If there is hope, it dies with the trolls

I deleted a comment last night that had never made it past the moderation queue. It was unremarkable aside from its lameness, a predictable hateful response often generated when anyone has the effrontery to suggest Muslims might not be uniformly and inherently evil. Unremarkable, that is, except inasmuch as it helped crystallize a few thoughts I’ve been having about comment moderation on blogs in general, and for that matter about blogs in general.

It started with a blogging friend, or friend-of-friend, anyway, unlinked here so as to minimize the obnoxiousness of using a person’s pain to make a rhetorical point. She is suffering a personal tragedy, loved ones dying in a fashion that made the news. Where I might have suffered a pang of empathy at reading the news story absent the context of this friend-of-friendship, having gotten to know the bereaved a little through the medium of the net, the news stories are far more affecting.

I imagine many of you have similar experiences. I mean, some of you mourned my dog, and only a few of you ever met him. I have loved, and I have mourned, confidants whose voices I would not have recognized had I heard them, which I never did.

I woke up again this week to the clock radio, the local NPR affiliate in morning news rotation, and once again heard a story of loss and suffering, a day cut short unexpectedly, a life truncated, and all of it reported in terms of the potential inconvenience the tragedy might pose to the listener. Someone will grow up without her mother now, a group of people will carry the searing, stomach-twisting memory of this loss for the rest of their lives, a torrid love affair ended savagely and a life’s work forever undone, and so you would do well to seek alternate routes as you commute to avoid the ten-minute delay this shattering of hearts might cause you.

I am the furthest thing from an Internet triumphalist. When I head for the hills, this Internet is one of the things I run from. And yet I cannot help but think how different that traffic report might be if its structure allowed immediate response from listeners, some radio equivalent to blog comments or trackbacks. If the friends and relations and lovers could append, to the suggestion to take Interstate 680 until the wreckage was cleared from the road, reminders that some kinds of wreckage are harder to remove, how would that change the way we feel about the prospect of arriving five minutes late to work?

Perhaps not at all. I am a relative newcomer to the Internet. I have been using it for just 15 years. It is only beginning to dawn on me that people seem to be using the Internet to replicate some of the social structures I like least in the offline world. The Burning Man metaphor would seem to fit here: people see what they take for an empty space, rush in to fill it with the same stuff they have everywhere else, and call it a New Age of Humanity. Those who were shunned in high school go online and build cliques of their own. There is social climbing, there is sniping at one’s perceived inferiors, there is the building of gated communities with unwritten restrictive covenants.

My hands are not clean in this regard, as many CRN readers will know well.

But I keep coming back to my grieving friend-of-a-friend nine hundred miles away, and to my empathy with her, impossible without this tool the Internet. The Internet does not inevitably intertwine the hearts of those who use it, by any means. But it has the capacity to do so.

For that capacity to be expressed most fully a necessary condition, I believe, is a context of community. And as is true in the off-line world, the healthiest communities are those in which members of that community act in good faith.

There is an odd conceit in the blogging world that deletion of bad-faith comments is a violation of the rights of the hater. Even when the point of the comment is expressly to disrupt, to inflame and derail, the canonical response is not to simply delete the comment, but rather to warn commenters against “feeding the troll.” Thus the blogger’s responsibility for maintaining the community of the site, his or her responsibility to refrain from publishing hate speech and slander (which is in fact what allowing such comments to remain live on one’s blog amounts to) is externalized. As with so many other externalized evils in this world, the people most likely to be harmed by an act of bad faith are the ones saddled with the task of minimizing the effects of that bad faith act. Who is most likely to be harmed by a comment such as the one I deleted from the spam queue last night? Well, Muslims, for starters, and people whose loves include Muslims, and people longing for justice and a cessation of racism. And there are those who find unpleasant the pissing matches that usually arise from such posts. And those who prefer not to comment when the response might be a nasty slam made in bad faith.  And those of us who may not mind the provocateurs, but who would benefit from hearing the points of view of those remaining silent.

The usual reply — one usually made by the people being banned for making bad-faith comments — is that such “censorship” results in a blog becoming little more than an echo chamber. But go stand at your local Echo Point and determine which mode of talk raises more echoes: conversation, or shouting? The best, most thorough discussions and airing of differences take place in venues where comment vandals are absent. When trolls and thugs are allowed free rein, that is when the echoes ring out, when peoples’ skin gets so thin that a mere untutored question or a legitimate piece of dissent or criticism is taken for just another sample of the background noise of trolling.

