Sunday, December 26, 2010

Traditional Media, Meet the Trolls

I have to chuckle when I see stories like this. And I see them all the time nowadays, from all over the country, as the traditional media, some of whom used to bash blogs for being moderated, discovers that opening up your site to anonymous comments ain't all it was cracked up to be.

The GR Press is one of many that recently decided that they have had enough, thankyouverymuch.

As I venture out into the community, I repeatedly hear how the comments on offend our more thoughtful readers.

We feel your pain - every reporter and editor in our newsroom has been offended at one time or another by the online bullies we call trolls. Most reporters have suffered personal attacks for stories they've written. Being a journalist has always required a thick skin -- now more than ever.

It's too bad that commenting intelligently on an MLive story also often takes a thick skin nowadays. You risk being berated by commenters whose anger is so virulent that I have to wonder what's behind it.

Really? Reporters are suffering personal attacks? Wow. That is alarming. It's gotta hurt when you are just offering a story or honest commentary and people instantly judge you and repeatedly accuse you of having some nefarious ulterior motive. Please, do tell more.

We get hundreds of thousands of users every day and I'd like to think that less than 1 percent are trolls. But boy, are they a noisy and nasty minority. They make subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments, ridicule the unemployed, paint anyone who disagrees with their politics as idiots, and sling sexual innuendo worthy of a seventh-grade locker room.

If you see yourself in that description, please leave. Really. I'd prefer you never come to MLive again.

That sounds harsh, but we're pretty fed up with the negative conversation. And I'm concerned our most thoughtful users are getting fed up, too.

I've been involved in online political discourse for 11 years now. "Wizardkitten" as a political commentator was born in April of 1999, when I joined a bipartisan politics board at Turns out it was excellent training for what was to become known as "blogging" - community norms were that if you couldn't back up your opinions with citations (and it had to be legit, no Buzzflash or World Nut Daily), you were laughed out of the place. And yes, you got personally attacked from time to time. It was a pretty good group of folks though. There were about 30-40 of us on and off, and we could discuss the events of the day. My one shining moment was getting a staunch right-wing Republican to agree with me that Medicare for all was the best way to go to deal with the health care issue. That was a fun debate.

That would never happen now. Or when it does, it's pretty rare. The world has definitely changed since then. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty of back and forth over Clinton and things got pretty heated at times, but after 9/11, and the "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" meme began, it became impossible to discuss anything rationally on a bipartisan basis. People moved into rigid camps. They created their own forums through a site called Delphi (it's still around), or they just disappeared, never to be heard from again.

It was at that I first learned how internet sites can devolve when the nasties show up and take over. And it wasn't just partisan differences at work; the darkness creeped into everything, even the "happy" stories. When every comment thread is dominated by pure vitriol, one-by-one the thoughtful people started to drift away as they simply get tired of dealing with the constant negativity. And when there is no moderation what so ever, look out. One guy moved from continuous rants about Hitler and Satan (complete with blood-filled graphics) and started posting pictures of child pornography. Last I heard, he ended up with a visit from the FBI. That's how bad it can get.

So moderation is a necessity - and it's amusing to watch the traditional news sites catch up and learn how to deal with a problem that the bloggers have known about and struggled with for quite some time. And if it's a big site, you are going to need the community's help.

MLive recently provided us with a tool to go after such bullies. A team of "sweepers" ultimately makes the decision on the commenter's fate, but I've directed my staff to become much more aggressive in flagging vulgarity on the web. Offensive users could be suspended or banned from MLive.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: We need your help. I get criticized for that plea. People say we shouldn't put the burden on the users. The fact is, we need to work together to clean up our comments. So yes, we need your help.

That's how the Kos rating system came about years ago - and when it comes to political or ideological comments, it's a very fine line to draw. Once you get practiced at it though, you can usually spot the ones that are there to simply cause trouble soon enough. It's not easy, especially at a big site like MLive where it is technically bipartisan, and I wish them all the best as they stumble about and try to draw those lines. Straight-up news may be a little easier to patrol; political commentary can be very tricky.

And for those who want to scream about censorship - you need to get real. You can start your own site, for free, and rant to your heart's content. Be as nasty as you want to be to everyone, and about everything. It's not our problem that no one wants to listen to you. You don't get to walk into a restaurant and start screaming at the top of your lungs, but you certainly can do it in your own home. You aren't guaranteed an audience though. There are societal norms of behavior in public, and that can apply to sites on the internet as well. Deal with it.

Some sites are requiring a Facebook sign-in, which is one way to address the issue. Putting a real name behind the words tends to force people to be a little more careful about what they say. Some news sites have closed comments altogether, or will close them when things get too rough. One paper in Cleveland is facing a lawsuit for "outing" an anonymous identity, others have had to consider whether some comments have crossed the line into the legal definition of libel. One newspaper in Maine has taken to calling people to verify identities before they will publish your comments. Eventually there may be a uniform way to deal with the problem; until then you will see a patchwork of rules from site to site, as they try and cope with the craziness.

Seriously, good luck MLive. I know all too well what you are up against. Have fun!