It’s time to end the rage and hate forums

Reader comments. Story comments. Rage and hate forums. Call them what you want, but the comments section at the end of every Lansing State Journal story posted at its web site have gone from crazy and laughable to pointless and stupid.

When will the publishers of the State Journal realize that their reader comments section destroys the paper’s credibility as a beacon of truth and leadership in the community? Allowing unmoderated comments from hurtful people focused only on their own agendas of hate is the last thing this region needs and making it an official record by hosting it at the LSJ web site is a disservice.

I don’t mean to single out the State Journal, because they certainly are not alone in this age of anonymous rage. I just happen to be exposed to that newspaper more than others because it’s my local paper. I posted a question on Twitter today about this subject:

Reader comments at (the Lansing State Journal) are filled with rage & hate. Do all local papers have that problem?

It was disheartening to have so many people reply in the affirmative:

Yes. It’s the anonymity that allows for it. Newspapers rushed to add the comments, but didn’t know how to build a community. ~ Ike Pigott, Birmingham, Ala.

The (Detroit Free Press) and (Detroit News) reader comments are also filled with rage and hate, and most discussions turn to race in no time at all. ~ Maureen Francis, Birmingham, Mich.

I’ve seen the same on Detroit and other news websites. Kinda makes you lose faith in your fellow (hu)man. 😦  ~ Kate Sumbler, Michigan

Yes, they do. I think it’s bad on news sites because there’s an anonymity in ranting about something you don’t agree with on web. ~ Valerie Morgan, Lansing, Mich.

And it’s more than just nonsense — it’s a problem for journalists and their sources. As Louise Knott Ahern pointed out, “Negative comments actually scare off sources from talking to the media.” There’s an interesting piece about this phenomenon involving the Washington Post here.

It was awesome to get a much more positive response from Derek Wallbank, a reporter for MinnPost. As Derek explained, “We moderate comments & require real names to post anything. Keeps it more civil.”

Hallelujah — a newspaper with a conscience! I looked up MinnPost’s terms of service about comments:

MinnPost does not permit the use of foul language, personal attacks or the use of language that may be libelous or interpreted as inciting hate or sexual harassment. User comments are reviewed by moderators to ensure that comments meet these standards and adhere to MinnPost’s terms of use and privacy policy. We intend for this area to be used by our readers as a place for civil, thought-provoking and high-quality public discussion. In order to achieve this, MinnPost requires that all commenters register and post comments with their actual names and place of residence.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to have a hometown newspaper with a solid terms of service that required real names to be used in a forum moderated for civility. The Lansing State Journal’s terms of service make promises, but the paper falls short of enforcing them every day. The LSJ’s terms read:

(Readers agree not to)…Engage in personal attacks, harass or threaten, question the motives behind others’ posts or comments, deliberately inflame or disrupt the conversation, or air personal grievances about other users.

And, of course, it doesn’t help that many newspapers don’t require the use of someone’s real name when posting comments. It’s interesting that they require name, address and phone number when you submit a letter to the editor, but online they let hate and rage run unchecked. As Nate Erickson, a recent Michigan State University graduate now living in New York, noted: “Anonymity or perceived anonymity breeds idiocy.”

Idiocy. Rage. Hate. Call it what you want. It’s time for real names, personal responsibility and common civility to replace it all. This is my public challenge to the Lansing State Journal publishers to lead the way. Claim your place as a leader in building a positive online community by reviewing your policies, improving them and enforcing them. If you build it, we will come.

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27 comments on “It’s time to end the rage and hate forums

  1. Oh, I am so glad to read this post…I have written to the LSJ numerous times on this very subject. It’s come to the point that if they ever ask for anything from me or my colleagues, we will refuse. I would NEVER(willingly) let my name be used in an article…and God forbid any of us gets in a traffic accident! At this point, the only reason I read the comments section is so that I can mark offending posts and get them removed.

    It’s beyond unprofessional for the LSJ to continue to allow it. As a result I will never again pay for an issue…if there’s something I need (like a coupon) I’ll fish it out of the recycle bin at work! 🙂

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    • Thanks Meg. My wife and I often are astounded at how people can take something tragic like a fatal car accident and turn it into a hate-fest. I only hope the LSJ starts to take the majority of its readers into consideration rather than just the minority of people who rage against everything on its site. (All newspapers really — again, this isn’t targeted just at the State Journal, but that’s the paper I have the most chance of impacting right now.)