Despite the protests, it is not that hard to separate the sheep from the goats. Thoughtful disagreement, even when frustrated or angry, is wholly different from bad-faith argument. A community in which members have made a baseline commitment to respecting the humanity and intelligence of others is a different animal than an echo chamber.

Maybe it’s my background in print, where one must make an affirmative decision to print a vindictive or slanderous letter to the editor. I recognize that not everyone online feels those same rules apply. I recognize in fact that many bloggers would fight like hell to keep from being considered ultimately responsible for the comments left on their sites, and further that there are some extremely good reasons for feeling that way. Enshrine this sort of thing in the law, and what was responsibility for allowing hate speech becomes liability for infringement when a commenter posts song lyrics or an AP photo. I’m not advocating setting legal precedent here.

But there is no such thing as not making a decision. To hold to a policy that all comments remain (or that only the worst repeat offenders are banned after abundant complaint, or if a pre-defined set of magic hate words is used) is to decide against participation by those who are intimidated or annoyed into silence. It is to decide that the comment vandals are of higher value to you than are the thoughtful and hesitant, or that — at the very least — your desire to think yourself a defender of comment freedom is more important than the freedom to comment of those who prefer not to be set upon by trolls.

And you know what? For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. I’d be lying if I said I never appreciated a good bar brawl of a comment thread. And some blogs make the free-for-alls work: Pharyngula comes to mind as an example of a wonderful, worthwhile blog with a laissez-faire comment policy. But few blogs have that winning Pharyngular combination of high traffic, sharp focus, distinct blogger personality, and devoted constructive regulars. The chance of a typical low-to-mid-traffic blog ripening into another Pharyngula is, as the blog world matures, decreasing.

The CRN community has been truly sustaining for me, despite my deeply antisocial nature. This year in particular that sustenance has been of the lifesaving sort. We’ve never been too badly plagued with trolls here, and I say this fully aware that we’re approaching the anniversary of my briefly closing down the blog over a threat against Zeke. Here is an argument from incredulity: I cannot imagine that the affirmative community here is unconnected to that lack of trolls.

Deleting comment vandalism with prejudice on the first offense has long been the de facto policy here at CRN. I have to think that that is part of why the people here can hold difficult, honest, and constructive discussions like this one.

So consider this a formal announcement of that policy, after much consideration. I would rather talk to you than to the trolls. And for those reading who aren’t sure to which of those categories they might belong, I would point out that for most of us the decision is entirely voluntary. We all of us feel, and we all of us take out frustrations on non-human entities at times, and this is just a reminder that your fellow readers are not non-human entities, a reminder that has of late become especially urgent. Though not here, for which fact I can only offer the deepest gratitude.

30 thoughts on “If there is hope, it dies with the trolls

  1. Sherwood

    Just when I become comfortable with the notion that you are a Very Good Writer, and store that notion away in some corner where it becomes background and I don’t have to think about it… just then, you whack me upside the head with a two-by-four like this one that forces me to bring that notion back out, think about it again, and marvel anew.

    “Thanks” is a pretty poor comment, but it’s all I’ve got in my quiver.  Thanks, Chris.

  2. decrepitoldfool

    The internet has expanded human community across a different dimension, of intentional interest instead of incidental geography. 

    Deleting a hostile comment isn’t censorship, it’s just taking out the trash.  What’s left, as you said, is more likely to be a positive, constructive community.  There’s nothing stopping the nasty commenters from starting their own blog if they want to.

    But there is no such thing as not making a decision…

    I am wrestling with what to do.  I want a wide range of opinions but…

    …to decide against participation by those who are intimidated or annoyed into silence.

    …and i don’t want to miss those individuals.  It is precisely the reason I already take the unusual step of auto-censoring some of the better-known profanity.

    I have a few commenters who use anti-Muslim racial slurs but a few others who reliably take them to task for it.  That exchange is useful in itself but probably rough sailing for some good people who choose not to comment.

    Guess i should work up a standard for deleting comments and post it as you’ve done here.  Got to figure out what the threshold is.  But you’ve crystallized one thing for me.  I’m adding the aforementioned slurs to my censor list which already ###‘s out far less offensive profanity.

  3. nashe

    Thanks again, as always, Chris.

    I teach a media ethics class where I try to get undergrads to grapple with things like censorship.  I’ll be teaching it at a new school next semester and can’t wait to discuss your post with them.

