Here’s what News Sites are Now Doing to Control Internet Trolls & Why It Doesn’t Violate Free Speech
The internet is a wonderful tool. It brought the facilitation of information at the touch of the fingertips in only a matter of seconds, allowed groups of individuals to communicate instantly, allowed the rise of alternate news sources to bring a different point of view regarding news and political reporting in contrast to the mainstream media outlets, and provided hours of entertainment for millions. The internet brought about an increase in exchange between the public with news organizations and government like never before in history.
However, with the advent of the internet and anonymity of users, there appeared, over the internet pathways, individuals who comment on material just to instigate others into a frenzy, formally termed “trolls.” These individuals comment on stories, articles, and videos in order to aggravate others who comment to derail conversations on a particular topic, steering it toward a volatile issue to attack others who comment. Along with the trolls, some individuals across the World Wide Web began engaging in nastiness, attacking others personally for their stance, or participating in full-fledged “hateful” attacks. Because of the rising, excessive vitriol, many news media sites are now disabling comments on articles appearing on their website.
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Last month, Vice Media’s Motherboard news site turned off reader comments, saying “the scorched earth nature of comments sections just stifles real conversations.”
It instead began taking “letters to the editor” to be screened by staff.
Vox Media’s online news site The Verge said in July it was “turning off comments for a bit,” noting that the tone was “getting a little too aggressive and negative.”
Blogging platform Medium this past week allowed its users to hide reader comments, acknowledging that “sometimes you may not want to get in a discussion.”
These are not the only sites to cease accepting reader comments. The Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Beast, news website Re/code, Mic and Popular Science are a few of the sites that disabled reader comments due to nastiness. Vox.com, a site that launched last year, does not allow reader comments due to “flame wars” turning readers away.
Jennifer Stromer-Galley, professor of information studies at Syracuse University, said news agencies are struggling with allowing or disallowing comments. Speaking to the AFP, Stromer-Galley said, “They like the idea of the comments because it brings readers back, it creates a community of people who are dedicated and that’s good for advertising.”
“But the downside is that when people see lots of vitriol and attack, even if they are not using bad language, it turns people off,” she claimed. “The worry is that instead of fostering communication, you lose readers.”
This is a problem across the entire World Wide Web. It’s seen here at The Washington Standard, plenty of other conservative sites, as well as, alternate news sites where individuals who may or may not lean toward a liberal stance, engage in attacking the commenter or author personally with unfounded suppositions and accusations. Other readers who have commented join in and a full-fledged no holds barred vitriolic war ensues with very little productivity seen in discussing the issue raised in the article or the particular subject matter brought forth through reader comments.
Research by University of Houston professor Arthur Santana revealed anonymity often brought about the vilest of views especially with hot topics such as immigration.
Writing in the Newspaper Research Journal, Santana stated, “Often the targets of incivility are marginalized groups, including racial minorities.” He contended that readers referred to “immigrants” as “cockroaches, locust, scumbags, rats, bums, buzzards, blood-sucking leeches, vermin, slime, dogs, brown invaders, and wetbacks” among other things.
Maybe, Santana generalized too broadly when talking about “immigrants” and immigration. As has been the experience of many reading comments on various news outlets and alternative media sites, commenters do not have issues with legal immigration or legal immigrants. Most commenters are addressing illegal alien invaders that mainstream media and liberals refer to as “immigrants, migrants, refugees, dreamers, displaced persons” and a host of other terms to detract from the fact of entering the nation illegally. In fact, it’s become politically incorrect to refer to illegal alien invaders as illegal alien invaders. Doing so causes one to reap a whirlwind of attacks. However, is that not the correct term as these people are entering illegally, they are not citizens of this nation but alien to it and crossing in numbers enough to qualify as an invasion?
Additionally, does this in any way violate freedom of speech? Congress is prevented from enacting laws restricting freedom of speech or the press. What about the States? As those powers not enumerated to Congress belong to the States or the people, States can restrict speech as is seen in laws addressing certain types of pornography, libel, slander, and threats made to others. But, as long as speech does not violate those laws of the State, then the speech is protected. While readers may not like reading those comments, the right to speak freely is inherent to every individual.