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    • This is exactly one of the main reasons I started Yakimbe.com. It’s a locally built site that makes local news and information in the region easy to find and that gives it’s readers the tools necessary to start great conversations around those topics.

      I believe that what is missing from newspaper comments is a sense of community. There are the people that spout off and the people that react to them The result is a downward spiral of idiocy and insensitivity. Everyone else is just onlookers, not engaged enough to contribute a comment because, frankly the conversation sucks and they probably only read two comments before moving on.

      To create more of a sense of community, and with it a sense of responsibility, there needs to be multiple levels of involvement. Many people in any given community are happy to just live there, not participating extensively. Most will engage in the community through simple acts – mowing their lawn, shoveling their sidewalk, being an usher at their church or calling the police when there’s something suspicious happening. Others are more highly involved, volunteering for the Red Cross maybe, or leading a petition drive.

      It’s the same online, except the anonymous nature of the internet doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people, and there is often only one way to contribute: the equivalent of the all-in donation of a significant portion of your time (at least in the world of the web) to author a thoughtful comment.

      Yakimbe attempts to overcome this by providing multiple levels of interaction. You can show disapproval with a simple one-click down-vote, sending worthless comments to the bottom of the page and, eventually, hiding them altogether. You can enrich the community by submitting an item, which takes slightly longer than down-voting, or you can go all-out and author a comment. All of your actions will affect your user karma and the well-being of the community,

      We just launched our site – quietly – at Ignite 3.0 last weekend, and are currently in beta, meaning not all of our planned features are there yet. But If you’d like to sign up right now, you can use the passcode ‘ignitelansing’ We plan on removing this roadblock and allowing anyone to sign up sometime this weekend.

      You can read more about us at our blog, http://blog.yakimbe.com, or in next weeks Capital Gains.

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  2. Having been born and raised there, I can tell you there is a greater level of civility across the board in Minnesota. I think it’s the stoic Scandinavian Lutheran in about three-quarters of the population, combined with the fact that it’s hard to be mad at people who huddle with you when it’s 50 below.

    I’ve been stunned by the levels of ignorance, misogyny and racism openly expressed in open comment sections. It’s like a collective venting of rage and frustration. Maybe people need this.

    Or maybe they need to watch more GLEE.

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    • Joni, your line about having to huddle with folks at 50 below really made me laugh. Definitely marking Minnesota off my list of places to live. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting and for supporting my cause!

      Like

  3. Ari — to be fair to my (many) friends at the Birmingham (AL) News:

    They are well aware of the issues, but the website is run under a different corporate umbrella. Those tucked away in the safe enclaves of a windowless New Jersey office are about as in touch with the local community here as you would expect them to be.

    And that is a shame, because there are well-documented ways to nurture and grow a reasonable community of active readers, who shed more light than heat.

    Oh… and you are a silly poopy-head.

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    • Ike, thanks for commenting. I don’t doubt that corporate ownership of newspapers has seriously damaged a paper’s ability to become a true community advocate. And I certainly don’t blame the reporters, and even some of the editors, for this problem. But the publishers and owners are fully to blame and need to quit hiding. They need to stand up and take responsibility for what’s happening.

      It’s like you said in your quote, they wanted a community but didn’t have a clue about how to build a good one. It’s like many other companies hearing about social media today and thinking, “we need to do that,” then acting on that impulse rather than stopping to strategize first.

      Oh…and I’m rubber, you’re glue, what bounces off me sticks to you. 🙂

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  4. Ari, I totally agree with you.

    All papers and news sources should require real names before they post their opinion about a story or topic. Most of the posts that are filled with hate are the ones that can’t be tracked to anyone.

    We had a recent issue with this with comments in the Macomb Daily about a client survey that was released. You can read the comments after the story here: http://www.macombdaily.com/articles/2010/02/03/news/srv0000007508871.txt

    Sad, and know that if real names were a requirement then this much hatred wouldn’t be a part of our news sources.

    A big thank you to Derek Wallbank and the MinnPost for taking the lead in doing this, I hope Michigan papers and online news sources follow suit….very soon.

    Thanks Ari for calling this out.

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    • Thank you Andrea for commenting and for sharing that Macomb Daily piece. Obviously, we need to add the Macomb Daily to the list of papers who are clueless in terms of the damage to their credibility that the rage and hate forums they created and maintain are doing.

      Freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater just to watch the ensuing stampede as some kind of bloodsport.

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  5. Ari, what a great post! Very true.

