Online Comments: Civic Engagement At Its Best—Or Worst?

Each day, anonymous writers post toxic insults and misinformation on knoxnews.com. Should they be stopped?

On June 6, the Knoxville News Sentinel ran a local story on its website under the headline "Blended Family: Mother chicken adopts and hatches ducklings."

The thrust of the piece was pretty much contained within its headline, and it wasn't what most people might consider hard-hitting journalism.

Nor did it pretend to be. It was one of the News Sentinel's "Bright Spot" articles, the paper's attempt to highlight "good news, interesting people and inspiring stories in our community." While it's unclear exactly where a hen's unusual brooding habits lie on that continuum, this saccharine tale of inter-avian compassion could easily be forgiven as a pleasant curiosity.

However, to the discerning eyes of a handful of anonymous users who posted comments under the story over the course of that day, the hen's confusion, or magnanimity—or whatever inspired its behavior—represented an opening into political and social discourse.

"Years later, all the remaining hens were destitute and on welfare, living in run-down collectivist chicken farms ruled by ducks," wrote user motorcycleboy. Gabe_Asher, a user responding to another comment, posted, "Tennessee Valley Universalist Unitarian Church will probably hold an award banquet for the chicken to champion the chicken's bravery in spite of public ridicule."

Yet another, writing under the user name UT_Manager, asked pointedly, "Where is the GOP outrage of this ‘alternative' lifestyle?"

Finally, user nwcs ended the thread by writing, "Who said it's alternative? If people would study the natural world instead of bulldozing over it for more outlet malls and fast food restaurants we would find an interesting diversity in wildlife customs. Regardless, it would still have no bearing on human customs and mores."

So to recap, a document that began with a forgettable story about a hen nesting ducklings ended with a diatribe against environmental degradation, urban sprawl and a warning not to confuse animal and human behavior, and in between derided welfare mothers, communists, Unitarians, and Republicans.

In other words, another day in the land of online comments, and a rather sedate one at that—there was none of the racism, personal attacks, or lewd sexual references that often accompany other articles.

One only need browse the comments of the more controversial stories—say, the Sept. 4 article about President Obama's address to school children—to find remarks like this: "Hopefully the 'hood in Chicago will show it as they need to hear a hometown boy done good talk. Seems bo is wasting his time talking about blacks being responsible and they continue to make unwanted kids. So now bo wants to indoctrinate the rest of the youth about his healthcare, social reform and what it's like in 3rd world countries. Great, IF the speech is on the net for pre viewing, then just let the parent read it to their kids and don't broadcast his b.s." from user wlvol.

On April 15's "1,700+ at tea party protest fed spending; counterprotesters wonder why," the most-commented article to date, user Jerk wrote, "I thought they only had tea bag parties in prison," to which user gsmnpmtguyot#570674 responded "Seems you know things about prison most of us don't know." To that, user o2scoop1#211024 wrote, "No - he just knows what teabagging is. It's called, ‘The Google.' Conservatives should use it sometime."

Around the city, and indeed the nation at large, many are beginning to wonder aloud why newspapers are allowing their sites, under their brands and alongside their advertisements, to serve as platforms for misinformation, abuse, and bigotry. Even the most insipid comments beg the question, What value do these remarks provide to the community? And how do they fit within a newspaper's role?

They're questions given greater urgency by recent events. Last week, the FBI subpoenaed the News Sentinel for information regarding a threatening comment made in September towards a defense attorney in the second trial to stem from the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Earlier this year, in the first Christian-Newsom case, other legal questions were asked in the courtroom about what the News Sentinel and WBIR allow posters to say and why they allow them to do so anonymously.

That Knoxville is dealing with these questions now makes it extremely relevant but hardly unique. Communities across the country are attempting to adapt to legal grey areas driven by the deployment of new technologies, and the News Sentinel's experience with anonymous comments illustrates the difficult position media organizations (including Metro Pulse) find themselves in as they attempt to remain relevant in the next century without sacrificing the standards that made them so vital in the former one.

