I highly recommend reading the whole story- but here’s the brief cut:

By unmasking an anonymous poster at its companion Web site, The Plain Dealer finds itself in an ethical quandary, stirring a debate that balances the public’s need to know against the privacy concerns of online participants….

Until this week, “lawmiss” was known only as one of thousands who, often known only by nicknames, share views on news blogs and stories reported at cleveland.com.

But after investigating a comment directed at the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter, editors learned that lawmiss had the same e-mail address as Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. A closer look revealed that the user had offered opinions on three of Saffold’s cases, including the capital murder trial of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell.

via Plain Dealer sparks ethical debate by unmasking anonymous Cleveland.com poster | cleveland.com.

It’s my position that we’d be better off if people signed their names- or at least used a verified account and were held responsible for what trash they post. I don’t put near as much stock in comments that are unsigned. If you have something to say- especially if it’s calling someone or some organization out- I believe a spine is prerequisite.

Could the DDN do a lot better with its comments. Absolutely. Could it actually increase traffic to its site by doing it correctly- absolutely. It’s actually in its best interest. However, it seems to like maintaining a grocery store checkout gossip rag online instead of a newspaper.

Keep your eyes on this Cleveland.com story- it’s only bound to get better.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

jstults March 26, 2010 at 11:58 am

It’s my position that we’d be better off if people signed their names- or at least used a verified account and were held responsible for what trash they post.

Whether the comment is from a verified user can be part of the moderation formula; Slashdot is a good example of this working (and slashcode is free for anyone to use / take a peek at).  You can post as ‘Anonymous Coward’, but your post starts out modded lower than any registered user, sometimes AC posts get modded up because they are actually valuable and insightful, but mostly not because that’s where the ridiculous flaming and trolling tends to show up.  Since you can choose to only see comments above a certain threshold, it’s like those AC ones never happened (unless you like rolling around in the muck, then you can slum at -1 if you want).

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Donald Phillips March 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Authorship attribution is just another form of censorship employed against ‘unacceptable’ thought. Annonimity and nom du pens have been used for centuries as a sheild from retribution. A lot of the colonial anti-British phamphets where circulated in this manner, ditto for Ante Bellum Abolitionists tracts.

As long as  venues such as DaytonMostMediocre.Commedy only acknowledges vetted cronies and  impotent dissenters, jerks like me will utilize any outlet through which to rail at the ideologically self-satisfied.

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truddick March 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Donald Phillips–if that’s your real name (and I honor your courage if so)–when I studied journalism in college, there was a code of ethics that included generally not publishing anonymous comments.  There were exceptions to be considered if the source might suffer retribution for comments, but in general, unsigned meant unpublished.
Now, DDN and other sources have long published anonymous comments–and also unedited ones.  The “Speak Up” feature is one long series of slander and name-calling.
Repression of free thought?  I say that if you don’t use your real name, you lack conviction–or you have something to hide.

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Jesse March 26, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Well said Donald!

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DTNMD March 26, 2010 at 4:21 pm

There was a time when the DDN required people to log in to read certain stories or to read full stories. Perhaps a login requirement should be used for comments. Not necessarily from a censoring perspective but from a basic accountability perspective. The public doesn’t need to know true identities of commentors but it seems to me the owners of the site would want to know.

And I really hate it when people mock Dayton Most Metro. At least they’re trying to do something good over there by staying current and providing a forum for people who are actively engaged in the community and trying to make a difference. It’s not a place for detractors to make baseless comments as  opposed to constructive criticism. I haven’t seen censorship as much as I have seen en effort to maintain a civilized dialogue, resulting in the expulsion of a couple particular commentors with nothing constructive to say. There’s nothing wrong with dissent but attacking other commentors and site owners doesn’t solve anything.

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jstults March 26, 2010 at 6:05 pm

DTNMD:

I really hate it when people mock Dayton Most Metro

Why should you care if the hoi polloi mock your shining site upon a hill?

At least they’re trying to do something good…expulsion of a couple particular commentors…nothing wrong with dissent but attacking other commentors and site owners doesn’t solve anything.

I found this bunch of legalese, but no plain English comment policy, and no statement of purpose for the forum.  How do folks know what ‘good’ the forum is trying to accomplish?  What comments are not OK?  This ambiguity leaves DMM open to the sorts of ‘mocking’ I’ve seen here on Esrati’s site (actually only a handful that I can recall).  If there actually is some fine goal that you expect the crowd to meander towards, then letting some of the egos go and growing a bit of a thick skin is probably a prerequisite (site owners especially!).  Moderating/snipping specific comments rather than banning people entirely is probably a less mock-worthy policy.

