Eating your cake and having it to: Solving the comment troll problemPosted: May 27, 2015
An article in today’s Globe and Mail by Denise Balkissoon discusses the problem of comment trolls on popular news sites.
“Play this game: go find any article on [the National Post website] about a woman. Read the comments,” argued illustrator and journalist Steve Murray (whom I find pretty smart, and very funny). For him, eradicating comments entirely is the only way for publications to show zero tolerance. “Why would any woman want to subject themselves to that?”
Allow me to speak for all women everywhere when I say: We don’t. I consider a thick skin a prerequisite for any career in the public eye, which includes most journalism. That doesn’t mean that the racist, sexist, nonsensical garbage often lobbed my way by hateful cowards is easy to deal with, or fair.
Balkissoon, however, believes that the importance of “anonymity” on the web as a vector for communication by the powerless outweighs, on balance, the unpleasant side of comment trolls at popular news sites.
But I don’t think that getting rid of online anonymity is the right solution.
Anonymity was one of the first successes of the Internet, one of the main reasons it was an informational game-changer. Internet anonymity is essential for people in dangerous situations, including members of ethnic minorities facing government-sanctioned abuse, LGBT people in repressive environments and investigative journalists just about everywhere.
For many people, anonymity is about physical safety. Last week, on the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen wrote about “Lily,” a 47-year-old woman receiving threatening messages from her former rapist. She had avoided him for 18 years, but he found her because Facebook is determined to out anyone who uses any type of pseudonym. Ms. Allen says a number of domestic-violence survivors have got in touch about the same problem, and she points out that although Facebook might say the requirement is for safety, it’s mostly so that the network can sell user data for money.
Now that the Internet is so ubiquitous, many privacy and free-expression advocates believe that the ability to be anonymous online is nothing less than a basic tenet of a free society.
But I think Balkissoon is confusing two different types of anonymity here: the anonymity that is necessary to protect the dispossessed and the anonymity that is necessary to issue rape threats to “feminazis.” The former is an indispensable agent of social change, the latter something we can all do without.
But she is also confusing genres as well, because the different types of comments appear in different types of fora: comment trolling happens in the comments sections of media sites; the other happens between individual members of social media sites.
In the case of comment trolling, it seems to me that we already have a traditional solution available to us: the letter to the editor. Print media too used to have a comment section, the letters to the editor page. And this was a heavily moderated space. Most major newspapers have a letters editor whose job it is to select (and occasionally edit) the best of the voluminous mail received by newspapers about their articles on a daily basis. The result is, depending on the paper, usually a pretty high standard: it is quite hard to get a letter to the editor in major newspapers and the ones that make it through tend to be well-written, have interesting points to make or introduce new angles to the published coverage. Many newspapers even have regular correspondents who are adept at getting their work into the forum.
This is a model that is relatively easily transferred to an online medium: the comment function at most news sites is better than a traditional letters-to-the-editor page in that it can associate comment directly with the article in question; the only place it is worse is in the quality of the editing. If we stop understanding the comment section of newspapers as being a forum for conversation and instead see it as a locus for edited and selected correspondence, the problem of comment trolling would disappear. This requires editorial oversight, but nobody has ever had free access to—or uncontrolled anonymity in—the edited news media anyway.
The second type of anonymity—the anonymity we want to be able to protect because it does allow the voices of the dispossessed to surface—is the more difficult problem because the trolling that occurs here is more scary (it is individual to individual) and far more difficult to control without losing some essential good in the system. Exactly what to do here is still a question for debate and experimentation.
But in the case of comment trolling, I think the answer is pretty simple: recognise them for what they are, online letters to the editor.