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.