    One honest question to pose—can you begin to define any clear means of drawing the line between those comments you immediately trash and those that give long pause?  A certain gut-level feeling that “this will hurt some folks and silence more” seems a start, but then again you and I once had a difference of opinion over a funny video about the rights of vegetables. (I’d link to the Pandagon thread in question but I can’t find it anymore.)  You thought those who thought it was offensive had too thin a skin and not enough sense of humor about themselves.  I agree, and certainly that video hurt no-one, but my argument at the time (I believe) echoed yours above—it’s not just about who is hurt, but also about wider effects on who feels comfortable to speak, etc.  Perhaps an unfair comparison.

    Anyway, what Sherwood said about the two-by-four above.  This is the kind of post that makes me pause and think: Damn.  That is writing.

  4. Chris Clarke

    Thanks, nashe.

    My answer is a two parter:

    1) As I said to a friend earlier today discussing this post, hard cases make bad caselaw. There are certainly going to be many times when it’s hard to tell whether a person is arguing in good faith or not, but the vast majority of comments are clearly either in one category or the other. Being hesitant to deal with the obvious stuff because someday a case might come up that’s not so obvious — the approach I see a lot of folks taking — makes little sense.

    2) And (as I imply above) making that determination is going to be a lot less tricky in the difficult cases if there isn’t a constant din of jerks.

    2a) I do not like the person I was becoming at Pandagon. And I was very grateful for your humane response in that thread. I don’t like the “grow a skin” argument as a whole, and really only one person in that thread was acting unreasonably. I’d do that thread differently today.

    2a^1) I suspect that in a venue such as CRN, were I to run that Arrogant Worms video to which you refer, people would be far more likely to assume I was (at worst) teasing mildly, because there is not the climate of wholesale trashing here that there is there.

  5. Jym Dyer

    =v= Are you banding Sherwood to track his movements?

    I really can’t follow many blogs, so I don’t know any context about the topic that sparked this, but I am aghast at how traffic reporting trumps all.  I remember reading about how walls of flame from a Richmond refinery fire was slowing the commute, and only later learned that somebody died there; and how it took nearly a day to learn that there were no deaths in the flipped fuel truck in Oakland that melted part of the highway.

    Malachi Richter, a friend of some friends in Chicago, self-immolated in protest of the war in Iraq.  The MSM coverage mentioned the fire, and its effect on traffic, but didn’t mention that it was a human being that was burning.

  6. jmartin

    “Vandalism” indeed seems a crucial notion.

    Does a given comment use words to obliterate and deter other voices, rather than engage them? Does its hatefulness vastly outweigh any substantive content? Does the site attract sufficient snarky savvy commenters (vide Pharyngula) to reveal a graffiti for what it is, and reflect its minority status?

    There is no shortage of sites as wailing walls, encrusted with every passing git’s noxious spit.  Surely one can maintain one quiet cedar-closet of sanity?

  7. kathy a

    a thoughtful post, as always.  i like CRN because of its thoughtful discussions, and of course, your lovely writing.

    there is no legal right for a person to go to a private website and spew garbage.  you are not the government, so the issue is not censorship at all; it is more along the lines of “vandalism,” as you said.  this is your living room and participants are your guests.  there is nothing unfair about dis-inviting someone whose purpose is to attack others, de-rail the activities, or otherwise run amok for the sheer fun of being an ass.

  8. coturnix

    I was talking (in Real Life) with a blogger friend yesterday and we both noted how quicker we both are on the Delete button now than when we first started.  I am far harsher now than I was before.  My wife, mother, brother and kids are reading my blog -it has no space for crap any more.

  9. bright

    thank you for this. i am a profound internet optimist; i do have hope that with increased communication we have increased opportunity for civilized exchange. your writing gives me hope that eventually the proper etiquette will precipitate out. it’s worse than high school sometimes. if we keep adding to the conversation as you have, we might someday mostly grow up.

  10. jason

    Most excellent, Chris!  Not only a notion founded upon shared belief, but a splendid piece of writing to boot.  You said what I said on my own blog about comments, only you did it with with flair and beauty I could scarcely imagine.  Thank you.

    Now can we talk about farm animals and mustard?  I’ve missed that comment thread.  Or would that be considered trollish derailment?

  11. jason

    Gosh, someone’s in quite a mood today.  Is the band precious metal or just some garish plastic thing?  I have fashion sense, you know, so it matters.

  12. Hmmm

    I think deletion is a very good policy (and it’s stupid for anyone to cry censorship when they can go and start their own blog whenever they want to).

