Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Managing the Comments

Ever since the first days of this blog, there has always been at least one Anonymous rightwing troll. It's not always the same person, but they're all the same -- they almost always sign their comments as "Anonymous," and they interrupt rather than discuss, they post irrelevant assertions, they bully and insult people, and they drive the discussion off the track.

I have allowed this to happen, hoping that some good would come of it.

Some members of our commenting community have risen to the occasion, researching the origins of the anonymous trolls' assertions and providing counterarguments. This takes a lot of work, when somebody says the sky is green you can't just point at the sky and note the obvious, you have to find research explaining the blueness of the sky, and god bless them we have people here who take the trouble. Some members of the community have had fun with our trolls, mocking them and playing with them. And some members of our commenting community have complained and asked me to ban these absurd, self-absorbed mental masturbators.

I had hoped that the more reasonable members of our community would figure out how to deal with this. In a way, it's a microcosm of our national situation, where you have a handful of idiots overrunning serious discussion -- listen, what does the term "death panel" have to do with anything? Anybody who says the President is a Nazi, or a socialist, or a Muslim, or is not an American citizen, is doing just what our anonymous trolls have been doing, they are hijacking honest discussion and preventing any kind of serious progress. And how do you deal with that? I had hoped that TTF commenters would figure it out on their own. I can not tell you how many times people have asked me to ban these noisemakers, but I had hoped the community would solve the problem dynamically, self-organizing without the intervention of authority.

Basically there are two approaches to dealing with schoolyard bullies. You can punch the bully in the nose, or you can tattle to the teacher. A good teacher will refuse to intervene and will take care to look the other way when you punch the bully in the nose, and I have tried to be that good teacher here. The sad fact is that many who think of themselves as progressives or liberals are unwilling to throw a punch. It has been fascinating, and sad, to watch the discussion devolve, day after day, as some moron hijacks another thread, turning the discussion to something irrelevant to the posted topic, lying and exaggerating and misconstruing, blaming and alleging while the serious ones sit around wishing this wasn't happening, pleading with me to ban the troll.

Liberals, if you can't deal with this you are doomed. You can't manage the simplest bully on the Internet, how are you going to win any contest in the deep-pockets world of national politics? You can come up with brilliant ideas for making the world a better place, but some loudmouth will drown you out and your ideas will dissipate in time. Come up with a way to improve the health of all American citizens, and some imbecile will say there will be "death panels" and that grandma will be put to sleep if she's not productive, and guess what -- you lose.

Last night I reached my breaking point. Our current anonymous troll posted one ridiculous comment after another, copying and pasting from some stupid propaganda source for the thousandth time, and I snapped. I may have deleted some perfectly good comments, it's not like I'm going to sit there and read every word of it. If your name is "Anonymous" and you had something to say and I deleted it, I apologize and suggest you try again. You may want to pay some attention to your tone.

I don't want to moderate the comments. I like to have free discussion, but it turns out that regulation is necessary in the marketplace of ideas, too. Apparently I have to step in and delete the ridiculousness, at least until things become reasonable again. You intelligent people who comment here, don't gloat. You let stupid people frame the issues and take over the debate, just as they have at every level of our country's dialogue. You need The Man to come in and enforce some rules? Okay, I'll do it, but I am not happy about it. I am perfectly comfortable as the kick-back old hippy who lets people crash at his pad, staying up all night rapping and hanging out, but when somebody starts trashing the place I guess I'll have to get up off my bean-bag chair and throw them out.

I can turn comments off entirely, I can ban individuals, I can delete specific comments, and I can do it capriciously or arbitrarily if I want. If people want to discuss the issues, I am happy to grant total freedom to everyone, but realize, that freedom is a gift, it isn't a right. I can delete your comment or ban you for no reason at all, and believe me I won't lose any sleep over it. At this point the rule will be simple: don't piss me off.