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John Kroll March 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

David, please note that your description of the comment that led to today’s stories is inaccurate. The issue was not whether someone remarked on “the mental competence of a Plain Dealer employee.” As our stories and responses in the comments today explain, the comment that triggered our concern revealed private information about the mental health of an employee’s relative. And even that comment is not why the newspaper eventually wrote a story. Instead, in the process of checking the e-mail of the user who posted that comment, we discovered that it was tied to a local judge. When we saw the previous comments made by the same user — comments that  referred to specific cases, and a comment about a lawyer who was soon to appear before the same judge representing the defendant in a series of horrific deaths — then, and not until then, did The Plain Dealer pursue this as a story of public interest.

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David Esrati March 27, 2010 at 8:10 am

@John Kroll- corrected. And I appreciate you following up. I hope my readers read the whole story when I excerpt- but, it helps if I get my part right to start with.

These are important issues- and I don’t fault the PD for exposing the commenter at all. I also thank you for posting your full name (and from your e-mail I know where you work too). It’s good to see 2-way interactivity.

The DDN has a lot to learn from this issue.

And- as to Donald Phillips- there is a reason Dayton Most Metro people as a whole voted to rid themselves of you- as I’m pretty sure my readers might banish mean Gene if I installed comment moderation (I’ve thought of it). To all- Donald chooses very spooky handles for himself- and then sends scary letters via snail mail to single women. He’s been asked on this site to be careful- and only use one alias.

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jstults March 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I’m pretty sure my readers might banish mean Gene if I installed comment moderation

You’re right moderation can be abused; folks do tend to label someone “troll” or “flame bait” just because they happen to disagree; this often leads to a particular forum becoming an echo chamber for a particular view-point (banning disagree-ers leads to the same thing).

Donald chooses very spooky handles for himself- and then sends scary letters via snail mail to single women.

Well, that’s a little different than criticizing the host or disagreeing about local politics and economic theories…

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Ice Bandit March 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I say that if you don’t use your real name, you lack conviction–or you have something to hide. (truddick)
Does the Old Bandito have something to hide? You betcha. Why just last week yours truly was the subject of a two hour network special hosted by John Walsh, except in my case the show’s title was changed to “America’s Least Wanted.” In a simpler, safer and saner time, folks in every line of public endeavor from working the front desk at public libraries to topless dancers could wear name tags with their real names attached. No longer. Doing so today is an open invite for every excess from crank phone calls to knocks on the door at midnight. Fact is, whether one uses a nom de plume, nom de guerre or the handle mom hung as one slid out the birth canal, any view stated either has validity or it does not; and these are the issues over which we cuss, discuss and debate….

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Bill Pote March 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

FYI – DMM has banned a total of three people out of 486 registered members in the two years the forum has been up.  None were banned for disagreeing with anybody – they were banned because they broke the rules that are clearly posted on our registration page:

By registering on the DMM Forum you agree to the following:

- Never use abusive language or write posts that attack or harass others on the forum
- Never use this forum to advertise your business without permission from administrators
- Never anonymously post something that you would not say to the people on this forum in person
- Be considerate of your fellow forum members – you can disagree but keep it constructive
- Understand that you are welcome to promote your own blog or website on the DMM Forum but only if you plan to participate on the DMM Forum; otherwise your post will be removed.

This forum is moderated and those that don’t follow the rules will be warned and/or removed.  99% of you do not even have to be told the rules, so this is for the 1% of you that need to be reminded.

I compare our forum to a gathering at my house – everybody is invited but if you come in and start being a jerk to me or others then guess what?  I don’t have time to moderate individual comments, I’m just gonna throw you out – it is that simple.  It isn’t at all about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions.  But if that is what some of you want to believe, then whatevah…  There are countless other places to hurl your nonsense on the web so find somewhere else.  Like DDN comment sections, which let everybody be as disrespectful and obnoxious as they want (all in the name of “protecting free speech”) – and that is why unlike DMM or Esrati.com, nobody with anything valuable to say bothers to participate there.
Btw – thanks jstults for pointing out our blank About Us page.  That is a FAIL on my part and you just reminded me to complete it asap.

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Jeff of Louisville March 27, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Greetings from the Gateway to the South!

Ruddicks remarks remind me of the old Louisville.com Forum, hosted by Robin Garr.  Garr was a real journalist, a Pulizter Prize winning reporter for the old Louisville Times, who left that paper after it was shut down by Gannett.   Garr had a very similar policy to what Ruddick mentioned…full names were used by all unless you could convice him you required anonymity due to fear or retribution.  Then you could use your first name.   I think all of three people on that forum used our full names, even me.  The three that used only their first names were the more outrageous posters. 

So there is a good logic to using full names as a way of making people own their words, as people will self-moderate if they can be tied to their comments.  But there is no really good way to check fake full names.  For example I used my Polish surname (which has been anglicized in real life) online if I’m required to give a real name. 

