Internet comments are where too many bullies come to play. Isn’t there a better way?

“Son, don’t let your mouth write a check your behind can’t cash!”

My beloved grandma always volunteered that cautionary counsel whenever I became a bit too boisterous. It was her way of letting me know that continued verbal insolence would beget, um, painful consequences.

And so it is nowadays that I am reminded of Ms. Alma’s admonition whenever I peruse Internet comment sections. Indeed, utterances on said forums routinely abuse our constitutional surety of free speech, with scant regard to repercussions far more grievous than a whuppin’.

At best, many posts can be described simply as mean. But if the topic tilts to, say, race, abortion, gun control or the Affordable Care Act, remarks quickly graduate to boorish, crass and crude enough to make even Jerry Springer wince.

Consider the recent experience of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s online publication. So inundated last year was cleveland.com with “racist invective” after every report on the case of a 12-year-old black boy killed by a white city police officer that in December it discontinued all comments on stories about the tragedy.

“We don’t fancy our website as a place of hate” but “just about every piece we published (about the incident) immediately became a cesspool of hateful, inflammatory or hostile comments,” wrote Chris Quinn, the site’s vice president of content, explaining the decision.

Besides its likely chilling effect on pragmatic participants, the ramifications of such vulgarity abound – principally the devolving of public discourse and, by extension, common courtesy.

According to the latest installment of Civility in America, an annual survey conducted jointly by public relations giant Weber Shandwick and global marketing firm KRC Research, 94 percent of U.S. residents believe incivility is a problem in our country, and 65 percent say it’s reached “crisis” level. What’s more, nearly four in five of the 1,000 adults polled agreed “uncivil behavior is leading to an increase in violence in America” – a disturbing, yet wholly plausible conclusion, given the bloodshed that’s recently befallen movie theaters, schools, even churches.

Notably, 70 percent of the survey respondents concurred “the Internet encourages uncivil behavior.”

This virtual vitriol undoubtedly contributes to what President Obama, in his last State of the Union address, lamented as the “rancor and suspicion between the (political) parties that has gotten worse instead of better.” Thus it can be argued, too, that Internet nastiness compromises public policymaking – that is, prospective fixes to very real problems vexing our nation and world.

But whereas the President bemoaned his inability to assuage the acrimony, Bridge – in keeping with the quest implied by its name – dares to help span digital dissonance and make online exchanges keener, not meaner.

vitriol-final

It’s a noble undertaking that, first, makes me proud to serve on the magazine’s board of advisors and offer a twist on the Golden Rule: Write unto others as you would have them write unto you!

Or, as Ms. Alma lectured, “Think twice, speak once,” recognizing that tone and presentation are essential ingredients to being both heard and taken seriously. Simply put, ask yourself, before pressing send, “Is denigrating someone’s religion or calling them – IN ALL CAPS, NO DOUBT – a monkey, pimp, thug, murderer, damn liberal, damn conservative, fill in the blank, actually contributing to a healthy exchange?”

While you’re at it, take off the mask. Enough already with posting coarse comments under pseudonyms, silly monikers and cartoon characters; rather, wo/man up, and divulge your real name and city. As a matter of fact, Internet publications should require such as a condition for engagement.

Comment sections also might contemplate censorship, incongruous as that may sound to the ambition of a free press.

Sure, 18th century French philosopher Voltaire would argue that content editors are duty bound to “defend to the death” free speech. But today they also shoulder social and moral responsibilities to insulate the public from smut. 21st Century philosopher Big Sean might say it this way: Don’t use my forum, if you can’t exercise decorum!

Besides, it’s not like extreme voices would be left wanting for a place to share their diatribes. It’s called Facebook – a sphere that is largely theirs to share with friends and not necessarily for mass consumption.

Site moderators also might mimic hockey and relegate routine violators of established forum rules to the equivalent of a cyber penalty box.

Or perhaps they could assign comparable comments to receptacles, with movie-like ratings, to forewarn readers which remarks are G versus XXX.

Or heck, I don’t know. Truth is, scoring a comprehensive solution to Internet cacophony may prove elusive.

The only thing for certain is we’ll only reach resolution and reflect what’s truly best in us by respectfully – and ironically – engaging in the activity that got us here in the first place: Talking.