I welcome the presence of conservative voices in our community, and will not censor anyone for expressing an opinion I disagree with. This blog has been the one place where individuals on both sides of important controversies in our county have been able to express themselves, and there have been lots of times when the two sides have grown to have some understanding of one another. I love that. You don't have to agree with me on anything, actually I wouldn't want to live in a world where everybody was like me, in more ways than one! If I have to intervene to preserve civility, then I will. I don't like to, but I will.


Blogger Priya Lynn said...

After attempting to comment on a variety of religious conservative forums and having had virtually every comment (regardless of how politely worded) never make it past moderation I'm happy to see a forum that allows virtually unrestricted posting - it shows how much better we are than them.

Having said that Bad anonymous has gotten way out of hand with his off-topic plagiarized posts. I've seen him post as many as 10 off-topic cut and pastes in a row and I've gotten tired enough of it that I don't come here any where near as often as I used to.

Jim says "You intelligent people who comment here, don't gloat. You let stupid people frame the issues and take over the debate, just as they have at every level of our country's dialogue.". Unlike you Jim, we're not in a position to prevent someone from making 10 off-topic plagiarized posts in a row so don't blame us if you let bad anonymous take over your blog. Its great that you allow full dissention on your blog, but when you cede control of it some of us are just going to stop coming here.

August 25, 2009 2:26 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Jim, something else you said bothers me a great deal:

"Basically there are two approaches to dealing with schoolyard bullies. You can punch the bully in the nose, or you can tattle to the teacher. A good teacher will refuse to intervene and will take care to look the other way when you punch the bully in the nose."

Disregarding how well this analogy fits or fails to fit the commenting situation, I'm apalled that anyone would suggest that this is what a good teacher would do. Bullies almost always pick on someone smaller and weaker than them, its beyond wishful thinking to suggest that such a victim is going to punch a bully in the nose and suddenly its "problem solved". Reality is that any physically inferior child hitting a larger child is going to suffer much more severe retaliation and would be ill advised to escalate the situation.

If there were any truth to this "punch the bully in the nose" idea we'd apply the same rational to our justice system. You wouldn't call the police when someone assaults you, punches you, stabs, or shoots you, you'd "punch him in the nose" and good cops would look the other way. Obviously this is not how we advise adults to deal with criminals, and our justice system steps in to enforce good behavior. Rationally it can be no other way with children as well. Part of a teacher's job is enforcing a safe environment for all. If they abdicate this responsibility and look the other way when bullying goes on they should be fired and barred from ever working in the field again.

August 25, 2009 2:46 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Thank you for your comment, Priya. I am not advocating putting law enforcement in private citizens' hands, of course. But in day-to-day interactions it is necessary for people to maintain their own self-respect and to ensure that others show proper respect to them. You don't call the cops when somebody interrupts you when you're trying to make a point, and you shouldn't just stop talking, either. People have to maintain their own boundaries.

I am saying something in this post that a lot of people won't like to hear. You can't expect some authority to resolve your conflicts, you have to learn to do that yourself. I am not surprised or concerned that there is a rightwing loudmouth on the blog, but I am concerned that our side has no strategy for stopping him, except for having the blog administrator take measures. I had hoped the community would come up with a smarter approach than that.


August 25, 2009 3:10 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Jim, I don't know what other commentors have said to you, but I'm not asking you to resolve conflicts, but to limit the off-topic posts. In debates relating to the topic of the thread it seems to me that people here have had no problem dissecting and dispatching bad anonymous's specious arguments so maybe we're reading two different blogs.

I don't think you can expect people to deal with 10 different plagiarized lengthy off-topic posts by someone who spends his every waking hour obsessing over this blog - most people, including me have lives to live and there isn't room for debunking every rant bad anonymous copies and pastes from some right wing blow-hard.

