Online trolls skulk, just waiting to go after unsuspecting commenters with ad hominem attacks, insults, derision or some brickbat hurled just to get a rise out of someone. And organized groups of trollers affiliated with this or that cause pounce at the first sign of heterodoxy.
It’s anonymous, mostly, and people who are banned because they step over The Post’s guidelines come back with other noms de plume the next day. It’s a mess.
Yet I think that in the messiness lies virtue. Online commenting boards are an online speaker’s corner and free-speech release valve.
They’re also a real-time correction and information-gathering mechanism. In the minutes and hours after the Japan earthquake and tsunami last year, for example, some online commenters knew more about the risks to the nuclear-power technology than Post reporters did. Some of those commenters became sources who informed evolving Post stories.
This is a new kind of journalism “content” — and it is popular. The Post had more than 940,000 total online comments in March and has an increasing number of stories in the 5K Club — garnering 5,000 or more comments. It is part of The Post’s effort to increase “engagement,” the notion that readers should feel part of the Post “community.”
The Post has stepped up its monitoring of the comments in recent months, and it is enforcing its guidelines more strictly. As a result I’m receiving fewer complaints about online abuse and threats.
But I would caution The Post not to go too far on moderating. An online reader from Wilmington, N.C., convinced me of this.
He recounted a discussion that followed a story on President Obama in which a commenter posted essentially this: “Any white person who votes for President Obama again is crazy.”
The Wilmington reader then responded: “Thanks for the advice, you racist scum!” But the Tar Heeler then had second thoughts.
“As I typed the word ‘scum,’ I thought, ‘This is not cool, this is not generally accepted discourse, and The Washington Post would be totally justified in removing my comment.’ However, I thought what he said was so egregious I was willing to risk that.
“What I found really awful was that by the time my response was posted . . . the original post had been deleted. Clearly the words ‘white person’ were more offensive to WaPo than ‘scum.’
“I would never agree with such a man or his characterization; all of the comments pretty much agreed with mine, but I have to ask, if an American citizen thinks we should vote by race, however hateful that notion is, doesn’t our great Constitution give him the right to say so, just as it gives our press their freedom? I guess I’m saying he is in the same boat with you, and you should not have thrown him overboard. . . . My post was not deleted. His was. I do not think that was fair.”
The Wilmington e-mailer then suggested a lighter hand in moderation, letting the commenters take the lead in curbing abuses.
“Why indeed on your very vital and wonderful discussion boards, can we not fight it out among ourselves? Why does a man who says ‘white people would be crazy to vote for Obama again’ need the defense of censorship against a hundred ‘white people’ like myself who will diligently tell him otherwise?
“Let us go at it, in a free market place of ideas. That is how our country is supposed to work, and . . . the Washington Post shares that tradition. Don’t put a boot down on free speech. It is most unbecoming.”
The Post commenting system is not perfect. It has technological glitches — like the clunky sign-in system — that aggravate people and need to be improved. The system of identifying who is a “top commenter” is haphazard and inconsistent. But if you go too far down the management and censorship road, the unfettered nature of the comments is lost and the discussions bend too much to the whims, prejudices and inclinations of the moderators.
Yes, it’s a jungle in Commentland. Facts and reasoned argument will most often win the day, but wear a pith helmet and have a rhetorical machete at hand. You’ll need them.
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.