Sun-Times kills comments until it can fix ‘morass of negativity, racism, and hate speech’

Chicago Sun-Times

The Chicago Sun-Times has temporarily eliminated story commenting on its website until it can develop a system that will “foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing,” managing editor Craig Newman announced:

The world of Internet commenting offers a marvelous opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas. But as anyone who has ever ventured into a comment thread can attest, these forums too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.

In fact, the general tone and demeanor is one of the chief criticisms we hear in regard to the usability and quality of our websites and articles. Not only have we heard your criticisms, but we often find ourselves as frustrated as our readers are with the tone and quality of commentary on our pages.


Popular Science did away with comments completely last September, sparking debate about whether benefits of commenters pointing out errors and offering opposing views outweigh the costs of commenters poisoning debate and misleading readers. The magazine couldn’t afford moderators, as many news organizations can’t.

One solution tried by media sites: cutting down on anonymity by using Facebook comments or another social login. Some loyal Huffington Post commenters revolted when the media site required all users to link a verified Facebook account to their HuffPost accounts late last year. Meanwhile, Google outraged many YouTube users by forcing them to use Google+ in a bid to reduce anonymity in its commenting sections, widely regarded as cesspools.

TechCrunch has said that switching to Facebook comments is effective for silencing trolls — but it can silence productive commenters, too. Studies have indicated anonymous comments are less civil but also promote more engagement.

Last September, The New York Times Magazine suggested four ways to improve the culture of online comments.

Disclosure: I used to work for the Sun-Times.

Related: HuffPost policy banishes trolls — and drives away some frequent commenters | How talk radio listens to its audience, provides lessons for online publishers | Can reporters help repair online comment sections? | Despite complaints, comments broadly allowed on many news sites

Related training: Managing Comments on Your News Site

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  • sarsectank@yahoo.com

    It can’t logically be fringe if it’s overwhelming. People have to hide because as the left has shown, they will ruin your life for having the “wrong” opinions.

  • skyshoes

    Miss nutz its our administration.I am not from another country. Wars ending, economy improving, health care? The guy who was legally elected by a large margin has sure done a better job than any corpublican polluter-war monger-economy crasher. You must be talking about the wing nuts new hero, strong man Vladmir Putin. No I am not for that administration.

  • Melissa Lipnutz

    A lefty responding with “facts and realities”. Yeah, right! You’ve written the same thing at least three times in this comment section. Keep on doing such a great job and you’ll be rewarded in the mid terms. Your administration’s honesty and transparency are beyond reproach and a proud model for the future. Ha!

  • frankthemurph

    So the trolls on comment boards likewise face possible death at the hands of their colonial masters for what they say?

  • Chrissakes

    [ . . . ] and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.

    troll
    noun
    noun troll plural noun trolls
      1. someone who disagrees with me.
      2. a slur used to shutdown debate or discourse.

  • Guest

    It’s a coward’s paradise.

    Many of the writing of the Founding Fathers were pseudonymous as well. Some cowards! LOL!!!

  • http://www.celebsoutfit.com/ Bill warren

    That is fascinating! I think you are a little bit right.

    celebsoutfit

  • TheShallows_NicholasCarr

    All comment sections should be shut down, even this one.

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/KizoneKaprow Kizone Kaprow

    “Facebook only” merely identifies the commenter as an individual who is likely the holder of a bogus account. It’s sanctioned fraud. When I want intelligent commentary, Facebook is the last place I look.

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/KizoneKaprow Kizone Kaprow

    The last vestiges of “the forum of ideas” disappeared with the advent of threaded comments (this one exempted, of course). Forums have become real-time chat rooms. Emotions have replaced thoughtful commentary. Name-calling, political partisanship, mob-mentality power games are now the norm. Cliques and posses form to drive out all dissenting opinions. Oddly, almost counter-intuitively, the internet has made some people more insular and tribal, not less. Because now everyone may find a home, a mob, a gang, where the collective thinks just like him, and acts to protect their turf from “the other.”

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/KizoneKaprow Kizone Kaprow

    It’s the Age of Narcissism. Opinionated, neurotic individuals who previously had no other outlet for their frustrations but yelling at their televisions or tediously typing out (and mailing!) actual letters to their editors or exposing themselves as crackpots at city council meetings or simmering silently until they finally snapped, may now fulfill all their fantasies with a few keystrokes. Real-time, electronic anonymity is a tonic, a drug. It obliterates inhibitions and manners and reduces public discourse to the gutter level.

    The puzzle for sociologists, social critics and psychologists in the Age of Narcissism is determining whether the narcissists were always this way, or technology released their demons and took them over the edge.