August 25, 2009 3:26 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Priya, we have some smart people who comment here, some strong-willed people with good clear ideas. How can it be that we let one obnoxious loudmouth ruin it for everybody else? If we can't solve that problem in a small community like this, how do we expect to get our nation's discourse back on track? To me, it's the same problem. I don't know the answer, I don't know how it could be done, and maybe it can't. If it requires intervention by me, then I'll do it, but I am much happier when the community establishes its own sense of equilibrium, and I had hoped that would happen.


August 25, 2009 3:42 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

I don't know Jim, I have a life to live, bad anonymous doesn't. I guess that puts us at a disadvantage if you want an unregulated blog. Its kind of like the person with the most money drives the issues on the national stage, aren't there laws to regulate that sort of thing and level the playing field?

August 25, 2009 3:50 PM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...


Do you have examples of blogs that have successfully managed to accomplish what you hoped we could?


August 25, 2009 10:29 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Dana, do you mean blogs that have successfully managed an infestation of trolls?


August 25, 2009 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

You note in you original post, Jim, that 'freedom is a gift, not a right.' As much as we are taught as Americans that we have a right to freedom, I think the original statement is true: people with less property and power have their freedom as a gift from those with more.

Fortunately, in our country, we have a traditional of increasing the freedom of individuals and groups with less power, as a gift from what is usually a majority, or a group with a majority of the power and property. This is what the emancipation proclamation, civil rights legistlation, hate crimes laws, Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas, Brown v. Board, Tinker and Loving v. Virginia have all been about: the gift of freedom to those who can not achieve it by main force.

LGBT people, as a small group in our country, must depend on the good will of those with numbers, wealth and power to preserve and enlarge our rights.

To the degree that our anonymous trolls tell us what the forces in opposition think, and encourage people such as Dana, Bea, David, Svelte-Brunette et. al. to research and deseminate genuine information, they do us a favor.

To the degree that they drive interested people away from the blog with cyber-bullying and empty blather, they do us a disservice. I think some sort of limit, even if it is simply your own sense of annoyance with too much goofiness, is necessary, but allowing the fringe to speak let's us know what we are up against. Perhaps a general limit on posts/thread or sequential unanswered posts, or unreferenced plagiarized posts, or insulting posts, or something along those lines might reduce the background noise.


August 26, 2009 1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's an column by Kathleen Parker in the Post today about the phenomenom of anonymous posting on blogs.

Reading these posts, let me say I, at first, thought Priya comments about too many posts was a good point but, after consideration, I think it's not because pro-TTFers outnumber anti-TTFers by a large margin here.

Robert may have some good suggestions for ground rules.

One thing about the characterization of remarks as "bullying". It seems to me that "bullying" is a strong person taking unfair advantage of a weal one so when you say that, it makes me think that you are of the opinion that Anon is either more intelligent or a better debater than others here. Is that what you mean? If not, what strength is it that you're referring to?

One caution, also. You guys don't seem to like the entertaining back-and-forth, over-the-top insults but it seems to me as though Anon arguments will be more effective if made in a more collegial manner.

August 26, 2009 9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I had suggested in an earlier entry, it seems to me that one way to control unfettered, off-the-topic "essays" is to require that posters address the topic of the blog entry. If the topic happens to be related to a School Board decision, it makes no sense to interject lengthy screeds that propagandize what former Governer Palin has to say about the insidious evil of socialism in the United States.

That does not deny freedom of speech or discussion; it merely requires posters to exhibit some courtesy to the moderator of this site and simply stick to the topic without attempting to hijack Vigilance for their own purposes.


August 26, 2009 9:57 AM  
Anonymous svelte_brunette said...

Jim, you have a lot of points here I’d like to address, but unfortunately I have a board to get out of layout and a low-jitter PLL to design, so I likely won’t get to those until this weekend.

However, I do think there are a few simple rules that might want to consider to help guide the discussions in a more positive direction:

1: All posts must relate to your originating topic in a direct manner.

2: No unattributed “cut and paste” posts. All quotes from other sources must include the author’s name, the periodical’s name and date, and / or a link to the source if it comes from the web.