    When I worked at the Arizona Republic (until a year and a half ago) this was already an issue in the newsroom. The reporters and editors don’t like the junk that “readers” are allowed to post. on azcentral.com. It rarely moves discussion ahead and nearly always brings it down into the gutter. It’s a loud and vocal minority of people with too much time on their hands and no guts. They’d never say these things to real humans in person.

    Oh, the stories I could tell about problems that stem from this practice. Yes… it brings the entire newsroom down to a new low. It’s sad.

    Maybe I should submit to @sadjournalist …(great feed if you don’t follow… journalists musing about the demise of the biz)

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    • Good comment Mike and I agree that even requiring real names alone could make a huge difference in what gets posted. If people had to take responsibility for what they were saying, the forums would be significantly cleaned up. Why is it so difficult to demand a civil discussion of issues?

      By the way, I checked out @sadjournalist on Twitter and have started following it. Sad is right!

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  6. Nice post, Ari. I’d like to point out that AnnArbor.com — the website that started last year when the Ann Arbor News closed down — has a very aggressive moderating policy regarding comments. Their policy is very strict about what kinds of comments are allowed, and anything that violates the policy is taken down immediately. Someone in their newsroom is responsible for moderating the site at all times. A good friend of mine, Jennifer Eyer, is the assistant community editor there. If you decide to pursue this subject in other blog posts, she’d be a great resource. 🙂

    Also, I think the LSJ is actually in the process of reviewing its comments section. Community Editor Elaine Kulhanek wrote something about it a while back, I think.

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    • Thank you for the additional resources Louise. I will definitely check out the AnnArbor.com site. And it’s good to hear the LSJ is reviewing their comments policy. Maybe there is hope! I’ve gotten an inquiry to be on a radio interview about this topic, and if it materializes I’ll be sure to give shout-outs to those who seem to be headed down the right track.

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  7. I love Minnpost and their policy and have enforced a similar policy at Minneapolis.Metblogs.com for years. Comments will post immediately, but anything out of line is removed.

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  8. OK folks, how do you ensure that the names are real? Any troll who wants to play in the sandbox can register under an assumed name, no?

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    • Hugo, that’s a great point that I don’t have an answer to. It happens now, considering that “Jim1975” was apparently banned from the State Journal’s web site, but quickly returned as “ErasedJim1975.” LOL

      I’m open to ideas anyone might have. Perhaps having to register with an email that then requires that a confirmation link sent to that email has to be clicked? That’s used for some online services.

      Of course, not matter what you do, there is likely to be someone who will find a way around it. Perhaps this discussion is leading to the need for more civility in society and the newspaper reader forums are just symptom of an underlying disease in our community?

      Thank you for joining the discussion!

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  9. Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

    Louise is correct, we have recently adjusted our comments policies. Specifically, we have become more strict about posters attacking one another as “morons” or “Idiots.” But since I arrived in 2007, we have always removed content for use of cuss words, threatening or inciting criminal activity, sexually suggestive language, potentially libelous comments, etc. Earlier this year we added a contracted company that moderates 24/7 so that response to complaints is consistent every day, no matter the hour.

    I think that LSJ did err when the online discussions were added to the Web site in 2006; the original guidelines leaned heavily on the side of “freedom of speech” and allowed too much. We have pulled that back steadily over the past couple years.

    You may not be aware that we do remove the comment function from some stories when we become concerned about the direction of the discussion. Most often those have been stories where the discussion of race turned violent or on articles about a death where too many are criticizing the survivors and/or inappropriately celebrating the passing.

    We do have the ability to pre-moderate (set the story so that every comment must be reviewed by a moderator before it becomes visible on the Web site), but our site is extremely busy — we have more than 10,000 registered users — and it’s not possible to use that on every discussion thread.

    We do review — and always have — every comment that is reported as abuse. The majority of those comments were deleted and the reader would not know that something was removed unless they had seen it before we spiked it; we changed in January to a new method that blocks the comment and leaves a place holder where the comment used to be, so it should be more obvious.

    At the moment, we do not have the ability to require real names. We are studying whether we can make some adjustments to the software that would give an incentive for posting under real names. I would point out, however, that some of the most consistent and vocal community critics on our Web site are those who either use their real name as their “user name” or who regularly sign their posts with their real names. So, I suspect using real-names will not completely address the issues that concern some of you.

    I am always happy to review a discussion thread or a specific comment. Just e-mail me the story headline and the user name making the comment.