Bridge readers mostly keep it classy in our comment sections, but we’re interested in knowing what you think of ours, good and bad. And feel free to contribute your own comment-section stories and opinions: Why you do or don’t participate, how we (and other sites) might improve them overall. This is a conversation, so please, join in.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

Fri, 02/12/2016 - 12:25pm
Very good piece. THANKS! As a former digital content manager for two public radio stations, we used to talk about this a lot. The question of - do you let them go or do you police the comments? The problem is when you allow people to go it can turn people away from you, they don't want to be assaulted by the noise and hate. I understand that. At the same time, I like these two ideas: 1.) You have to click to see the comments. They do not populate at the bottom of the page. You see something like "23 Comments on the Article". If you want to see them, click it. 2.) The DISQUS system is also a good way to police the comments. People have to register. You can ban them if they are abusive. But, really, the community polices them. Enough ''thumbs down" and that comment gets flagged. You can decide if you want to put it back up or not. Then, you can also reach out to that person and engage them. The comments are always the worst when posters are allowed to be anonymous. You should have to register in some manner - like putting your name, address, phone number on a letter to the editor in the old days. I remember getting calls from the letters department at news papers checking that I did write the letter. So, let's just use some old school ideas to make the comments better. https://disqus.com/
Steve Hawkins
Fri, 02/12/2016 - 3:03pm
Nicely said, Ken. I have come to the point of completely ignoring the comments section on most websites. Too many are populated with those unworthy of the mental energy required to read their posts. In agreement with the previous poster (Rob), I think the Disqus platform is one of the better ones, though hardly lacking in antagonistic and/or just plain mean comments. I don't know that there is a solution other than requiring a real name registration which can be shut down upon violation of the rules. Many say that it is their "right" to comment anonymously. Personally, I think not. If you have to say it anonymously, you probably shouldn't say it at all.
Duane
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 1:09am
Most of the best comments, even more thoughtful than the original articles, I have read and that have made me think are the ones from anonymous. Look to many of those on Bridge, even on Mlive, and others places. As for me, where I comment such as Bridge and elsewhere they have my name, phone, real world address, as well as my Email. Why do you feel I should share more, I don't even do that much for a retailers discount?
EB
Fri, 02/12/2016 - 3:26pm
"While you’re at it, take off the mask. Enough already with posting coarse comments under pseudonyms, silly monikers and cartoon characters; rather, wo/man up, and divulge your real name and city. As a matter of fact, Internet publications should require such as a condition for engagement." I know of a publication that did exactly this, www.gaylordheraldtimes.com. Before the practice started, the most interesting part about the online "paper" was the comments, which were all over the place: benign to insulting, with some worthwhile nuggets in between. They put an end to anonymous posting and whether that was their intent or not, they also but an end to comments: hundreds per day to maybe a dozen a month. Mlive I think is using a pretty good formula. They allow anonymous, but the article's author will sometimes censor comments that readers flag and sometimes respond to the comments. You still have all the problems you describe in this article, but, you also get many nuggets, reader nuggets that add to the understanding of what's being reported and nuggets added by the original author. Some "papers," like nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com that also permit anonymous comments, allow sorting, e.g. sort by most liked. That's useful, since you can get a sense of comments most readers favor and can avoid reading less liked comments, which are usually the most distasteful and asinine. I regularly discover that comments I favor are not comments the majority of comment readers favor, which is enlightening. The solution to speech you disagree with is to counter with speech you agree with and that interaction is important, even when it degenerates into crudity. As for the Internet somehow making people cruder, I'm too old to buy into that. It's a crude world and always has been: I can't even tell you how often I've heard the "N" word used by white friends, relatives and neighbors in my lifetime.
MighiganMom
Fri, 02/12/2016 - 11:26pm
For children, censorship is needed and a tool to protect our kids. Adults don't need censors for comment sections. Trolls are an annoying fact of life in the comment section but adults know that they are best dealt with by not feeding them. Trolls are attention seekers and engaging in censorship because of trolls is extreme and the wrong path. Society advances through the discussion of unpopular, controversial ideas. What one person finds racist, sexist, classiest or any other ist is a comment where another may find a new idea or solution. Censors shut down conversation and hinder the free exchange of thoughts and ideas and when a really bad idea pops up society benefits from the reminder that people still hold these views. When we start sanitizing speech we limit and harm much more than we gain. Certainly, threats of violence must be dealt with but beyond that grown ups know to block the offending user and move on. The greatest thing about the internet is the free exchange of ideas and whilst I know ideas can be scary, mean, insulting, etc. censorship is always the worst method of dealing with the issue.