3: No quotes from other sources longer than 3 sentences. Typically these quotes come from other parts of the web, so people can follow the link if they want to read further.

I realize this will probably chafe your hippie sensibilities, but if you want to have a chance at real discussions rather than risking your site being hijacked, you may want to consider them.

Have a nice day,


August 26, 2009 10:24 AM  
Blogger BlackTsunami said...

I like Cynthia's points.

I also think that no one here wants to censor opinion but anonymous's goal is not to have intelligent discussion but reduce this blog into a lot of confusion. When he or she hijacks the discussion, it shows disrespect not only to the blog but to the TFF.

August 31, 2009 10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually, Alvin, disrespect of TTF is not such a bad thing

September 01, 2009 8:05 PM  
Blogger Jason D said...

"Basically there are two approaches to dealing with schoolyard bullies. You can punch the bully in the nose, or you can tattle to the teacher. A good teacher will refuse to intervene and will take care to look the other way when you punch the bully in the nose, and I have tried to be that good teacher here."

and that's why columbine happened, because lazy teachers refused to step in and do their job. Awesome. Not suggesting that could happen online, but that "it's not my problem" attitude doesn't lead anywhere productive. It's a rather romantic notion that we can just take the law into our own hands, that we can just fight fire with fire and it will all work out. And that's why we have kids shooting up their schools, because they ARE fighting back, they're just taking it to the next level out of desperation.

"I don't want to moderate the comments."

To use your own logic: Why on earth should we fight YOUR battles for you? It's your blog. This "visitor" is essentially coming into your house and taking a shit on your kitchen floor --- and you expect your guests to clean it up and deal with the rude intruder? You're the host, it's your responsibility to set the tone for the discussions and the blog. By avoiding your own responsibility, you've allowed the bullies to frame the debate, because you refuse to define it yourself.

You want us to stand up, but you refuse to stand up for your own blog? And you wonder why trolls dominate discussions? Because you allow them to.

Asking that commentors stay on-topic is the most basic of basic rules, most blogs have this rule, it fosters discussions, and keeps the conversation going. You're lucky you have any "regulars" on which to blame this mess you've allowed to happen on your blog. This blatant thread-jacking turns legit readers away because they figure "why bother, this troll's just going to out-post me. Why don't I go to Pam's House, or Box Turtle, or Joe My God, where the lunatics aren't allowed to run the asylum."

Seriously, if a topic is on cheese and there are 32 comments, almost all of which are a debate on healthcare -- what exactly is the point of posting or having comments if they don't have to have anything to do with each other? What "discussion" is taking place when it's just open mic night for whoever feels like posting whatever they want? Why bother writing, just have the comments block and a sign that says "Open thread" every day.

I actually wasn't going to come back to this blog after that, and just happened to be bored enough to look it over. This was the only topic I opened the comments section on because I thought it might, for once, have something to do with the topic.

I find it funny that you're taking the productive members of your site to task for not doing your job for you. Yes, please, blame the other guests at the party because some fool wandered in your front door and started peeing in the salsa.

They'll just move on to some other party.

September 06, 2009 1:26 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Jason, it is more than this blog. I can chair a meeting, I can assert authority over people, but the progressive community needs to learn to deal with this sort of disruptive bullying. Of course I can control the comments, but I was interested to see if our commenters could figure out how to do it themselves.

There is a key to it that nobody thought of: organize. If a couple of people had emailed each other, or even made a plan in the comments, they could have cut off this troll and managed the situation themselves.

A lot of people didn't like the way I handled this situation or talked about it, and that's fine with me, we don't have to agree on everything. But if us lefties don't figure out how to stand up for ourselves we're going to get blown out of the water by loudmouths. You're seeing it now in the health care debate, the speech to students, everything. Our side needs to learn how to fight.


September 06, 2009 1:34 AM  

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