Site Notes

Time to Rethink RTH Comment Policy?

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 28, 2010

this blog entry has been updated

Since Raise the Hammer implemented community moderation via comment voting, we have had a policy of only deleting comments that are obviously spam. Comments that receive lots of downvotes from registered RTH users start to fade in text colour until they are a faint grey or are hidden, depending on your user profile settings, but they never fade all the way to white or get deleted (even a hidden comment can be un-hidden by clicking a single button).

But every now and again, a comment appears - usually posted by an anonymous reader - that leads me to question whether this is the right approach. When a deeply offensive comment was posted in May, I responded in the comments with my concerns about deleting comments, specifically:

Another round of deeply offensive comments today has me thinking about the RTH comments policy again. Is it time to establish some kind of path to deletion for such comments? If so, how might it work and how can we protect RTH against moderation that is overzealous or arbitrary?

I've seen what happens when tyrannical moderators start clamping down on a forum, and it's highly damaging to the kind of freewheeling participation that makes for a healthy, nuanced discussion. (I've also seen what happens when abusive comments are ignored or accepted, and it's just as damaging.)

Yet the power to silence carries an insidious scope creep. It turns out to be quite a small stumble to reason from truly abusive comments to trolls all the way to mere contrarians, and by the end of the exercise, the discussion is so emasculated by censorship chill as to be scarcely worth following, let alone joining.

My fear is that the precedent set by deleting harmful comments could ultimately prove to be more harmful still.

So my personal inclination is pretty strongly against censorship, but RTH has to be about what its community wants, and I'm open to a respectful discussion of possibilities. If a specific, objective plan comes out of it, I'm willing to put it to the community for a vote.

Update

Be sure to read the follow-up blog entry, Please Vote on Proposed Change to RTH Comment Policy.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

27 Comments

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By Ancopa (registered) | Posted June 28, 2010 at 21:46:40

Personally I like the current system. The voting buttons give the entire RTH community the final say. Furthermore, the option to turn the comment lightening/white out on or off gives the individual user the final say as to the content they are exposed to.

I think you have struck a fine balance compared to other media outlets who simply remove comments without explanation. At RTH we can still see what the comment was, and make up our own minds.

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By crhayes (registered) - website | Posted June 28, 2010 at 21:47:59

What if you can only vote for a comment if you have contributed to that discussion, and if a certain percentage of comment votes are 'down votes' than the comment is deleted. The reasoning behind this suggestion is that users who have participated in the conversation are probably more aware of the context of the comment in question (i.e. they're more likely to have followed the entire conversation) and therefore are better judges of whether or not it warrants deletion. Furthermore, if the majority of contributors think the comment is garbage than it probably deserves to be deleted.

Edit: I realize this approach is more complex than I originally thought, as you would still need a 'number of comments threshold' (so, for example, a comment with 1 up vote and 1 down vote doesn't get deleted!)

My two cents :)

Comment edited by crhayes on 2010-06-28 20:55:59

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted June 28, 2010 at 22:11:58

Hey Ryan, be practical. Those comments were over the top garbage, completely off topic, profane and only detract from RTH. Get rid of them. Doing so only occasionally, even once a month does not constitute chill and discourages perpetrators. I dunno about community, i guess you're in charge and have some right not to allow what you don't want. Your reluctance will keep you reasonable. Don't worry about where to draw the line - you know it when you see it.

If it makes you feel better, write out longhand I must not censor 25 times, or some such pennance - then hit the delete button with a satisfying smash!

You might note why the message was deleted but given the infrequency, i/ we don't really need that info imo.

You might also want to consider including a 'report abuse' button as do many sites.

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By Jason (registered) | Posted June 28, 2010 at 23:21:37

Crap like this should be deleted. If dreschel can threaten lawsuits and have one comment removed from here surely these comments, which are more prolonged and deliberate, and with no other purpose than to criticize Dave should be removed.
According to the Specs lawyer RTH us responsible for the content it hosts. I can't think of one reason to not delete stuff like this.

I agree with Bob. You won't turn into some censor happy looney because that's not who you are. Trust me, the last thing you want is to completely kill this site like the folks over at SSP Hamilton have done with their insane censorship and same-think mentality.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 29, 2010 at 07:04:34

Those comments should be deleted in light of this.

How about requiring registration with a working email address first? I know people can set up hotmail accounts for the purpose of trolling, but I think it would take care of a lot of trolls if they couldn't be spontaneously insulting but had to wait five minutes for a password to be emailed.

I also vote for a report abuse button. Personal attacks (like these and the one last May) have no place here, add nothing to the debate, and can scare away legitimate comments from people with something interesting to say but who don't have the stomach for the nastiness that can be found in comboxes. In other words, these comments end up censoring debate-- the very thing we want to avoid. And the trolls can certainly set up their own soapbox blogs or websites, no one is denying their right to do so, without being given the privilege of stifling dialogue here by bullying people.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 29, 2010 at 08:31:29

I've seen many blogs that turn into echo-chambers thanks to overzealous moderation... but I've also seen blogs turn into 4chan with undermoderation. In this case, moderation is the best approach to moderation.