Duane
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 1:01am
Mr. Cole, I agree with what you are saying. My concern is that nothing will change unless we develop some ways to address the online bullying. What I wonder does anyone care enough to address it, to find ways to reduce if not eliminate it, or to mitigated it. Labeling bullying may warn others but with only warning might that be giving the bullies what they want and discouraging people from participating in the conversation? If we want to address it then we need to try to find the causes and develop ways to manage those causes or to manage the impact of the causes. I will offer some seed ideas, but by no means do I think these are the best answers. The more effective answers will be developed by a group of people [diversity of perspective]. Let me offer a few possible higher level causes [not the root causes]; people simply have a need to bully, people are lazy thinker so all the can do is label and make personal attacks, people are frustrated because what they predominately read is what the first two types do so they default to what gets the most attention or most print. Foe each of those causes there is a separate type of action to mitigate, to extinguish, to encourage alternate behaviors. Back to my concern; is there interest enough to try to change online, if just in one small part of the Internet [on Bridge]? Remember an idea is like a plant, it starts as a seed, it is water, nurtured, it weathers the environmental challenges, its shaped through adversity, and if it has the strength it blossoms and changes its world. If there were only 6 who would be part of the conversation might we create that seed?
John Q. Public
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 1:05am
You know, anonymity protects far more important things than crudity or "offensive" language. In my decades of mostly reactionary, often inelegant, and yes, sometimes flat-out wrong, contributions to print and digital media, I came up with a few questions drawing from the experiences resulting from the writings that demanded identity transparency Why do people find the need to hold me "accountable" for my views with rocks through the living room window, knife blades in my automobile tires, or harassing phone calls at all hours of the day and night, just because they don't agree with my opinion? Why can't they understand that my spouse and children don't always (and in fact very seldom) share my views, and shouldn't have to answer for them or be subjected to workplace and schoolyard ostracism or bullying? Do they really need to try to organize boycotts of my employer or demand that I be fired, just because I pen a pro-choice position on abortion? Should I be subjected to being pulled over by the police five times in one month after authoring a letter critical of the tactics used by the department to curb marijuana use by high-school students? Is it a desirable societal condition that employers should be able to threaten employees with loss of job for opining publicly about a political matter on which the employer does not agree with them? The stated desire of the civility proponents in banning anonymity is to elevate the conversation. I think it's something else: the wish to quash dissent through intimidation, retribution and ostracism. What elevates the conversation more: silky lies or crude truths? The "conversation" gains something from banning anonymity; I don't deny that. Unfortunately, it loses ten times more.
***
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 9:25am
I agree with John Q. Public. There are times I wanted to post something critical in a certain forum but decided not to because I could not have anonymity. There are a number of "nut" cases out there that wouldn't hesitate to track someone down in person to deliver a message that they disagreed with your position.
Wayne Woolley
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 9:26am
Great piece. I am a proponent of requiring full disclosure of identity in exchange for the ability to comment on public forums. It holds people accountable for what they say, and how they say it. There is a hyper local site in my town that has a policy of requiring all would be commenters to use their Facebook account to enter the forum and bars any comments from accounts that don't have a verifiable first and last name. There are vigorous discussions on many controversial topics on this site, but lack of anonymity forces civil discourse and people tend to to bolster their arguments with verifiable facts, web links, etc. No one gets away with throwing bombs and walking away.
John Q. Public
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 2:25pm
EB made an accurate assessment above of what happens when identity transparency is required. The Gannett franchises in Michigan (Detroit Free Press, Lansing, Battle Creek, Port Huron, et. al.) all saw the number of comments take a precipitous drop when they switched to the FB platform, and those that remain aren't anything that elevate a conversation. Another effect of banning anonymity is that the comments tend to take on a "ditto" flavor. Just look at the contrast between the 'anonymous' and 'transparent' comments in this story for an example. Rob's correct--the comments are always worst when they're anonymous. That's also when they're the best, though, too, as Duane points out. Anonymous contributors post lots of chaff, but lots of wheat, too. Brett Favre threw more than 300 interceptions. Reggie Jackson struck out more than 2500 times. Would you kick them off your team?
