Ending Online Anonymity: Huffington Post And Other Publishers Declare War On Comment Trolls, But Can They Win?

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GreenHands Digital publishers look for new ways to fight trolls and keep online comments civil.

Last week, a discussion on a private LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) forum for journalists dared to attempt to answer the question: Do comment sections help or hinder online journalism?

The debate that followed was as lively as it was polarized. For every point made about the value of engaging readers and soliciting alternative perspectives, there was a fervent counterpoint about vitriolic trolls, off-topic banterers and mean-spirited snark.

“Way too often they are cesspools filled with racism,” wrote Kevin Shelly, a reporter for the Courier-Post in Philadelphia.

And it’s hard to argue that they are not. Scroll through the comment section on a large website on any given day and you will find no shortage of insults, abuse, hate speech and even the occasional death threat. Muster up the courage to dig beneath the foul din, and you find an equally large layer of digital punditry, seemingly bent on dispensing misinformation. “The ice caps are not melting, if you believe the overwhelming majority of comments on any article about climate change,” as one LinkedIn journalist pointed out.

But what is the solution to downsides of comments? Heavier moderation? Reddit-like up-voting? Software that filters out the word “yawn”? Or perhaps, as Wired magazine’s Mat Honan suggested, it’s time to do away with comment sections altogether, to replace the standard model -- which dates back to the dawn of the Internet -- with something a little more modern.

Gawker’s Kinja discussion platform, for instance, puts user comments on almost equal footing with the articles themselves. But while the system fosters some compelling discussions, it often breeds a kind of locker room-like badinage that more traditional outlets would no doubt find off-putting. In other words, what works for Gawker is not necessarily going to work for the New Yorker (incidentally, a favorite hangout for conservative commenters who enjoy pointing out that, yes, the flagship publication for the East Coast intelligentsia sometimes displays a liberal bias).   

One of the most commonly cited problems with online comments is anonymity, as several of the LinkedIn journalists -- even in the pro-comment camp -- pointed out. It’s an issue that has not gone unnoticed at the Huffington Post (NYSE:AOL), whose tireless team of moderators muddle through upwards of 25,000 comments an hour, according to a Poynter report from 2012. Earlier this month, Arianna Huffington told reporters that the site will do away with anonymous comments in mid-September. According to GigaOM, Huffington blamed an atmosphere of evermore aggressive and ugly trolls, and said it was time for the website to “evolve” as a platform.

Not everyone thinks it’s the right decision. In a quasi-open letter last week, the tech writer Mathew Ingram said HuffPost is “giving up something of value.” Anonymity, Ingram writes, offers commenters the opportunity to share things they might not otherwise share. (“Comments about spousal abuse, sexual identity, religious persecution -- the list goes on,” he writes.) But then Ingram is not the one who has to sift through 10,000 comments about why the government refuses to investigate Benghazi. Online anonymity, it should go without mentioning, is not going away anytime soon, and plenty of forums -- Twitter, Reddit, etc. -- allow users to comment anonymously on news. The question, then, is whether the Huffington Post and other news outlets are obligated to expend resources so their readers have a platform on which they feel free to insult, debase and threaten each other.

Earlier this month, John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of a growing anti-troll movement, evident in comment-section overhauls at the New York Times, NBC News and elsewhere. Despite that movement, most journalists -- at least as indicated from last week’s LinkedIn discussion -- recognize the value of online comments and the need to preserve interaction with readers (particularly when those readers are kind enough to point out factual errors without being nasty about it). It’s a debate that is only likely to become more heated as research in the nascent field of trollology continues to shed new light on the role of online comments, as IBTimes reported on in February.

In the meantime, it’s worth pointing out that the “Don’t Read the Comments” Twitter account has more than 26,000 followers and growing. According to its creator, game designer Shane Liesegang, the account has been on automatic pilot since February, but at least he had decency to use his real name.

Got a news tip? Send me an email. Follow me on Twitter: @christopherzara

 

 

 

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