One of the things that comes with a writer’s territory is a story that never gets published, for reasons that are not entirely clear. This is one of those. The topic of public comments on newspaper web sites is interesting for a number of reasons, among them the way anonymity may (or may not) encourage truly ugly racial invective, something you’d think a large newspaper with a sense of civic responsibility would seek to avoid whenever possible and at the very least edit out prior to publication, particularly in times of racial tensions, such we’ve seen here in Minneapolis this fall.
Anyway, as I say, this media column didn’t pass muster, so I’m posting it here. Because I believe it’s a discussion worth having.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the internet is aware of and frequently appalled by how quickly any “discussion” among website commenters, especially a big city newspaper’s site, degenerates into juvenile name-calling and worse. It was definitely worse recently when Star Tribune readers piled in on what was, ironically, an uplifting story by John Reinan about a Muslim family’s successful home-owning experience with the help of Habitat for Humanity.
Rather than embrace an opportunity for some holiday season good-will-among-men, the Strib’s commenters immediately, predictably, descended into all-too familiar hostility and racist epithets. (The Strib has removed that particular comment thread.) The waves of vitriol, mainly against the family featured in the story, led Abdi Mohamed, the homeowner to respond with a letter to the Strib several days later.
“I don’t think this awful name-calling would have happened had we had American-sounding names,” he wrote. “We have always considered ourselves American, by any measure, and have been good citizens, paying our fair share of taxes and volunteering in our community. But my faith as a Minnesotan is shaken. I have been calling Minnesota my home for the last 17 years, and my kids were born right here in Minneapolis. My take from the readers is that ‘you don’t belong here in America’.” Dozens wrote in in support. But very soon a minor flame war broke out even on that thread over one anonymous commenter’s admonition to Muslims like Mohammed’s wife, to “lose the costume.”
In other words, all-in-all, real edifying, high-caliber stuff.
Comment sections have an undeniable voyeuristic appeal. Commenters say things most of us would never imagine ourselves saying, much less in public. Our reaction varies between snorts of derision, guffaws and utter dismay.
The conventional argument in favor of comment sections is that they offer an unfiltered vox populi. Like it or not, delighted or horrified, this is what your neighbors are thinking. The question though is this: Is there a point where reader comments become too ugly and cruel that a large public entity like a daily newspaper has a civic obligation to turn them off? Does an important community asset like the Star Tribune have a responsibility to re-assess its attitude toward commenters and draw a line at the point where a vicious, repugnant and — key word here — anonymous few hijack the paper’s social media heft to incite others to spasms of racist verbal attack?
In a perfect world someone among the Strib’s top editorial echelon would offer an answer to this question, or more specifically, as I asked, “What is your best argument for keeping the Star Tribune’s comment policy as it is?” Unfortunately, calls and e-mails to editor Rene Sanchez, Sr. Managing editor Suki Dardarian were not returned. Only Asst. Managing Editor Eric Wieffering responded, and then only to confirm that Strib editorial management had no interest in discussing the topic. So much for an informed, civil dialogue.
If the topic ever does interest them we’ll revisit it. Until that time the conversation is this: The Strib might strongly consider adjusting its comment policy and following the lead of either us here at MinnPost or, failing that, Popular Science, (or USA Today, or The Wall Street Journal).
Recognizing the near inevitability that anonymous commenting will quickly degenerate into a battle of flaming trolls and grossly under-informed invective, MinnPost’s policy from the get go requires commenters to, A: Register and post using their full, real name and, B: Submit to moderation. No doubt the policy seriously diminishes the quantity of comments. But the upside is that commenters maintain a dramatically higher level of civility while arguing their ideological points. If they don’t they’re deleted before they are published.
A case may also be made that a full-disclosure, moderated comment forum provides a safer harbor for the articulate if fainter-hearted souls who recoil at the thought of being assaulted in public by some unidentified CAPS-LOCKING!!! troll.