Duane
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 3:52pm
Mr. Cole, I apologize for drifting away from your topic of online 'bullying', though I will try to frame it with you in mind. A times it has seemed that people use the issue of 'anonymous' as a means of 'bullying' by trying to discredit comments based on whether the writers name was used or not. That is disappointing, it shows to me that the person demanding the writers name is not reading/listening to what is being said. We can all remember places where people having their name made public has caused them much grieve because those who were unwilling to listen, unwilling to join a conversation, were only willing to try to beat down others free speech. I wonder why we aren't talking about Mr. Cole's point of view of how do we open up online conversations rather then let them fall to name calling, personal attacks, and the bullying. I have had names hurdled in my face rather then allow others to hear what I have said or the meaning it carried. It is shrinking mind that attacks the commenter while ignoring what they say.
mike gonyea
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 5:54pm
Since we're all commenters, mostly anonymous, the author is talking about us. Internet anonymity is, contrary to what some might suggest, the bain of our existence.
Duane
Sat, 02/13/2016 - 6:11pm
mike, It seems you feel more interested in who is saying something than what they might be saying, why?
Richard Cole
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 8:29am
My dear brother from another mother. I mostly agree with your commentary. I say mostly because I have never hesitated to call out a bigoted, racist or otherwise intolerant comment. Intolerance on the web or in a country club "men's grill" should not be tolerated. Period. All the best. Rick Cole.
Kenneth Cole
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 1:44pm
Thanks for the feedback, Rick. My brother from another mother, indeed! :)
Steve Smewing
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 9:31am
I have an opinion of the author of a piece gives his full name and background, commentary should be held to the same. If you cannot put your name on your opinion then I don't want to hear it. I put almost no weight or attention to unnamed posts. Think of it this way, some of the best articles are those that are written in a scholarly manner where a thesis is presented, cited information is presented, and then possibly conclusions are offered based on the varied information. I also must admit that guarded ignorance is a waste of everyone's time and is often so obvious that it should be pointed out. I like the environment where votes push comments to were they should be.
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 6:37pm
Having read the column and comments, I come down on the side of moderated anonymity. John Q Public made an excellent point about his home and car being vandalized by people who were outraged by his temerity in holding opinions that differed from theirs. Being unwise enough to register with Disqus with my real name, I have, on a couple of occasions, written a comment that I thought was well within the bounds of civility and decorum, only to think twice and cancel it. I agree with Michigan Mom when she says, "Society advances through the discussion of unpopular, controversial ideas." But there is very little that can't be said in a civil fashion. I don't think a moderator would do serious damage to intelligent discussion if they deleted ad hominem attacks. In general, someone should address the ideas expressed in a column or comment and not simply accuse someone of belonging to a different tribe than themselves. And commenters should be able to say why they disagree with someone, rather than contending that someone is a Neanderthal because they hold a different opinion. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Smewing, who says," If you cannot put your name on your opinion then I don’t want to hear it. I put almost no weight or attention to unnamed posts." What information does a real name convey that a screen name does not? A repeat visitor to a site soon learns who talks coherent sense and who does not, whether or not they use their real name.
Lee W
Sun, 02/14/2016 - 10:59pm
Register to post but posting will only a selected name or ID. That way a moderator can remove any objectionable material. Existing format has actual email address. All is needed is a moderator to: A) remove or edit objectionable material or B). block posting by those that repeatedly post obscenities or other name calling. My biggest objection to all the trash posting is the time I waste looking at them.
Matt
Mon, 02/15/2016 - 12:01pm
Maybe a compliment? I'm not certain why this piece would appear in Bridge at all. The comment section at Bridge while definitely diverse in logic and opinion, is one of the most civil that I have seen. While self admittedly thick skinned I've never seen particularly vulgar or rude posts, are they being screened out? And as previously mentioned many times the comments make more sense that the lead article. A big thank you.
cristine reyes
Fri, 09/02/2016 - 5:21am
Creative ideas - I was fascinated by the points . Does someone know if my assistant could possibly get a sample IRS 1065 - Schedule D copy to work with ?