One of the primary advantages that many have had about the Internet is the idea that the voices of everyone is available to many that would otherwise be silenced. Indeed, this very post falls under that same category as does all of WordPress actually. The problem is, I will argue, is that the ones most likely to comment on an news article are in fact the ones that feel the most emotion towards the issue of the article rather than the most rational.

I bring up this issue on the back of the post by the Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander which recently wrote about the degrading, threatening, and time consuming effects on reporters trying to deal with the comments on the articles and posts they receive. His article here is a summary of the things I have seen over and over online no matter the newspapers or news organization.   Alexander explains the effects that the sheer number of obscene and hurtful comments do to reporters:

Those in public life come to expect despicable and hurtful comments. Most have developed thick hides.

But for average folks who are out of the public eye and agree to be featured in The Post, brutal online comments can be unexpected and devastating. Post reporters say increasing numbers are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks.

The number of hateful comments that exist online has always seemed to outrank the more sane, but this indicates that this kind of input is affecting the type of news we hear.   Do you think I am exaggerating?  Turn out I am not:

Style section reporter Ellen McCarthy, who writes the Sunday “On Love” feature on couples who wed, said she spends an “inordinate amount of my time on weekends” monitoring comments. Many are so cruel they get deleted. For example, one implored a bride to take out a life insurance policy on her new husband, suggesting his obesity would soon kill him.

Several other reporters said they routinely monitor comments after their stories appear in hopes of deleting inappropriate ones before they’re spotted by news sources. They can be so venomous that religion reporter William Wan sometimes warns those he has written about to avoid looking at them once the story appears.

“They can be so venomous that religion reporter William Wan sometimes warns those he has written about to avoid looking at them once the stories appear,” is the key sentence.  Finding out your audience is significantly more virulent and vile than polls and body politics studies suggest is no fun.  And then comes the crux of the problem, what does one do about it?

Readers regularly tell me The Post’s online comment boards have become little more than cesspools of venom and twaddle. Many want an end to anonymous commenting, a step some Post staffers privately favor.

That’s not the answer.
For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating.

Hmm, more difficult that it first seems to deal with.  How does one balance the desire for useful and highly invigorating insight of those that use such a comments forum properly versus those only seek to abuse such a privilege.  My personal opinion is to end anonymous commenting, but many disagree as many believe that non-anonymous commenting results in self-censorship as many studies support that argument and is perfectly valid in my opinion as well.  But, I find would rather prefer an environment where some self-censorship is practiced rather than a free-for-all where the conspiracy theorists have as much say as those with insightful ideas.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that this is not a new phenomonan.  The theory that anonymity creates a more threatening environment via anonymous comments is nothing new in the video games industry.  The co-founders of the largest video games professional conventions in the United States, Penny-Arcade  Expo also run a comic by the same name for whatever is on their mind.  They termed this idea as, excuse my language (I will not be inserting the image into the post), “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”.  The theory is simple, a normal person, add anonymity and an audience will create a situation in which sociopathic behavior is common.  The comic is available here, warning: excessive cursing,  http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/.  Ironically, “John Gabriel” is a fictional character of the comic rather than the author thereof.

This idea has gained considerable traction in the land of Acadamia despite the theory’s vulgar beginnings.  It has been referred to by name by adjunct professor and journalist Clay Shirky of New York University who likened it to Garrett Hardin’s essay “Tragedy of the Commons” as a critique that when a resource becomes shared, but punishment for abusing it becomes nonexistent, abusing the resource becomes the standard rather than supporting communal efforts.  Shirky has specifically commented on this theory in regards to the spreads of homophobic comments on Youtube specifically.

Everyone has weighed on the problem including the engineers who keep the internet humming along.  One paper is by David Davenport, assistant professor of Computer Engineering at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, “Anonymity on the Internet: Why the price may be too High.” Elizabeth Marsh explored the idea of “Hate Spam” from a legal perspective at Georgia State University, “Purveyors of Hate on the Internet: Are we ready for Hate Spam?”.  The same topic is addressed by Gia B. Lee of Harvard Law in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication “Addressing Anonymous Messages in Cyberspace”.  Lee states at one point:

The recent rise of hate messages espousing white supremacy and white separatism on the Internet, for example, has clearly been facilitated by conditions of anonymity; as a former Ku Klux Klan leader has admitted, “The access is anonymous and there is unlimited ability to communicate with others of a like mind.” [17] Anonymity facilitates not only the general spread of messages of hatred, but also targeted forms of personal harassment. [18]

In actuality, the above theory is just a more vulgar way to express the Online Dis-inhibition Effect as termed by psychologists in which both the good and bad behavior of those online is catalyzed by anonymity.  We just seem to notice the nasty results more than the good.  I am not a psychologist, I have no choice but to accept their conclusion as significantly more valuable than my own without similar qualifications.

The proliferation of the Online Dis-inhibition Effect has resulted ironically, in the spread of a large number of websites that track and oppose news organization in which they feel that individual media outlets purposefully allow certain kinds of hateful comments because they believe each organization as a specific agenda.  These sites vary significantly in popularity and visibility.

It should be of no surprise that such belief exists in all parts of the political realm (I refuse to use the word spectrum, politics is way too complicated to be put on line graph.).  For instance one blog is obsessed with Keith Olberman http://www.olbermannwatch.com/ whereas others are obsessed with the comments on The Guardian http://cifwatch.com/.  I could go on to list a hundred others sites that obsess in the same way; but I feel there is no need to so.  You could find them if you want they are not exactly difficult to find – heck, even such staples as the New York Times, Washington Post, FOX, etc, all have people complaining about how vile the comments are for whatever reason.  Sometimes their criticism are justified, sometimes not so much.

However, the fact remains that a number of news organization are awash with “libelous and/or slanderous” comments if you have ever seen the report comment abuse form on the BBC News’s forum.

No one has done any studies on if the permutation of obscene comments have affected journalists systematically.  Most of the evidence for behavior modification comes through anecdotal articles such as that of the Washington Post ombudsman.  I personally admit to purposely scrolling through comments on news sites just to see what the craziest and most vile things someone said, they are very attention grabbing after all, and in my opinion, more so than the insightful comments.

By no means does anyone consider this terrorism, but if what the Washington Post Ombudsman has to say is true, than media has become a more two-way street and the  old Gatekeeper theory of news is truly breaking down.  But I am not sure because of the way people express themselves online whether the breakdown of Gatekeeper style media is guaranteed to be a positive step.