It’s not about who said what


The debate continues over online comments. And, the argument is not just over comments posted to What to do about the wildly free-swinging, rumormongering, factually challenged, willfully slanderous denizens of the Internet — that’s the question.

Not only are these web-sters often heedless of the truth and of the reputations of others, but they practice their squalid sliminess anonymously, or pseudonymously. Sometimes they use their real names but pass on fact-free allegations nevertheless, as the universe of know-it-all bloggers do also. Add all this to the abundance of porn, social predation, advertising-driven intrusion, and scams, and those who deplore it all have taken to calling the whole mess a cesspool, or worse.

Those who can’t stand the wickedness take one of a couple of approaches, sometimes both. The first has at its heart a difficult collection of compromises. The website publisher wants the traffic associated with the comment feature. The Times wants it too, I blush to admit. The traffic has implications for the revenue possibilities of the site. But, the site-owner doesn’t want some significant segment of its visitor population to be so repulsed by the lack of quality of the comment posts that they a) resist participating as commenters, or b) decline to visit the site at all. The Times is conscious of both these possibilities.

The site-owner also knows that if some moderation of fervid, fact-less anonymous comment posters is to be done at all, the process has to be automated. No site has the wherewithal to examine, edit, and screen posts, never mind check to guarantee the authenticity of each poster’s identity, unless the process can be automated. And, of course it cannot be.

So, hopeful mechanism number one is some variation on the key word search or a way to grade comments for someone’s idea of quality insights. One finds such features already in use on some web sites. Some words or phrases cause the server to kick out a comment that does not meet the site’s standard, or the requirements of the editors or algorithms (the two have become nearly interchangeable nowadays). Or other posters get to grade the comments. Good grades get check marks or go to the top of the list. Bad grades send the comment plummeting to a comment graveyard at the bottom of the heap.

The theory is that even anonymous commenters want their comments read and perhaps admired, so they’ll conform to the site’s standards, or to the socio-political-civil metrics imposed by fellow posters.

Plan B, which is gaining adherents, generally from academics and progressive policy mavens, imagines that the problem may be ameliorated or eliminated by governmental administrative or legislative action. For instance, libel laws — as they now apply to print publishers — could be extended to web publishers that allow unedited contributions by outsiders to be hosted on the publisher’s site. The laws and the case law, although in early stages of development as regards the web, shield such web hosts from liability for misinformation, even libelous posts that were hosted but not originated by the site’s publisher or owner.

Another possibility would be to require sites to keep records that would allow a third party to track down the poster who libeled him or spread misinformation about him or invaded his privacy.

How such information might be gathered or stored, or under what circumstances it might be made available to an offended litigant, is unclear and may not, in some cases, be possible. Consider for instance a household with four adult members, one computer, and one IP address. Who used the computer to post the offending comment? Maybe it was a friend visiting from another city.

Neither of these strategies has established itself on a firm footing, and neither appeals to me. Each is built on an assumption that readers and comment participants are incapable of assessing the merits of this commenter’s idea as compared with that one’s. And further, the assumption is that the responsibility for critically examining the merits of posts can be shifted from web readers and visitors to a public arbiter. It’s a perverse notion at rock bottom odds with the First Amendment, which allows for public discourse on the most liberal terms and in return depends on the good sense of listeners and readers to distinguish between what appeals and what repels.

The route we’ve taken is not to presume to impose a standard that discriminates among points of view or cares who offers them. It’s not been entirely successful, but we are gradually squeezing out the most poisonous comment participants.

We build our approach on trust in the wisdom of readers and commenters to distinguish the attractive notions from the ugly ones. And, because we are an independent newspaper, we can toss aside comments that are too raw in their expression and too wildly at variance with fact and truth. We have, and we’ll continue to do so. The boring, repetitive, hollow views may find a place in the comment rolls along with the sparklers, but the former will gain no traction, and the latter may.