  • FGFM

    The Sun-Times comment sections were overrun by about a dozen racist trolls, so it’s no great loss. Not sure why they couldn’t just ban them.

  • skyshoes

    There should be no “sides” there is right wrong and a gamble or two shoved into life. [ from one who is barred from Huffington Post comments with over one hundred "followers" because I kept busting them on their breathless fake headlines that led into non stories].

    But to read a headline on Drudge and follow the link and see the pure hate and vitriol spewed while the co-trolls upvote the most inane hateful off subject tripe is disgusting.

    The “both sides” is always an easy out when watering down and trying to compare a double war, economic crashing, vote manipulating “administration”with characters like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush, to a clean up the mess and get the country back on its feet administration that has been voted into office by a large margin.

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    I’ve half-joked in the past about a creation called ‘Nicebook’ – slogan, ‘Be nice or be gone!’ It would have to have heavy-handed moderation – not to be all kumbaya-Pollyanna, but just to lower the noise to the level where the signal is predominant. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?;-)

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    And who, pray tell, will program where to draw those judgment lines?

  • DixT

    BOTH sides do it!!!!!

  • DixT

    But . . . . what do you do when some of those trolls’ IP addresses trace back to the WH and the DODs “DARPA” Program? Are they being paid with OUR tax dollars?????

    Something needs to be done, because yesterday we could not go on line and discuss a “Christian article” because the trolls kept calling us names like “myth believers,” etc.

  • Viator16

    It is extremely rare for people to use the Internet for discussion purposes. Back in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, there were some excellent discussion groups, but the Internet today is strictly about expressing opinions, not fostering discussions.

  • skyshoes

    George Bush? Sarah Palin? The Koch boys? How could they? [shocked]

  • PD MacGuire

    Conservatives and centrists feel much the same way when reading Huffington Post comments. For every wacky post about Obama or Nancy Pelosi there is another one complaining about George Bush, Sarah Palin or the Koch family – or in praise of the Republican leadership.

  • johnnyp70

    My problem with a “Facebook only” comment system is I am one of the few (relatively speaking) people without a Facebook account.

  • Mike

    I don’t have a Facebook or G+ account. I’m not making one of either of those simply so I can comment on news stories. I don’t mind registering to comment (hence, this Disqus log-in), but I really don’t want to have either of those.

    That said, I don’t disagree with any site that wants to completely remove commenting on stories. For the most part, they suck without heavy-handed editing.

  • skyshoes

    I think my righty friends taken in by the cult have, long ago pulled me from their email chains because I get on there and reply with facts and realities. Ten or so would lather it up with the usual pat patterned replies. ” you are a commie/socialist/Nazi and no responding facts to back up their hate garble. One Palm Beach lawyer was calling for a boycott on my business for simply calling them out on their misinformation. The republican party newsletters stopped years ago. Actually the newsletters stopped after I called one of the stations they wanted to flood with right wing “love” and read it out on the air..

    The troll packs have a list of right wing sites they feed off of, and when there is a link to a story in the “MSM” they charge over enmasse to these sites and blame car crashes, cats in trees and rainy days (sarcasm) on Obama.

    I trailed the Drudge pack to one story and some blowhard ranted about Obama in the trashiest of terms and had over five hundred upvotes.. immediately! When I confronted him on the Drudge connection he never denied it and went on to the usual “You’re a commie-left wing-socialist-Nazi” rant. Oddly his rat pack upvotes dropped down to twenty-three when he responded. The rat pack scattered. The best part was when he called me a “collectivist” (right out of the Charles Koch’s latest US corporate polluter takeover denial). I mentioned that he was right on the party line using the latest code words.. He fell into a level three code red rant.

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  • giantslor

    Exactly, this is a more focused forum.
    True anything-goes comment systems attract the worst commenters. There should be strong moderation and the willingness to ban abusive commenters. The broad-reach comment systems are a mixed bag, some are better than others. I think sites should close any comments section that gets out of hand. No one benefits from comments sections full of hate, ignorance and stupidity.

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    You do make a good point for how sites killing comment systems don’t stop the comments – they just shift them to things like Facebook threads, where there is not only less risk for the Websites themselves — but also, unfortunately, less ability to monitor what is said. Yet another set of tradeoffs.

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    And yet, you apparently enjoyed the ability to comment here, in a more focused forum. Are you opposed to anything-goes comment systems without stronger moderation, or just all of the broader-reach ones that turn into troll-oramas?