In the meantime, a lot of community ugliness is being bared online—can it be contained? Should it be?

A Coat Of Many Colors

It's tempting to imagine anonymous commenters as angry, pimple-faced loafers casting stones at imagined enemies from the comfort and safety of their mothers' basements, yet doing so ignores just how pervasive this form of interactive media has become. After all, a great many people read comments yet never post themselves. And in speaking with just a handful of users, what's immediately apparent is that commenters aren't confined to one gender, one political perspective, one generation, or even one location.

Take user TennMom. She turns out to be 54-year-old Laurie Hale, a Democrat who lives in Fairview, Tenn., a town of about 7,000 southwest of Nashville. She reads the News Sentinel's website daily to keep up with the goings-on in her daughter's adopted home. She's rarely moved to comment herself, but she's interested in what other commenters say, and will voice her maternal instincts when a few commenters drive a conversation towards political or social angles that she feels are unwarranted. "This story is nice," she wrote on the hen article, "but most of the comments indicate that people have a problem with ‘different.' Kind of sums up the fact that some folks are incapable of viewing any good news without allowing political posturing to get in the way."

Another, user name papabob, is 72-year-old Bob Rogers, a retiree who worked in transportation and floor covering and who now splits his time between Texas, Florida, and Knoxville, where his children and grandchildren live. They're wholly unaware of his online life—he's posted more than 7,500 comments since joining knoxnews.com in July of last year. Rogers says he's extremely political but prefers posting online because it "keeps me out of family arguments. I'm the only liberal in the family!"

But the granddaddy of them all, the poster with the most-er, is Chuck Jensen, 61, who's commented nearly 11,000 times since registering under the name cjensen in June of 2007. A small business owner, Jensen, like Rogers, represents a small contingent of posters who comment multiple times each day, and who know one another's online personas and politics. And like others, he began commenting (Jensen and others call it blogging, although it's technically different) over local issues, particularly the debacle over the county's contract with Lousiana-based waste composter NRR, whose facility was located near his home and business. "And it was just sort of a natural follow on to some of the social and national issues," Jensen says.

"What I look for and what I find most interesting and enjoyable to respond to are those that take absolute positions.... And anybody who commits a crime, they're ready to hang them tomorrow morning, and they don't like waiting that long," Jensen says.

Jensen has few illusions about the constructive value comments provide. "Anybody that posts a reasoned and well-thought-out post actually is least interesting," he says.

And he cautions outsiders against taking comments too seriously, saying people need to realize these forums are governed by a different set of rules than those in any real-world dialogue. "It may sound harsh or rough or personally derogatory to read it on the blogs, but if the person knows the context and the history, they understand it's the common exchange. There really isn't what I would characterize as really great personal dislike, or anything of that sort. It's just robust disagreement," he concludes.

The Court of Public Opinion

Comments as they now exist on knoxnews.com are about two years old. Before that, users could only comment on certain articles, and comments were not tied to user names. While these differences may sound slight and technical, they had the effect of driving much of the conversation about articles to other local weblogs, such as knoxviews.com and knoxblab.com.

This worried News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy. The newspaper was investing time and resources generating stories, but these other sites, run mostly as a hobby, were linking to those stories and moving the conversation about the articles elsewhere.

"There was a point at which KnoxViews was really taking off," McElroy says, "and it concerned me as I thought, ‘Is the nexus of community dialogue going to be shifting away from the News Sentinel to an Internet forum, and what does that mean for our future?'"

KnoxViews had—and continues to have—an openly progressive tilt, so to forfeit the lion's share of community dialogue to a site driven by a particular set of political and social values could have marginalized a great many other community voices; or it may have run them into their own respective realms, creating echo chambers of like-minded people rather than a Darwinian common ground where the best ideas survive.

So when the Sentinel relaunched its site in 2007, it linked comments to usernames and allowed them for every article. The effect was palpable. Randy Neal, founder of KnoxViews, says he immediately noticed an exodus from his site to the News Sentinel's; with the help of some contentious local issues, before long knoxnews.com was hosting nearly 50,000 comments a month. The crisis of irrelevance had been averted.

