In a word, it’s nasty.
I knew this from scanning news stories on media sites, but I got a firsthand dose when the Boulder Daily Camera posted online their article and video about my take on the old ponderosa pine that burned in the Fourmile Fire. (Update: The Camera’s video is no longer available, but the article is available here at the Denver Post.) Within minutes, the comments section was filled with off-topic speculations about my private life, contentless rants, and plain old snide and snarky ridicule.
I wasn’t surprised, but this time I was pissed. The nastiness is a teensy bit harder to ignore when it’s directed at you.
So I wrote a letter to the editor of the Camera and three days ago sent it in. They have not yet published it, so I offer it here:
Thank you for your recent article on the 600-year-old ponderosa pine on Bald Mountain, which burned in the Fourmile Fire. I was glad to see this old sentinel of the hillside get some well-deserved media attention. The problem is that the online story attracted a host of comments that included gay-bashing, personal insults, and attacks on the beliefs and religion of the woman featured in the story—me.
That I was the target is not the issue. This kind of online behavior is widespread. Check out the comments section of most online news stories, and you will find insulting, snarky comments with no intellectual content and no intention of contributing to honest or constructive debate.
Snide, derisive speech and gay-bashing are the first tools of bullies. With the tragic teen suicides we are witnessing as a result of bullying in schools, it is time to rethink the open invitation we are giving hateful speech online.
It is time to moderate online news forums. Does this amount to censorship? Not unless your own letter-to-the-editor guidelines, which stipulate “no name-calling or ad hominem attacks” are also censorship. A moderated forum could ensure that online comments adhere to this same standard of respect.
Moderated online forums are better able to promote honest debate. When snarky, derisive speech proliferates, it only shuts down dialogue. By not limiting these kinds of comments online, you are not promoting debate but rather stifling it.
If we hope to address bullying in schools, we need to start addressing the tools of bullying online. Let’s stop pretending that derisive speech contributes to public dialogue. Let’s stop publishing it.
Priscilla Stuckey, PhD
Meanwhile, friends and media colleagues have been alerting me to commentary on what is now recognized as a pervasive problem with online content especially on news sites. Nasty comments—none of which I intend to reproduce here—abound after even the most heart-wrenching stories and are often aimed at those who have suffered misfortune or loss.
The problem is becoming so acute that computer science and communications researchers are beginning to investigate. Some research has been done on comments on a news site by a scholar at Pomona College, Sara Sood, teaming up with a Yahoo research scientist, Elizabeth Churchill. (Update: The 2010 article is no longer available. This research was published in 2012 with additional author Judd Antin, and the published version is available here.)
They found that
the quality of content a potential participant sees on a site is highly influential.
Which means that the tone of comments sets the stage for the discussion—or lack thereof—that follows. They go on:
off-topic, negative comments are a particularly strong boundary to participation.
Snide and ridiculing speech discourages, not encourages, dialogue—a point I made in my letter. (But it’s nice when research backs you up.) A news story on the Yahoo research scientist, Elizabeth Churchill, can be found here. She is hard at work on software that will alert site owners to hateful and repugnant speech being posted on their site and will help to ferret it out.
On the local level, another Boulder blogger, Doyle Albee, some months ago tackled this same problem regarding offensive online comments in the Daily Camera. His list of action items is well worth reading. Most of them involve closer monitoring of comments sections, including enlisting the public’s help. More on that below.
Albee’s first recommendation is to eliminate anonymous commenting altogether. Anonymity is not allowed in letters to the editor; why allow it in comments? As he says,
Allowing people to completely hide their identity behind [pseudonyms or avatars] practically encourages bad behavior.
True, but we shouldn’t be putting up with disrespectful speech no matter who utters it. If we put in place disincentives to snide speech, it will eliminate the attractiveness of anonymity in the first place.
Doyle’s post brought some comments from the executive editor of the Camera, Kevin Kaufman, to the effect that the Camera is free to choose its own method of moderating comments.
Good! And, Kevin, please use that freedom to choose more rigorous strategies. Your comments sections are public spaces, and we’d rather not see those public spaces get trampled by disrespectful bullies.
I also have a question for you, Kevin: I’ve had more than one Camera reader complain to me that you are allowing offensive, snide, and ridiculing comments because the paper believes that this kind of conflict-ridden speech—à la Fox News—will generate more readership. How do you respond to their view?
(My own experience of the two Camera interviews backs them up. The reporters asked questions designed to set up an opposition between me and the county parks about cutting down the tree. The story I wanted to tell was instead about the magnificence of an elder tree and what it can teach human beings about trees, forest ecology, and life in general.)
Until the Camera and other news sites do institute more rigorous moderating of online comments, I have this suggestion for all readers of Internet news sites:
Flag every offensive, snide, off-topic, contentless comment you see.
At the Camera site, a little “Report” button sits to the right of every comment. Get familiar with it. Use it. Regularly.
A proliferation of flagged comments would alert site owners to the fact that the bullies are not the only ones reading the comments, and respectful people care about what gets published. It might also alert site owners to the reality—if they don’t know it already—that the people who write bullying, ridiculing comments are not by any stretch of the imagination a cross-section of readers or an accurate sampling of public opinion.
In closing, here are six reasons why online comments, especially on news sites, should be moderated more rigorously:
- Promote democracy. Public spaces, including Internet sites, that allow speech that ridicules others is helping to erode the respect needed for democracy to function.
- Protect free speech. It’s pretty simple: snide speech shuts down dialogue; respectful speech encourages it.
- Set an example of respectful speech for children. If we expect kids to clean up their speech acts, adults are going to have to take the lead in setting boundaries on bullying speech. (Don’t even get me started on political campaign language.)
- Be responsible. In an era when bullying, which begins in hateful speech, is wrecking the lives of some youth to the point that they commit suicide, it is irresponsible to give hateful speech free rein in any of our public arenas, let alone publish it so more people can read it.
- Get a more accurate sampling of public opinion. The disturbed, angry, and unhappy individuals who post the vast majority of snarky comments are a tiny minority of readers.
- Preserve a brand. The research scientist from Yahoo knows it: hate-mongering and snarky postings demean a website’s brand. The reputation of the Daily Camera is at stake. Don’t ruin it.
Thanks to Laura Tyler and Lyla Hamilton for pointing me to Doyle Albee’s post and the research on hostile online comments, and to Sandy Hockenbury for suggesting flagging offensive, off-topic comments.
22 October 2010
- My letter to the editor of the Daily Camera was never published, either in print or online.
- Kevin Kaufman, the executive editor of the Camera, sent me an informative email about the paper’s comments policy but declined to comment publicly.
- After this blog post appeared, many of the offensive comments following the Camera story about me were removed by the administrator. I hope similar action follows on other Camera stories.
4 November 2010
I received an email from Aaron Trujillo of the Daily Camera apologizing for missing my letter to the editor and saying it has now been posted (almost three weeks later!) on their website. You can find it here (link no longer available).