Monday debate: Reader comments to online news and opinion articles

Here at UW-Madison over the last few weeks, one of our student newspapers has been wrestling with the issue of incivility in the anonymous comments that they allow readers to post after each article. They claim to be moving toward a full moderation system to ward off personal attacks masquerading as productive debate, but as of last Friday had apparently not yet implemented any policy change.

The contradictions of civility, anonymity, and moderation in online spaces are certainly not new. Anonymity is supposed to allow one safe participation in an online forum without fear of reprisal in the real world; however, the juvenile and mob-like aggression and assault invited by an open anonymous forum can serve to chill the very speech it was intended to protect. Moderation holds out the promise of gatekeeping in such online spaces to sift and winnow the productive dialogue from the mean-spirited diatribe; however, besides being constantly prone to charges of censorship and favoritism, any moderation system beyond a simple keyword-based SPAM filter requires thoughtful, thorough, and expensive human labor.  And finally, at the same time news organizations feel pushed by online norms of audience “playbor” to open up comment spaces to wide participation, those very comment spaces themselves might discourage deeper forms of audience engagement — including paid support — as they deter and disgust all but the most polarized of readers.

Different online organizations have approached this problem in different ways. Over at the New York Times, for example, individual weblogs within the organization sometimes exercise more or less control over the comments. But all are subject to an overall policy of screening and moderation:

Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we have created a space where readers can exchange intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers and generally cannot alter a comment once it is posted.

Closer to home, the Capital Times, which is staking its future on a rich online presence coupled with two free weekly print products (one news-based, one entertainment-based), requires any commenters to register and agree to some lenthy terms of service. With respect to “Online Conduct,” they say

We encourage a free and open exchange of ideas in a climate of mutual respect. We do not control the messages or postings that are sent to the Site but we, or third parties acting on our behalf, may monitor online conduct to enforce these Terms of Use. We reserve the right in our sole discretion, but do not assume any obligation, to refuse to post, remove, or edit any messages or postings sent to the Site. Any action by a user that infringes on another user’s right to use and enjoy this Site is prohibited. We reserve the right to suspend or terminate your access to and use of this Site if, in our view, your conduct fails to meet any of our guidelines. We also reserve the right to change these terms at any time.

I’m curious to hear what other SJMC faculty, staff, and students think about the world of online comments and the various social and technological solutions which have so far emerged to reckon with them.  How do we keep online spaces both open and civil?  Both diverse and productive?  Both safe and interesting?

5 thoughts on “Monday debate: Reader comments to online news and opinion articles

  1. It comes down to having the right balance between the two ideologies because there is no “perfect world scenario” possible here. On one hand, safeguarding the entire process (which is almost impossible due to the high volume of commentary) may be an abatement of the original “free and open discussion” idea in which these forums were initially founded upon. Moreover, it may deter readers who frequent particular Sites knowing that their comments now need be worthy of approval. On the other hand, free reign without reprimand for the cowardly comments that often flood and infect these otherwise wonderful articles may also be a deterrent for those readers who care not to read such anonymous tripe.

    One solution could be a sort of compartmentalization of commentary possibilities; an offering of two forms of commentary made available to readers:

    Form 1: A free-for-all that anyone and everyone can take part in anonymously or not.
    Form 2: An offering of moderated commentary (one similar to the approach that the NYT has taken), free of the after-school playground that some blogs often turn into.
    The readers would have the option of what they choose to read/ participate in, rather than lumping in the divisive commentary with that of the meaningful kind. Though, I am not sure of the logistics of how this might be implemented.

    Otherwise, I believe that a little bit of thick skin (from the writers AND readers) combined with a general understanding that there will always be that one (and unfortunately it’s usually a lot more than just one) ignorant person who lacks any form of moral integrity; one who finds empty fulfillment wasting everyone’s time by hiding behind the web, deriding and belittling unchecked and unchallenged.

  2. The J202 blog once cited some comments left by readers on my website. I left a lengthy response, but I think the following is missing from the larger discussion surrounding anon commentary:

    “And perhaps there is a larger question here. If for a moment I were to concede the majority of comments constitute heckling, I would be skeptical of placing blame on myself the blogger in this situation. I believe many of us have an unrealistic Habermasian standard that we seek for online deliberation. Over 1,000 unique visitors read this blog post and quite a few chose to write comments. Perhaps the problem with antagonistic commentary lies not with the blogger, but the intensely hateful society from which we develop these thoughts. Ever try watching a political TV like Crossfire? How about the way an American Idol contestant is ripped to shreds? People love it. The anonymous comment feature on my blog allows a forum for this – of course, I do edit posts, including removing a call to harass Brandon via AIM – and in my pseudo-experiment on the human condition, I have found people are all too happy to show their true colors behind such a wall.”

    It goes beyond just innovative technological solutions to the problem. It’s a social ill.

  3. It’s very frightening about how right your assessment is Critical Badger. Social ill indeed, terribly indeed.

  4. @Critical Badger, I recall that comment to the 202 blog. The question involved a CB post with a headline calling a freshman an idiot, I think.
    To Greg’s post, I’d try to disentangle a few issues here.
    1. What’s the role of anonymous speech in an open society and is it worth protecting publicly? Despite being the target of some noxious anonymous comments over the years, I’d still fervently argue yes. The First Amendment does – and should – protect anonymous speech. To quote the Supremes, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
    2. That said, the next question then becomes whether anonymous speech is worth promoting in private organizations, like student newspapers. Here I become far less protective. You have a right to say it. That doesn’t mean I have an obligation to run it. As publishers of all kinds, we make daily decisions about what we will and will not put out for public debate. Reflexive protection of anonymous commenters can devalue that role.
    3. Finally, what solutions are available to us? I do believe in technological options that engage the community in the marketplace of ideas. I try to imagine what people like Justice Holmes would say to tools such as Pluck ( that allow commenters to flag each other for review.
    But beyond the 1s and 0s, we have to promote civil discourse within our online communities, as well as our offline. Would I have blogged the “idiot” headline? No. Should I open a conversation about why? Yes. And I should do it with a level of civility worthy of a society that seeks to be open, productive and free. No doubt, snark sells. But that doesn’t make it worthwhile.
    For an object lesson in what NOT to do, check out this 202 blog post,

Comments are closed.