Jon Krause illustration
Commenting on a Richmond Times-Dispatch story about Food Lion lowering its prices, "JeremiahJohnson" holds forth: "You wouldn't patronize Ukrops so now you get to mill around with the rest of the Yankee and Foreign swine. Welcome to the mess we've made of Richmond and the Federal People's Republic of America."
Ooohkay , then. That's a lot of anger for a story about milk and bread discounts. I tend to take the position of Common_Sense, another commenter: "It's just groceries man take it easy."
I wasn't a frequent reader of online comments before researching this column, because — probably unfairly — I lumped a lot of anonymous commenters in with Jeremiah. You know who I'm talking about: Folks who jump into the fray only minutes after a story has been posted, ready to blame Cheney or Obama for everything wrong in the world, make a racist comment or throw out wild accusations about an interview subject's past.
They aren't all like that. But it's not exactly uncommon to come across words that are dishonest, insulting or simply not constructive in response to news stories.
Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a new-media expert, says that the introduction of online comments is the biggest change in news media in the past 50 years. Instead of four "curated" letters to the editor on the editorial page, a paper can yield countless comments a day — and that means someone has to keep an eye out for trouble.
"Once you start editing [comments], you have to keep editing," Sreenivasan says. "You fall down the rabbit hole."
But when it comes to defamatory content in the comments — let's say I write that my neighbor shoplifts, and it isn't true — the Communications Decency Act provides a great deal of protection to the media outlet or blogger whose site hosts the comments, says Richmond intellectual-property lawyer Chris Gatewood.
"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider," reads Section 230 of the federal statute, which overrides any state law. That means I'm responsible for my false shoplifting allegation, not the blogger or news site, no matter how much (or little) they police comments.
The fine-print terms and conditions, which "nobody reads," Sreenivasan says half-jokingly, also protect media outlets from legal consequences arising from comments. Anyone who tweets, Facebooks, blogs or posts a story is legally responsible for that content, but not defamatory comments they didn't write.
Of course, media outlets aren't just concerned with defamation in the comments; most are interested in promoting an engaged readership and a civil exchange of ideas, while driving more traffic to their sites.
Style Weekly's site receives about 100 comments a day, although the number varies depending on story content, says editor Jason Roop. He uses a mostly hands-off comments policy, yet staffers are typically aware of what's being posted daily.
Style has deleted only about 10 comments since it's been online, Roop says. Several were written by the same person, who persisted in posting (and reposting, after being deleted) a personal attack about a feature subject's "college indiscretion" — an allegation that Roop says couldn't be confirmed and was immaterial to the story Style had published. Eventually, the poster gave up and went away.
The Times-Dispatch racks up hundreds or even thousands of comments every day, says multimedia editor John Witt. Although reading comments is a small part of his job, Witt takes time regularly to keep tabs on them — particularly if a story is about politics, religion, guns, abortion or race. Also, he notes, "There are certain figures that are very polarizing," among them President Obama, Sarah Palin and Doug Wilder. He and other editors try to delete extremely offensive posts before other commenters respond, eroding the level of discourse.
Still, Witt says, "We want to err on the side of free speech."
Most of the time, T-D commenters are passionate but not offensive — those that indulge in name-calling or attacks get a warning and, if the behavior is repeated, a temporary suspension. In some special circumstances, among them persistent spammers and white supremacists who use hate speech and link to offensive sites, commenters are permanently banned, Witt says.
But on the positive side, he notes that some anonymous "whistle-blowers" who made comments on stories about the Virginia Information Technology Agency's problematic deal with Northrop-Grumman helped provide leads for subsequent articles.
Sreenivasan mentioned an increasingly popular platform, Facebook Connect, which was launched in December 2008 and could be an agent of change. As of this past February, approximately 80,000 sites — including TV networks, major newspapers and tech blogs — allowed viewers to sign in through their Facebook accounts to make comments.
Just as you'd expect, a real name and sometimes a photo accompany your words.
Not only does this platform promote "less racism and less vitriol," Sreenivasan says, but also a greater sense of responsibility. Depending on a commenter's privacy controls on Facebook, his friends and members of his networks (i.e., alma maters and workplaces) can read what the commenter writes, leading to more self-policing.
The free platform has a variety of formats, from the "most basic to very deep," according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich. Many sites set up a button below stories that reads "Connect with Facebook" to register as a commenter, while other sites go much further, like news aggregator Huffington Post, which has set up a "social news" network and an iPhone app through the platform to keep its readers connected and commenting. As a result, Facebook referrals to Huffington Post have grown by 655 percent since January 2009.
Most sites still use alternate registration methods that allow greater privacy, but more than 60 million people use Facebook Connect every month, Lucich notes. Witt says the Times-Dispatch is considering incorporating the platform on its site, although it would not be the only way to register as a commenter.
I'm wary of monopoly — one network, one password and all of your information in one place, ripe for identity theft — but at least on the surface, Facebook Connect's transparency seems to be a healthy trend. If you're on Facebook, as 400 million of us are, then you're probably used to considering your audience before writing something controversial. And I'm a strong believer in signing your name to your words.
There are occasions for anonymity; a colleague reminded me that videos of protests in Iran were, necessarily, posted by anonymous sources. That's a matter of life and death, but most of the time it isn't.
It's certainly not life or death when Jeremiah writes about "Yankee and Foreign swine" polluting our city.
I'll bet he'd think twice about posting that for the world if he were writing under his real name, instead of one belonging to an old Robert Redford character. It's just groceries, man. Take it easy.
UPDATE: According to Mashable, Facebook Connect will be no more, in favor of a new system called Open Graph .