Some news organizations in foreign countries can be held liable for “defaming content from readers” making controlling online forums tricky. In other words, other countries lack the freedom of speech enjoyed in the US, making anonymity of readers who voice opinions in those nations justified since the government in those nations defines what constitutes “defaming content,” which could mean libel or slander. Granted, these sites do not have an obligation to allow comments at all, but since they have, the sites are now looking to “control” the comments by readers.
But it isn’t only foreign news agency website online forums redacting their comments sections — it’s becoming a trend for sites in the US as well. Many, such as the Huffington Post, have started to use “Facebook” as a tool for posting comments since, supposedly, Facebook requires individuals use a real name, which theoretically limits individuals to “civil” comments. However, as was seen with the “lovely” lady who wiped her backside with the American flag as she waved the one finger salute to all, Facebook is hardly reliable in that area since she did not use her real name. A study by the University of Kent in 2013 found that holding users accountable using the Facebook system reduced the “uncivil” comments. It also sparks anger among readers, indicating many comments may be lost, as David Wolfgang discovered.
Wolfgang, a doctoral researcher in journalism at the University of Missouri, said, “If your local news organization isn’t going to provide a space for this conversation, who will? It doesn’t always work out the way we want, but that doesn’t mean we should throw it out.”
“The Washington Post and New York Times joined forces on a project funded by the Knight Foundation to create open-source software that can be adapted for news websites to get a better handle on online discussion.” In other words, censor comments.
Greg Barber, director of digital news projects at The Post said, “Civility is a challenge for everyone.” Translation — only those who are “civil” should have comment privileges.
“When users come in and see a pie fight, they are likely to pick up a pie and throw it,” he contends. Translation — people have no self-control.
“If they see a reasoned discussion, they will want to contribute in a reasoned way,” according to Barber. “It’s not just to scrape the mud off our boots, but to find and highlight the valuable contributions,” Barber said about the software that filters “out the ugliness,” but identifies “trusted” readers and displays “constructive comments more prominently.”
Barber’s “reasoning” is flawed as there are individuals all across the world who love to do nothing more than “stir” the pot of comments and discussion forums by making vile, nasty comments. It’s who they are and the cessation of anonymity will not stop it. On the flip side, however, readers who comment civilly using anonymity will likely refrain from making comments requiring use of a real name due to the availability of internet tools allowing anyone to be found using an internet search.
Basically, news organizations are looking to apply software to their sites to filter out “unwanted” contributions, whether civil or not, vile or not. It becomes a way of limiting opposing views in order to skew public opinion that may be drawn from those comments using the pretense of “sifting out vile comments” and “comments full of nastiness.” Bottom line, it’s censorship of public opinion using the ruse of “filtering vileness.”
Barber believes most people will respond to vileness in kind and repeat the process. While that may be true for some, most individuals will disregard the comment as invalid or respond in a civil manner despite personal attacks or attempts to malign a comment or hijack the conversation. It amounts to a way to censor individuals over the internet, a means made possible by the hijacking of the internet by the FCC and the federal government. For who is to judge what “vile,” “uncivilized,” “nasty,” or “inappropriate” truly is? It will be those in charge of the software entering “buzz words” that could target opposing views on the news story or topic, flagging the comment to be stricken or never posted, or limiting those comments deemed politically incorrect. It means those individuals in nations with “speech laws” will be silenced should they cease to have the protection of anonymity.
Again, free speech does not include a comment that engages in libel, slander or issues threats. Speech of that type is not protected under the respective laws of the State, similar to yelling “fire” in a movie theater when there is no fire is not protected speech. Rarely, comments made on news articles posted on any site violate those laws; but, when a comment does, the comment is usually removed or not allowed to be posted by moderators. But, vileness, nastiness and uncivilized speech rarely falls into the category of unprotected speech. Instead, it is speech some find distasteful or offensive.
The marvel of the internet for bringing people with like minds together also brought out the worst in many individuals who engage in “trolling” or submit vile and nasty comments. Neither violate freedom of speech; however, internet news sites will now be using the ruse to either disallow comments altogether or “control” the type of comments made on the sites. It will be a stifling of opinions opposing the left liberal progressive agenda and limiting of conservative viewpoints altering perceptions of public opinion. On the same note, alternative news sites could limit the posting of comments slanted toward liberalism under the same ruse; but, conservatives, being advocates of individual God-given rights, will likely not engage in such censorship. After all, even speech we find offensive or distasteful is protected.
*Article by Suzanne Hamner