    The ultimate goal of a troll is to drive people away from a site by making it an unpleasant experience to be there (if they’re honest with you when you ask them, they’ll admit that their goal is to marginalize or shut down the site).  They are not interested in others’ perspectives or good faith arguments and they are a purely destructive force in the conversation.

  13. Jennifer Ouellette

    Excellent discourse on blog commenting. I employ similar guidelines on my own blog, although it’s usually a judgement call in borderline cases. I’ve been fortunate to only attract a few trolls and/or crackpots. But I strongly feel that NOT deleting such comments simply poisons the atmosphere for all the wonderful commenters who have something useful and insightful to offer. It’s all about keeping the signal to noise ratio sufficiently balanced to make a comments section truly interesting and interactive.

    Some bloggers LIKE the shouting and name-calling, though, and find the trolls amusing. I don’t, but that’s their prerogative. Those are generally the blogs where I don’t bother reading comments very often. :)

    It’d be nice to be able to moderate my own blog comments without being accused of “censorship” (it happens every time, even though I moderate with the lightest of hands). When did the blogosphere become more concerned over the rights of trolls than of the vast majority of decent sorts who might participate more in the discussions if there were less shouting? Those are the people I want reading my blog, and the best way to attract them is to create a comments environment that is welcoming, not abusively combative—without squelching honest dissent, mind you. (The two are not mutually exclusive.) Sounds like Chris feels the same.

  14. Chris Clarke

    without squelching honest dissent,

    Which is, of course, the rub. A blogger who sees, say, criticism of the privilege expressed in his or her posts as thread-derailing is unlikely to use the delete key in a way that truly supports dialogue. Such folks, I find, also tend to excuse serious nastiness if they agree with the person making the nasty comment. And you don’t have to look far to find examples of same in the blog world.

    I suppose I may thus be utopian in expecting a bit of intellectual integrity from my fellow human beings, but what can I say? You guys are all my co-dependents in that, what with your keeping my expectations raised unduly by providing shining examples and such.

  15. Rachel Shaw

    Very nicely laid out, Chris.  Very nicely done, indeed.

    I’ve long thought that the metaphor that governs my blog management is that my blog is the equivalent of something like a front porch, or at most a table in a cafe or a potluck dinner on a picnic blanket laid out in the park.  I love having people drop in, bring their dishes to share, and to hang out just talking and playing around with ideas.

    In none of these settings would I tolerate someone who was rude to my friends, abusive to my guests, etc. -so why should I put up with it on my blog? 

    I don’t blog to give brats and jerks a platform for airing their crap; I do it to provide a fun, playful, and thoughtful place for me and my friends (including friends I have yet to meet) to share ideas and experiences.

    After all, as decrepitoldfool said upthread, if those annoyances in human form want a place to spew their shit in public, they can find other places that welcome that crap, or even start their own damned blogs.

  16. Alison Hymes

    Thank you for this post.  My friends and I just went through an awful experience with one bad faith commenter who spread it over several blogs, all known to each other and also went after us on her own blog.  One of my friends deleted her wonderful, beautiful blog that was a resource for trauma survivors because of this bad faith commenter.  I had deleted her comments, but she went so far on her own blog that my friend couldn’t take it anymore.

    I have always deleted bad faith commenters although I never had that phrase for them before, thank you for that.

  17. kevin Andre Elliott

    Well said, Chris. I’ve always felt the same way. I never think twice about deleting/banning the trolls. I’ve also taken a liking to what they do over at Pandagon, only instead of replacing comments with bunny vids, I replace racist comments with an “I love black people” icon.

    I’ve been writing a lot about the Jena Six lately, and you can only imagine the type of comments that’s brought out. I find myself thinking, “well, this is totally offensive, but at least he didn’t call me a ‘stupid nigger,’ so maybe I should let it stand.” It’s moments like that that make we wish I could remove myself from Google and Technorati.

    Oh, and totally off topic. That sheep you threw at me. It kinda hurt! :)

  18. thinking girl

    thansk for this, Chris. I’m with you -I tell ‘em up front what my commenting rules are, and if they don’t adhere, they don’t get published. If I think someone’s going to be a problem, I add their name or email to my moderation queue, and they don’t get published if what they say is problematic. I ban people all the time. they go straight to the spamulator.

    now, this has little to no effect on dissent. people can dissent without having to use racist, sexist, homophobic epithets.

    MY BLOG is no place for people to spew their hate. I owe nobody a duty to allow them to exercise their right to free speech.

  19. Tom

    Chris, I don’t think I’ve commented here before, but I’m really liking this philosophy. 

    (I also like the echo of the grim line from 1984.)