    Elaine Kulhanek
    Community Conversations Editor
    ekulhanek@lsj.com

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting Elaine.

      It’s great to hear the Lansing State Journal is taking pro-active approaches to remedying this problem. I still see way too much crap on your reader forums that seem to me to violate your terms of service, so I wonder how aggressive the paper is being in clearing off the offenders.

      I’m interested in hearing what people think about the paper stepping up and moderating vs. only removing posts that are reported by other readers. Maybe that’s the answer to your problem of having too many registered users to keep up with on your own. Although, that’s probably something you should have considered when you opened your stories up to comments in the first place.

      If you do get things to turn more civil, you’ll definitely have some damage control to do in the Lansing area. I’ve heard from a lot of people, on this blog, via Twitter and in person about how my comments were dead-on, especially when it comes to the State Journal.

      Good luck!

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    • Elaine, (I commented above about my prior experiences) I’m also glad to hear that LSJ is working on it, but I hope you can see from a reader’s point of view that the system is not working as it is currently. I just came from the site where there are 7 pages of comments about the bicycle/car accident in Okemos, most of them speculating on who was at fault. This is one where the comment function should have been disabled at the onset…all of the LSJ’s brief accident reports lead to this, in my experience.

      If no other rule was in place, at the very least there should be no comments allowed on any stories that involve a death. There is no value in it whatsoever.
      Meg

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  10. Why, in my day (insert best Dana Carvey impression I can muster) we submitted letters to the editors, they tossed them out, and we LIKED IT!

    I shake my head at most open discussion forums for the very reasons stated above. There’s scant accountability for the comment posters and seemingly little interest and/or limited resources from media sites — even corporate blogs — to shepherd the black sheep.

    Still, the courts (at least ours) favor anonymity and there’s no rule that says all discourse must be civil. That’s the reality. Adhere to best practices, stick to a rock-solid comment policy and grow a thick skin. Best I can tell you.

    I’d love to return to the days of truly open moderation, the way the old Plastic.com used to do it with karma points. Posters would self-police, though ultimately the system failed due to splinter factions with rival governance models. Makes for a great case study of what not to do, at the very least.

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    • Great Dana Carvey reference Dino! 🙂

      Elaine mentioned that at the Lansing State Journal they rely on readers to report abusive comments. Obviously, given the reaction I’ve had to this post, that’s not enough, but maybe that’s all people are willing to tolerate as opposed to the paper doing all the moderating. I admit there’s a risk of the Lansing State Journal deciding what’s “appropriate” vs. “inappropriate” and getting a bit power-hungry. Still, there has to be some kind of answer to this. As I said in my reply to Hugo, perhaps this discussion is really about a symptom of an underlying sickness in society: a lack of civility, accountability and personal responsibility.

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      • Ari:

        Let me clarify, we don’t rely solely on readers to report abusive comments. I read and remove a lot of abuse myself. But we don’t “pre-moderate” by reviewing everything before it appears on the site because the volume of comments is just too large for that.

        We have taken a lot of steps to clear out some of the most abusive people. In extreme cases, we have done IP bans, although that is not a perfect solution. We’ve reported death threats to the police. (And I know they follow up because I got a very nasty note from someone who was unhappy about being visited by the LPD.)

        People do complain that we’ve unfairly removed their comment due to personal bias. (That was more frequent during the 2008 election cycle.) But those are most often people who got so irate while fighting about the election that they went over the line with cuss words, threats or other ToS violations.

        I can’t even describe to you the incredibly filthy words I’ve had to add to the word filters. I also get complaints from people who think adults should be able to survive reading an expletive on our site and we should leave them. Some days I wonder why so many otherwise articulate people believe their opinion cannot be expressed without vulgar words. Really?

        We put a lot of time and energy into cleaning out the content that has expletives, sexual language, racial slurs, threats, calls to vioence, libelous allegations, etc.

        But simply having an opinion that others may consider negative or even offensive does not automatically violate terms of service.

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  11. One more note:

    One of my colleagues pointed out that I should have mentioned our “HIDE” tab, right above the comments on every article. So a reader can click “hide” on any article and make the comments vanish.

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  12. Pingback: When career and karma collide « Just B

  13. Elaine, it would also be nice if you could “ignore” certain posters so that their comments never appeared. And if certain posters are banned, it might make sense to ban their IP addresses rather than their usernames.

    I’m really glad the LSJ is taking more action on this issue. Some of the vitriol and nastiness in the comments is just unbelievable.

    Like

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