Or, if moderation, which would require a pretty much full-time employee, is a step too far, the Strib may consider the path Popular Science took two years ago and disconnect the comment option entirely. At the time, the venerable tech and DIY magazine essentially threw up its hands at the way anonymous commenters regularly hijacked discussions of god-knows-what, — hyper-sonic jets graphene or climate change — with rants about Barack Obama … the Kenyan Muslim terrorist sympathizer.
Said Suzanne LaBarre for the magazine, “A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
LaBarre referred to a University of Wisconsin study on the peculiar psychological effect anonymity has on people, on-line commenters in particular. Among the findings, which come as no surprise to anyone who follows this stuff, the loudest and most active of the anonymous commenters were also those in least possession of accurate information about a given topic and yet the most certain — defiantly certain — of their point of view. (Her central point was that the study also showed how ugly, defiantly ignorant comments had the effect of eroding casual readers’ trust in the accuracy of the story itself.)
Writing about Popular Science’s decision, Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker a month later added, “Multiple studies have also illustrated that when people don’t think they are going to be held immediately accountable for their words they are more likely to fall back on mental shortcuts in their thinking and writing, processing information less thoroughly. They become, as a result, more likely to resort to simplistic evaluations of complicated issues, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock has repeatedly found over several decades of research on accountability.”
Konnikova also cites a couple studies suggesting that the most vitriolic of the anonymous crowd are, thank god for small blessings, given less credence by the sum of all readers. But the response to that, from a large broadly-marketed community entity like the Star Tribune, should be a concern for the effect vitriol has the smaller, shall we say, “most impressionable” fraction of their audience.
Over at the Pioneer Press, editor Mike Burbach found time and sufficient interest to return the call and refer me to Jen Westphal, the paper’s Deputy Editor for Digital News and Social Media. She explained that the PiPress, while requiring registration with a valid IP and e-mail address making the commenter known to the paper, still permits anonymity as well post-publication moderation, which is to say someone at the PiPress steps in only when alerted to egregious behavior.
The Star Tribune policy appears to be much the same, although as I say, no one in the paper’s editorial management or its digital services department would discuss it. Clearly though, given the ugly flame wars that break out with depressing regularity, no one is moderating/approving comments prior to publication.
There are also filters a the PiPress, Westphal says, for certain key words — the usual cussing — and the obvious racial/ethnic invective. But otherwise vox populi rules.
“We used to use Facebook commenting,” she says, “which theoretically required them to use their real name, even though there are ways to get around that, too. We used it for about two years, I think. But we found it didn’t help with what you’re talking about. People said things just as bad as when they were anonymous.”
Coincidentally, Facebook was under criticism this past week for prohibiting anonymity. “Vulnerable communities” demanded a special exemption, to avoid being targeted by trolls.
Facebook consented, but reiterated it’s policy. “We require people to use the name their friends and family know them by. the company said. When people use the names they are known by, their actions and words carry more weight because they are more accountable for what they say. We’re firmly committed to this policy, and it is not changing. However, after hearing feedback from our community, we recognise that it’s also important that this policy works for everyone, especially for communities who are marginalised or face discrimination.”
Sad Westphal at the PiPress, “We prefer to keep comments, at least for now, things can always change, and we have talked about it, because we still see them as a valuable forum for public discussion. It’s the best place a normal resident of St. Paul can go to discuss parking meters on Grand Avenue or whatever.
The flare-up over the Reinan story erupted simultaneous with racial tensions spiking in Minneapolis following the terror attacks in Paris and the police shooting of Jamar Clark. Far too much demagoguery was already in the air. Which is why it is fair to ask whether responsible establishments with broad and deep community roots, like a daily newspaper, are reexamining the role they play in churning the cesspool.
Essentially: Why offer a venue for adding fuel to these fires?
None of which is to say that if the Strib pulls the plug on comments, vitriolic anonymous trolls will slink away and observe some kind of monastic silence. There are literally millions of other websites where they can and do collect. Fringy places where they can huddle and out-vitriol each other and whoever stumbles in. But those sites aren’t hosted by an organization of professional journalists, a company speaking to and representing hundreds of thousands of reader/citizens more interested in information than hyperbolic attack.