In the days since President Obama called for “a more civil and honest public discourse,” leaders across the country have vowed to make America kinder and more tolerant. Members of Congress — many of whom chose bipartisan seatmates for the State of the Union — spoke of limiting acrimony in Washington. The nation’s mayors signed a “civility accord” to reduce rancor at city halls. New Jersey lawmakers proposed a resolution encouraging respect and goodwill throughout the state’s “stores, streets, and neighborhoods.”
But as challenging as it is to promote empathy among politicians — or courteous driving on the Garden State Parkway – some online content providers have taken on a task that may be almost as hard. They’re trying to bring civility to one of the places where it’s most rare — the “comments” section of news websites.
“It’s so vile sometimes,” said Jamie Butow, who helps manage the comments posted to Bakersfield.com, the website of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “It got to the point where we can’t possibly be attracting new users, because who would want to jump into this kind of conversation?”
Butow, the site’s community engagement coordinator, is revamping its commenting policy to discourage “personal attacks, racism and other forms of hate speech.” The new rules are scheduled to take effect in a few weeks, but she began drafting them several weeks ago, even before the Tucson shootings sparked renewed national dialogue about civility.
“We’ve got these dozen or so core people who jump in and interject their point of view and are just very nasty about it,” Butow said in a phone interview.
Indeed, Bakersfield.com is peppered with the type of bitter comments that have become endemic to many news websites.
A story about local air pollution led one reader to write, “The Bakersfield I grew up in was a great place before we were overrun by the liberal fruits, nuts, derelicts, and rejects from the other 49 states.”
An article about a playground altercation led a comment-writer to allege, “Half of the teachers coming out of these liberal colleges are having sex with the children.”
And a profile of a sheriff candidate sparked this anonymous response: “(Bakersfield police) are corrupt clowns, if you don’t want to answer taxpers (sic) calls for help, get out and pick cotton.”
The Californian’s revised policy — unveiled in a series of community meetings this month — attempts to tone down the rhetoric by moving comments into discussion forums neatly arranged by topic. It eliminates reader-authored blogs on Bakersfield.com, which Butow said often generated the most heated responses. And it imposes tight restrictions on racist rhetoric and name-calling.
“It’s one strike and you’re out,” Butow said. “We’re not giving you a second chance.”
Limiting anonymity, encouraging respect
Bakersfield.com is among several news sites nationwide that are trying to bring more civility to their reader comments. In the past few months alone, new policies were announced at the Yuma (Arizona) Sun, the Las Vegas Sun, and the Reuters website.
“Our newspaper has standards, and we want our website to have standards, too,” said Yuma Sun editor Terry Ross, who removed as many as 50 inappropriate posts per day before the policy changed earlier this month.
Ross said the online conversation had degenerated so much that two readers threatened to seek protective orders against each other after they exchanged a series of insults.
The new rules require readers to have Facebook accounts and use them to post comments on Yumasun.com. That makes it more difficult to post anonymously, and Ross hopes commentators will think twice about being abusive if they know they could lose not only their Yumasun.com posting privileges, but also their Facebook accounts.
“Our goal is to make our site usable by most people who want to use it,” Ross said in a phone interview. “If they come to our site and they’re offended by what’s on it, they may not come back.”
Ross conceded that the new system “isn’t a perfect answer,” and he noted that readers’ responses have been mixed. (“This system sucks and whoever is moderating it is a moron,” wrote one reader in the comment section of Ross’ column explaining the change.)
But mainstream news sites are likely to continue to explore ways to bring more order to their online forums, which they often initially established with a hands-off approach.
“As more media organizations have opened up these kinds of social venues, they begin to realize what’s involved,” said Jenna Woodul of Liveworld, Inc., which builds and moderates social networks for media organizations, corporations, and other website operators. “It’s naïve of anyone to think they can just put up a message board and it will organically turn into a productive gathering.”
Woodul said site owners can promote civility several ways, such as discouraging or prohibiting anonymous posts, providing a way for users to report offensive messages, and actively moderating conversations — not just deleting distasteful messages, but also interjecting respectful comments that model the behavior they expect from guests.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times when people open these social venues, they’re not thinking about them the same way they would think about having a social gathering in the real world,” Woodul said.
“If people come over to your house and you have china and silver and candles, they know how to act. And if somebody jumps on the table and starts cursing or throwing beer, you get rid of them.”
“It’s ugly but it’s real”
While nobody I spoke with argued against civility, some expressed concern about repressing online discussions, which they say can provide valuable uncensored insight into public opinion.
“I think there’s value in letting unpleasant people express themselves, because it gives the writer, the publication, and the readership a clearer picture of the totality of the audience,” said Matt Zoller Seitz, a blogger and critic who last year wrote a column for Salon.com titled, “Why I like vicious, anonymous online comments.”
“We know that hateful jerks exist, and what they might say in a comments thread is no more traumatic than what you might overhear on the bus or at a coffee shop or on a radio talk show,” Seitz said by e-mail.
“It’s ugly but it’s real. Do we want to live in a world that constantly reassures us that people really are decent at heart, or do we want the truth?”
Seitz concedes there’s a place for online moderators, if for no other reason than to prune out what he calls “topic spammers”– people who contribute to multiple threads each day with off-topic rants about their pet subjects.
But his warning about the downside of suppressing offensive speech resonates with some editors and website managers, even those who’ve decided to more tightly regulate online discourse.
“I completely understand it,” said editor Rex Rhodes of the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal, which will start banning anonymous comments next month.
“Maybe the comments won’t be as colorful, maybe people won’t be as honest as they were before … You won’t have a true picture of the community.
“On the other hand, the discussions at our paper seemed to be dominated by the ugliest people in our community,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know that’s an accurate picture of how the community operates either.”