But at a cost.

"There was stuff being posted that, in my opinion, was way over the line. You know, racist stuff, or borderline libel and defamation of public figures," Neal says of the News Sentinel's site during that period. "They definitely had a problem."

A problem likely exacerbated by surrounding events. The presidential election was then in full swing, with the nation's first viable black candidate running strong against Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, both of whom inspired strong feelings.

Then the trial of Letalvis Cobbins, the first suspect in the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom to face a jury, was set to start. Much of the outrage, despair, and heartache felt by many found a home under the News Sentinel articles detailing the brutal killings and the day-to-day proceedings of the judicial process. "Lynching may be bad but so is raping, and killing someone," wrote user big_d on a February 5 article, "but i guess we need to have some compassion for these people. Killers need to die horrible deaths just like the people they killed. It makes me sick to think that so many people dont want murders to die in pain, just forget about all the pain they caused as long as their death is not painful."

Racist views about the suspects were aired alongside suspicions about the victims; threats against the court-appointed defense attorneys showed up, too, and defense counsel Scott Green asked to be removed from the case.

A tool for discussing the news had begun to make some of its own.

The four defendants asked Judge Richard Baumgartner, presiding over the Cobbins trial, to force knoxnews.com and wbir.com to either ban comments regarding the trial, or force the paper to require commenters to post under their real names. Cobbins argued that the comments were filled with threats and accusations towards the defendants and counsel, and that the media should not be allowed to publicly disseminate information they could not control. There was also a concern that potential jurors across the state could be tainted by the comments, making it difficult for defendants to receive their constitutional right to a fair trial.

In his opinion Baumgartner wrote, "The case now before this Court highlights the tensions between the need to protect the rights of the accused as fully as possible and the need to restrict publication/speech as little as possible."

Baumgartner ultimately decided against taking either action, as each seemed too drastic and would likely have constituted a prior restraint on free speech, which the Supreme Court has said bears a "heavy presumption against its constitutional validity." Another consideration Baumgartner mentioned, and which reiterates McElroy's point, was that preventing these media outlets from allowing comments would not have prevented citizens from making the very same comments elsewhere online.

Let's Talk About Text

While that broad legal question appeared resolved, Baumgartner's decision did not address the ethical and civic ones resulting in part from a legal curiosity: According to lawyer Tom McAdams, who represented WBIR over the comments issue in the Christian/Newsom case, the Federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 states that if a provider of interactive media (i.e. the News Sentinel) edits offensive remarks, it's converted from being a provider for interactive media to a publisher of the comments, and thus assumes legal responsibility for their content. So editing remarks would not only require committing a great deal of resources (which, in this media environment, few can spare) but could potentially lead to defamation suits against the paper.

At the same time, editors had the paper's reputation to consider, and did not wish be known as a place where hatred, bigotry, and libel were spouted without restraint.

These issues in mind, in May the News Sentinel, with sponsorship from the Associated Press Managing Editors, held one of many roundtables taking place around the country to discuss online comments—essentially how to retain the benefits of public participation while limiting or removing the nastiness that often accompanied it. Those invited to speak included Randy Neal from knoxviews.com, McAdams, local news directors and editors, community leaders, public officials, victims of crime (Channon Christian's mother, Deena), and victims of fame (Phillip Fulmer's daughter Brittany).

"When you have a very personal issue," Christian said at the forum, "and you sit there and see lies about your child, it makes you angry... you know, so what do you do?"

"There's no free speech issue here," remarked former magazine editor William S. Rukeyser. "As editors we edit everything else that's in our publications. There's no reason that suddenly the comments at the end or in a tab are a wholly different area. In my view they're just a modern technology version of letters to the editor."

Loida Vasquez, a Hispanic community leader, said, "Sometimes the messages are so toxic that it contaminates the soul."

