Heckler’s Veto of Internet Comments?

Mark Kleiman writes, “I’m not surprised that CBS has found its comments section inundated with racist taunts whenever it runs a story on Barack Obama. But closing down comments on all Obama stories allows the cyberthugs to deny Obama’s supporters the chance to discuss stories about him. CBS can afford to hire a monitor.”

CBS’ Brian Montopoli reports that, “CBSNews.com does sometimes delete comments on an individual basis, but [CBSNews.com director of News and Operations Mike] Sims said that was not sufficient in the case of Obama stories due to ‘the volume and the persistence’ of the objectionable comments.”

WaPo media critic Howie Kurtz has noted that this is a persistent problem across the Web and wonders how it can be handled. “The really gruesome stuff represents a tiny minority of those online. But is there a way of policing the worst stuff without shutting down robust debate?” He reports that, “Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady says he does not have the resources to screen the roughly 2,000 daily comments in advance. He has one staffer deleting offensive comments after the fact, and banning the authors from further feedback, based on complaints from readers. Brady plans to devote more staff to the process and to use new filtering technology.”

While Kleiman is absolutely right that the thugs shouldn’t be allowed to stifle legitimate discussion, he likely underestimates the ease with which comments on truly large sites can be moderated. Putting all comments into a moderation queue for human review is the only way to ensure that no objectionable language makes it to the page. Unfortunately, that tends to stifle debate as it increases the feedback loop and thus slows down the ebb-and-flow of the conversation. The use of filtering software can screen out banned words, but humans can get around them with minimal creativity.

It’s true that CBS and WaPo and other major sites can afford a monitor or two. But screening thousands of comments quickly enough to keep the discussion lively is probably more resource-intensive than it’s worth. How much revenue does the comments section add to the bottom line? My guess is not a lot. It’s perfectly reasonable for editors already forced to cut their reporting staff by budget cuts not to want to go into the red to hire people who aren’t adding valuable content to the site.

Many of the more popular blogs have instead chosen opposite extremes: Closing comments altogether or allowing their comments to become unmonitored free-for-alls which tend to devolve into cesspools. I have chosen a middle path: Open, real-time comments with human and automated moderation.

Despite excellent filters, I still spend an hour or more a day reading comments and managing the moderation and spam queues on the OTB Media blogs. I enjoy having a dialog with the readership and ensuring that the level of discourse in the comments section is sufficiently civil as to keep thoughtful contributors aboard is a high priority. On the other hand, dealing with trolls and spammers wastes time that I would rather spend doing more reading and writing. I consider the comments an integral enough part of OTB to make that trade-off. I can understand why Jim Brady and Mike Sims don’t, however.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Perry says:

    closing down comments on all Obama stories allows the cyberthugs to deny Obama’s supporters the chance to discuss stories about him

    Tellingly, Kleiman indicates that his concern is for Obama’s _supporters_ who are being denied the opportunity to respond.

    What about Obama’s detractors? Does Kleiman think that all of them are racist?

  2. McGehee says:

    What about Obama’s detractors? Does Kleiman think that all of them are racist?

    I haven’t looked at comments on stories about Obama in the establishment media, mainly because I’m not going to invest my attention in an election campaign 18 months out.

    But right off the top of my head it seems likely to me that the kind of racist comments that people at CBS would find objectionable, are not all that likely to be posted by Obama’s supporters.

    I could be wrong about that, but I’d be extremely surprised if I were.

  3. Bithead says:

    Like McGehee, I too haven’t invested much time in tracking what CBS is saying about the candidates. IN fact, none at all. And being 18 months out is certainly a factor in that. But more, CBS’s credibility comes into play here…. and this report makes me wonder if I’m ever going to bother checking their site out, much less take it seriously.

    It strikes me, that a lot of what’s going to be considered racist, with regards to a Democratic candidate, would not be considered racist for republican candidate. Are we really to rely upon CBS, a network which has historically lane has so far to the left has to be mistaken repeatedly for Pravda, as to what is and is not racist? That’s really what they’re demanding we do…

    Or, are they? I mean, there are other reasons comments on Obama might be limited… It must be a BITCH, trying to project this guy as likable, electable, and popular, when the American people actually have their say.

    Oh, and one more thing; How many of the comments that CBS finds so objectionable, were posted by Democrats, I wonder? because they’re not allowing us to see what people are thinking, and posting, we are forced to assume by the nature of what we do see that as people not involved with the democratic party who were posting these supposedly racist comments. It’s all part of imaging, of course.

  4. I think that CBS has every right to use a human-approved method of posting comments. I understand the other side of the issue that it is not “free” speech then, but it IS CBS’s website still.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I think that CBS has every right to use a human-approved method of posting comments.

    Sure. That’s not the issue here. They’re simply closing off comments on Obama-related stories rather than hassling with human approval.

  6. McGehee says:

    Oh, and one more thing; How many of the comments that CBS finds so objectionable, were posted by Democrats, I wonder?

    None. But they may be aware that many of their readers would find them objectionable, and they just can’t have that.

  7. Bithead says:

    I’m not so convinced that NONE of them are from Democrats, particularly given how nasty the Hillary bunch can be, (as an example) and how nasty they’ve been in the past to blacks and other minorities at need.

  8. Bithead says:

    Oh… almost forgot an interesting parallel I stumbled over earlier today

    And some interesting comments on THAT