Also, given the online craziness I think its probably smart to use a non-de-plume, as there are enough wackjobs out there who will try to mess with your real life if they dont like your opinions or politics.  Louisville.com was 10 years ago and things have deteriroated since then.  I guess the trade-off is you get the stupidity one sees with the DDN comments.

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David Esrati March 27, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I’m not against a fake name- as long as it’s not an impostor name- like posting as Ellen Belcher- or me- if you aren’t. You’d have to have an account- with a verified e-mail- and that you only use one account. Only the owner of the site would know your real name- sort of like we do it here- informally.

There should also be the ability to see all of a posters posts- and rate the person with a karma rating- much like DMM.

@Jeff- I hope you are only in Louisville for the weekend.

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Jesse March 27, 2010 at 11:42 pm

I wonder what my rating would be?  Good thing I don’t care what people think of me.

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Donald Phillips March 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm

@ William Pout. To paraphrase H.L. Menken: Whenever someone says  It isn’t at all about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions, it’s about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions.

@ Mr. Esrati. I retired “Papa Ubu” because of the lower intestinal tract irritability he  was causing amongst the comfortably sclerotic Mostly Metroids; I apologize for trying to initiate movement. Otherwise, I have no other ‘spooky handles’.

When my great aunt Helen visited Dayton in 2005 after a forty-year residency in California, she cried upon beholding  downtown and proclaimed, “Look what these people have done!”

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jstults April 1, 2010 at 8:22 am

Bill Pote:

It isn’t at all about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions.

Donald Phillips:

To paraphrase H.L. Menken: Whenever someone says  It isn’t at all about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions, it’s about egos, thin skin or dissenting opinions.

Bill Pote:

Like DDN comment sections, which let everybody be as disrespectful and obnoxious as they want (all in the name of “protecting free speech”) – and that is why unlike DMM or Esrati.com, nobody with anything valuable to say bothers to participate there.

David Esrati:

There should also be the ability to see all of a posters posts- and rate the person with a karma rating- much like DMM.

From the perspective of a moderator:

The forum has published Terms of Participation, and the only times we’ve moved ideas to the “off topic” area, or removed comments from the forum, was most likely because of this. We recorded all of these actions to preserve all input.
In the Trenches: Moderation for OpenGov

The next step is rather than just ‘preserve’ the input, publish it in an ‘off topic’ archive that’s associated with the user as David suggests, then people can judge for themselves, and we can avoid the he-said-she-said like we see between Donald and Bill above.  Transparency builds credibility, especially in something like moderation which is susceptible to claims of self-interested censorship.

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Donald Phillips April 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Sir,

You have  banned 3 out of 486 participants. Are you frightened of  this less than  one hundredth of one percent?  That is indeed  a virulant figure  by microbiological standards.

I don’t give a tinker’s fart about your virtual sheltered workshop. Only there is a deep tradition of soliciting the opinion of fools, who do not let egos or thin skins undermine their reason. Perhaps had you contemplated this fool you and the Mostly Metroids would not have been fooled by Richard Florida.

None of you will be among the poor fools who have to clean up this social-engineering-gone-awry mess.
To quote Mr. T: “I pitty the fool.”

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jstults April 8, 2010 at 6:06 pm

From an interesting article about a Delaware Supreme Court decision:

Blogs and chat rooms tend to be vehicles for the expression of opinions; by their very nature, they are not a source of facts or data upon which a reasonable person would rely.
Scales of Discourse: Anonymity vs. Credibility

Any reasonable people ’round these here parts?

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Bruce Kettelle May 27, 2010 at 10:24 pm

and now NPR has this story on how nasty comments are being handled around the country.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126782677

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jstults June 22, 2010 at 9:13 am

Another article on comment moderation (emphasis added):

News websites from across the country struggle to maintain civility in their online comments forums. But given their anonymous nature and anything-goes ethos, these forums can sometimes feel as ungovernable as the tribal lands of Pakistan.

At Boston.com, the website of The Boston Globe, a team of moderators – or “mods” – monitor the comments. Actually, with just one or two mods on per shift, and an average of more than 6,000 comments posted every day, on every corner of the site, the mods could never hope to monitor all the simultaneous chatter. Instead, they focus on evaluating the “abuse reports” that commenters file against one another. For Steve Morgan, a veteran editor who coordinates the monitoring, the color of trouble is red. The crimson message at the top of his computer screen keeps a running total of the abuse reports that are awaiting action. Some complaints don’t ultimately turn up abuse – coarse language, ad hominem attacks, and the like – but rather just a political stance that the person doing the complaining doesn’t care for. So a mod needs to evaluate each complaint and decide either to remove the comment or let it stand.
Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster

Apparently when they “turn off” comments, that doesn’t just prevent further folks from commenting, but also removes all previous comments (similar to what DDN does).  Seems like a bit of a blunt instrument…

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