The visceral response caught Jensen off guard. He says, "I was kind of shocked in the attitude of other people... in that they thought the blogs were so bad... and felt that KNS was degrading its brand by allowing that tone of communication on their blogs."

"For me the biggest takeaway was, there's not absolute consensus on this," McElroy says. "And that there's a real diversity of ways that people perceive this kind of communication. And it's new to our society, it's new to our community, and we're all learning how it fits into our public dialogue."

The cross-section of citizens focused on a few key areas, including: why commenters were allowed anonymity; how knoxnews.com can remove offensive comments more quickly; and what technical options other publications use to please readers with varying decency standards.

The evening allowed the News Sentinel to incorporate these perspectives into changes already in the works, launched in July with the website's redesign.

Perhaps the most noticeable of these is that now readers can now turn comments off. Before, comments would appear at the end of an article whether readers wanted them to or not, and many complained that while they didn't want to read them, they couldn't help themselves.

A second change implemented on the site was a probationary period for first-time users, known as a "sketchy user." If someone today decides to create an account to comment on an article, that person's first few comments will be screened by an editor before they're allowed to appear on the site.

A third was that if a certain number of commenters flag a comment for review, that comment will automatically collapse, or "auto-redact," and a warning will appear to the reader that it may contain offensive content. This is important because it means offensive remarks can be hidden when an editor may not be present to take them down. And if a user's auto-redacted enough times, his or her user name will be automatically banned from the site.

A fourth, less technical change is that staff members were encouraged to participate in the conversations to steer them back toward the focus of the article, or to correct misinformation and answer questions being posed by commenters. Jamie Satterfield, who covers courts for the News Sentinel and whose stories on the Christian-Newsom trials have generated many offensive comments, says this has been beneficial. "It did tamp down on a lot of the rhetoric and a lot of the misinformation," Satterfield says. "It also has in large part fostered goodwill."

Satterfield says commenters began posing questions directly to her, and this allowed her to clarify a point or consider what readers hadn't understood about the judicial process. Last week, when the jury handed down the death penalty to Lemaricus Davidson, the tone was noticeably civil and questions were posed and answered by KNS staff.

"I would encourage other reporters to do it," Satterfield says, "but with this caveat: You have to be very careful that you are responding only for the purpose of correcting misinformation, for offering clarification on an issue or point they may not have understood in the story, or to answer any questions of a factual nature." Satterfield warns against responding to opinions or to personal or professional attacks, which she says can be difficult.

Finally, the editors and staff have attempted to both standardize and lower the threshold for what they consider offensive.

"We are leaning more to removing flagged content than we had been before, in that we're a little more sensitive to content that, while we may not find it objectionable, our users seem to find it objectionable," says Jack Lail, director of online innovation at the News Sentinel. "One of the tests we will apply is whether more than one person complained about it. But for a practical matter, the standard that we're using now is: If in doubt, remove it."

The Right of Anonymity?

So far, it would appear that much of this has worked. Those who don't want to read nasty comments don't have to, and comments flagged for review can be taken down or collapsed within minutes of going up. Comments under Satterfield's articles still contain questionable material, but many of those comments are collapsed so one must seek them out to read them.

"I think they're at an appropriate level now," Neal says.

It's also significantly decreased the number of comments the site receives. Whereas before these changes, nearly 50,000 comments were posted a month, today it's somewhere between 30 to 35,000, yet still far greater than the 200 letters to the editor printed each month. McElroy and others say quality has improved and the numbers are beginning to climb again.

Users also say they're largely happy with the changes, especially the opt-out function. Becky Hancock, 39, assistant director at Knox Heritage and a participant in the May forum, says this essentially gave her the ability she always had with Internet content: the right to ignore it.

To be sure, offensive comments are still made, and the system depends largely on its users to police the material: If a comment is not flagged, there's no reason to expect editors, who have other things to do, to come across it and take it down. Those offensive comments listed in this article remain on the site today; but again, many appear in redacted form, meaning one must choose to view them, and they are islands of incivility among many more bland, sensible remarks and shells of comments already removed by staff.