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    I am and always have been and will be split on this issue. As the moderator for a VERY active small-market TV station Website – which uses Disqus BTW – I’ve always felt that a site without comments feels cold, sterile, one-way and not very 21st century – but ones that allow anything to be said (or pretty much) have such a toxic, predictable mix of personal slams and endless arguments that I just don’t wade through them. So like many in the world today, I get to make those tough judgment calls many, many times a week. It IS an onerous, at times thankless chore, but … I can’t think of a ‘perfect’ solution, probably because there aren’t any;-)

  • http://www.ktvz.com Barney Lerten

    Hear hear, babysitting Facebook – which I wish allowed moderation on business pages – is a far more frustrating, onerous chore than the dozens of judgment calls I get to make daily as moderator on our Website. It is truly AMAZING what people will say WITH their names attached.

  • michaelant

    My local newspaper in a town of 70K instituted Facebook-only comments a little more than a year ago. Participation in comments on articles dropped considerably. Mostly this is probably a good thing, as comments used to be oftentimes filled with the mostly trollish bomb throwers this piece references.

    However, there’ve been several times since then when I would have commented under the old anonymous system, but chose not to when currently required to use my real name. My comments would have been highlighting the overzealous and misplaced enforcement priorities of the local police force. But, in a town my size, I can’t expect to be effectively anonymous via obscurity, as I would in a larger city. So, my voice on these issues has been silenced, in this forum anyway. There are real downsides to eliminating anonymity in comments, even if it’s a net benefit.

  • giantslor

    Hopefully every site with troll-filled comment sections follows suit. Yahoo should be first.

  • giantslor
  • vduffy

    That is fascinating. Can you share the name of the newsletter? I’d like to do a story on this.

  • grayzip

    I often comment on articles I read, but the truth is that, apart from everything else, comment sections are 90% obsolete. The current and in most respects superior way to comment on a news story is for a reader to post a link to it on Facebook or Twitter, with their response appending the post. It brings discussion into a space designed for discussion, where it will be read outside merely the commenting subculture. It also protects the brand publishing the content. A thoughtful piece on LGBT equality, for instance, can’t help but be sabotaged by virulent anti-LGBT hate immediately beneath the final paragraph. As an LGBT individual, I am interested in the current thinking on LGBT issues. I am also interested in avoided soul-eroding unbridled vitriol directed squarely at me. That can make reading LGBT-related stories online a real minefield, and in the long run that is a bigger problem for the content site than it is for me

  • West Seattle Blog

    There is NO news organization that “can’t afford” moderation. We are a 2 1/2-person shop and even as our site’s sole editor, somehow I manage to do it. Scale upward to sites with double- or triple-digit staffs (and of course commensurate increase in commenting), and yes, you CAN afford it. It’s just a matter of whether you want to prioritize it or not. And if you decide you want to be a free-for-all, that is your right, just as much as it’s our right to moderate. (Those whose comments aren’t always approved as the result of rules will yell about “freedom of speech.” A friend of ours has the best retort, which I had to deploy again the other day: Show the 1st Amendment’s full text and point out “It says CONGRESS shall not … I’m not Congress.”) I do feel the Sun-Times’s pain, however, But the good that is done by helpful, constructive, informative comments far outweighs the occasional thread that gets dominated by naysayers. And the “real names will fix everything” contention is and has always been way off-base. Besides discouraging many who want to be able to speak up without their full name (you don’t have to identify yourself at a public meeting, why should you on a public website?), by having a fairly busy Facebook page, we’ve seen firsthand how people can be just as mean, negative, etc., with full identification as without it. Sometimes worse! – Tracy

  • skyshoes

    If anyone thinks the rant/mania is not coordinated I have a few things to point out. I go to The Drudge Report first thing each day to check what the rant/panic focus of the day is. When there is a posting, and you follow the link 90% of the time the comments section is flooded with wing nut trolls. They immediately get double digit “likes” almost immediately from fellow right wing ranters. One ranter had hundreds of likes almost as he sputtered his final pointless garbled “communist, fascist, (insert Obama or Pelosi) vitriol. I have confronted a few lately, they do not deny where they come from they just use “You are probably a- ” socialist, or fascist, gay, liberal patterned response.

    One friend thought it might be funny to sign me up for a republican newsletter. They have “call to action” lists of radio stations and newspapers to call telling the trolls what the crisis of the moment and how they should word their tripe. I also have many republican friends, they send emails that match each other, word for word, stating what the end of the [world] [democracy] [America] is is happening because of [Obama] [Obama care] [Michele Obama] [Nancy Pelosi] [Hillary Clinton]. Insert any of the above.

  • frankthemurph

    Why the opposition? Because you can’t hide behind a silly moniker like “alizardx?” People on comment boards that allow anonymous posting say things they wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. It’s a coward’s paradise.

  • alizardx

    My reaction to “Facebook only” commenting at a publication is to look for other places to get my news. If a community can be built, supervised community moderation can be made to work.