New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been in more than a little hot water lately, with “Bridgegate” taking on a life of its own after aides reportedly arranged traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as political payback against a Democratic mayor.
But even with the ensuing resignations and allegations emerging about Hurricane Sandy funds, this scandal might seem somewhat minor in the context of political history. However, it’s just the sort of bullying attitude that Christie’s administration is accused of that has infected our discourse in this country for decades.
A couple of weeks ago in this space, I lamented the lack of civility on comment boards and elsewhere. Not all Internet sites have this problem, but on some, a thrown-off remark can be blood in the water for hyperpartisan commenters who just love to start fights (but unlike Pink, they’re not rock stars in any sense of the word).
Sometimes the ensuing chaos was the intention of an Internet troll, someone who deliberately makes provocative remarks in hopes of creating a feeding frenzy (and sometimes is paid to do so). Boards on sites like Democratic Underground and Free Republic thrive on this discord, and those from the opposing party who dare post, and who surely know the leanings of those sites, are generally swiftly met with a smackdown.
On general news sites such as the Washington Post, though, the vitriol in comments can often be shocking, ranging from profanity and insulting language—often to or about fellow commenters—to accusations of illegality. What might have begun as spirited debate can rapidly devolve.
It sometimes can resemble a car crash in that we know we shouldn’t keep reading such comments but just can’t look away, and before you know it, half a day is wasted.
There’s another side-effect of all the vitriol: It tends to drive away people who believe in reasonable discussion, which in turn results in studies that claim the conspiracy theorists and bullies on the sites are now spouting the conventional wisdom. And that leads to interpretations that those people are thus saner than everyone else.
Which leads to me pulling my hair out again. And bald is not a good look for me.
Some news sites take a hands-on approach to policing their comments sections. The New York Times, for instance, pre-moderates all comments; comments are screened for profanity and other flagged words, personal attacks., etc., before being posted. The paper opens comments for only a limited number of stories each day, though, so that makes the approach do-able.
The Times noted in a 2012 blog post: “The rewards of this approach are in the quality of our discussions, in which we take great pride, not least because we feel we offer a safe space where people of all political persuasions can make their case without fear of a barrage of childish insults or insubstantial or off-color remarks.”
Because of their methods, it can take a while for some comments to appear, the paper says, but “the trade-off is more than worth it, although we know some readers disagree. We see these comments as an extension of our journalism. We value the input of a majority of our commenters and are not willing to have their words devalued by running them alongside personal attacks, innuendo and obscenity.”
The Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah, took a similar approach by deciding to pre-approve reader comments, and recently hosted a relatively civil discussion in the comments for a front-page story on same-sex marriage.
My own paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, does not pre-screen comments unless they are from flagged users; otherwise, comments go up immediately. However, comments reported by other users as offensive are reviewed and taken down if they violate the site’s terms-of-use policy.
The Post’s moderation is similar, and allows both anonymous and Facebook commenting, but comment threads still often turn hostile quickly.
Other news sites have turned to requiring commenters to use Disqus or Facebook to comment, meaning they are supposed to use their real name. The theory is that eschewing anonymity will defuse the possibility of a free-for-all in the comments, but the jury is still out on how successful that’s been. While it seems to have spawned at least a little more civility in some comment sections, others are just as hostile as before.
Some sites, such as Popular Science, have just given up and decided to ban comments altogether. Online editor Suzanne LaBarre explained in a blog post that the comments were bad for science and that because “comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories.”
Back in 2010, Scott Rosenberg of Wordyard wrote that anonymity isn’t really the problem with newspaper comments: “Show me a newspaper website without a comments host or moderation plan and I’ll show you a nasty flamepit that no unenforceable ‘use your real name’ policy can save. Telling Web users ‘Use your real name’ isn’t bad in itself, but it won’t get you very far if your site has already degenerated into nasty mayhem.”
What it comes down to, though, is bullying, whether online or in print, and it is up to us to stand up to such rude behavior. Don’t give them what they want, which is chaos; feeding the trolls just encourages them. Instead of assuming a defensive posture, answer accusations with facts, turn their claims back onto them or simply ignore them.
If we don’t allow bullies to gain more ground, reason can win again.