Still, questions remain.

Recently the Public Relations Society of America met at Rothchild Catering to discuss strategies for removing misinformation or rumors about their clients from comment boards. On many minds was the lawsuit from marketing firm Low and Tritt against Pizza Kitchen owner Travis Redmon for allegedly defaming the advertising firm on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Then there was the FBI's subpoena last week. In a way, though, this example highlights the success of the new measures: The comment in question was removed and its author banned within eight minutes of its appearance.

But many continue to argue that if the paper would only force users to comment as themselves, the vast majority of the ugliness still out there would die with the pseudonyms. After all, it's often asked, since letters to the editor are printed under real names, why should this be different?

"This isn't a newspaper. It's not the same medium," McElroy says. "The fact that a traditional newspaper would add this type of medium to its portfolio of information channels does not mean that everything needs to be a newspaper.

"The standard on the Internet is anonymous posting—reviews are posted on Amazon in anonymous form, blog postings are posted anonymously. If we chose to simply say, ‘Well, we have these definitions of what we are that were derived in the 19th and 20th century, and those definitions mean that we do not allow this kind of anonymity,' then what that really means is we are not going to be participants in this particular type of medium. Somebody else will take that role in the community," McElroy says.

Laurie Hale, who comments as TennMom, believes that despite political posturing, racism, and bigotry, anonymity is a net positive. She once e-mailed the editor of The Tennessean in Nashville over a letter to the editor praising an Anne Coulter book that labeled Sept. 11 widows as "media whores." The paper printed her criticism, alongside her e-mail address. Shortly thereafter she received several responses from readers. Most were positive, but "I had two that were really disturbing, calling me everything from a heathen to an atheist," she says. That experience demonstrated to her the value of posting under a pseudonym.

And the law is on McElroy's side. In writing his February opinion on comments, Judge Baumgartner cited another case, Doe v. The2Mart.com, Inc., that read:

"The right to speak anonymously was of fundamental importance to the establishment of our Constitution. Throughout the revolutionary and early federal period in American history, anonymous speech and the use of pseudonyms were powerful tools of political debate. The Federalist Papers (authored by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay) were written anonymously under the name ‘Publius.' The anti-federalists responded with anonymous articles of their own, authored by ‘Cato' and ‘Brutus,' among others.... Anonymous speech is a great tradition that is woven into the fabric of this nation's history. The right to speak anonymously extends to speech via the Internet. Internet anonymity facilitates the rich, diverse, and far ranging exchange of ideas.

"The ‘ability to speak one's mind' on the Internet ‘without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one's identity can foster open communication and robust debate.'"

***

However interesting, the controversy over anonymity is largely moot. "[Removing anonymity] would clean up a lot of what's said, but it would also stifle a lot of conversation," Lail says. "That's one reason. The other reason is that there's no practical way of assuring that people are who they say they are." Newspapers have neither the time nor the resources to identify each commenter whenever someone posts a remark. Assuming they did have those resources, how would they go about doing so?

Hancock feels anonymity continues to be a real problem, but she also recognizes that technical and budgetary constraints impede fixing it. For her, and many others, simply not participating is the most appropriate solution. "Most of it is just trash. And life is too short, so I try to fill my head with good things and not trash," Hancock says.

That much of it is trash does not mean it inaccurately reflects perspectives genuinely held by members of the community. Lail's often surprised by comments that clearly seem racist to him but are not flagged for removal. "I do think that they show some of the racism that's hidden under the surface, that's not discussed," Lail says.

It may be that in this nascent period of online communication, these issues will be resolved through technological means—say, linking one's comments to his or her Facebook account or other social networking site. For now, the paper must deal with the situation before it, and citizens and readers must decide for themselves if that's good enough to warrant their patronage.

"Freedom is dangerous, and we all know that," says Dwight Teeter, professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee. "But we also like freedom and the good things it can do. And we're betting on freedom."