If a post contains nothing but personal attacks, and the poster has never contributed anything positive, then the content should be definitely gutted by the admins.

I think there are a lot of trolls on this site, but I'd rather let them do their thing so long as they continue to post things that are merely absurdly stupid and not actually meant to be hurtful.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 08:52:51

Those comments had a definite creepiness to them as well, a sort of "We're watching you" type vibe. Anonymous comments personally, baselessly and solely attacking individuals should be removed, I don't think that is going too far.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 09:03:37

I'm with Michelle. A report abuse policy that allows a person to report a comment and include their reason for doing so and a requirement to register in order to comment. It's not like it's a difficult process! Also, allow each user to look at their comments, including the deleted ones and the reason for their deletion. That allows the commenter to revise their comment if they choose to do so.

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-29 08:04:45

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By Anonymous Coward (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 09:27:04

The boingboing model works well for me:
* If you post anonymously, it gets reviewed, which means that you don't get to comment immediately
* If you post something offensive, it gets "disemvowelled," which means it is posted, but with the vowels removed. People can still read it, but you have to work at it.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 09:34:02

Well, here's my 0.02...

In cases like these where some jackass is just posting personal attacks with nothing to do with the conversation I don't have any problem with them being deleted. Personally I've never bought into the slippery slope argument, so I doubt very much that this new power will lead to Ryan clamping down on dissenting opinions here.

You could also require registration in order to post but frankly I think that would have a more chilling effect than anything on commenting, and wouldn't solve the root problem.

A report abuse button for registered users seems like the easiest solution, maybe even use a counter to show how many times a comment has been reported and only delete the posting after a certain threshold (3 strikes and it's out?).

And if you're still uncomfortable deleting posts Ryan, you could always do what they do on the BoingBoing boards, and use disemvoweling to make the troll's posts less effective.

Edit: Ah, Anonymous Coward beat me to the punch with the disemvoweling idea!

Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-06-29 08:42:49

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 09:41:10

Yet the power to silence carries an insidious scope creep. It turns out to be quite a small stumble to reason from truly abusive comments to trolls all the way to mere contrarians, and by the end of the exercise, the discussion is so emasculated by censorship chill as to be scarcely worth following, let alone joining.

My fear is that the precedent set by deleting harmful comments could ultimately prove to be more harmful still.

So my personal inclination is pretty strongly against censorship, but RTH has to be about what its community wants, and I'm open to a respectful discussion of possibilities. If a specific, objective plan comes out of it, I'm willing to put it to the community for a vote.

I share these concerns. Lets face it. We've only had two incidents that I can recall, and they were both met with overwhelming and unequivocal disapproval by the community. That seems sufficient to me for the time being. If these kinds of incidents become more prevalent, then it might be time to rethink, but I don't think these two incidents have dealt more than glancing blows to the quality of dicussion here. It's too soon to get heavy-handed IMO.

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By PseudonymousCoward (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 10:08:00

The comment voting rules say you're supposed to downvote comments that "use rude or insulting language, are needlessly inflammatory, seek to provoke an emotional reaction from others, are attempts to disrupt and derail the discussion, or abuse evidence and reasoning to defend an unjustifiable conclusion."

So what does a "Report Abuse" button get us that a downvote doesn't already do? If we want to go that route why not make it so comments with really negative votes go into some kind of deletion queue?

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By Noel Coward (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 10:43:31

Censorship of violent, aggressive, obscene, damaging, racist, anarchistic language isn't an act of stifling democracy, it is a cleansing gesture allowing righteous debate to occur.

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By speecher (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 10:46:55

Just what free speech needs, more 'righteous cleansing'. :P

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 10:59:28

The real Noel Coward is pretty much the last person who would advocate 'cleansing' language.

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By Noel Coward (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 11:21:39

@^"The real Noel Coward is pretty much the last person who would advocate 'cleansing' language."

And real students of Noel Coward would be able to read properly and understand the difference between 'cleansing' offensive language and allowing for 'righteous debate'. It is the difference between ideas and vitriol. The former is to be encouraged, unfettered; the latter is to be eschewed! Even 'censored'.

In our democracy we have been able to define this notion in law. That is why legislation around slander exists. We should also be able to find that balance in opinion sharing!

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 13:24:45

You called for the censorship of among others, aggressive, obscene, and anarchistic language. No one as sophisticated, erudite, and unafraid as Noel Coward would call for the censorship of ideas or language in such a manner, nor thankfully, do our libel laws cover this type of speech.

Ryan is right to worry about scope creep. In 16 comments we've gone from calling for the deletion of personal attacks, to advocating censorship of anarchistic language. Eek.

RTH ain't that badly broke. Let's not talk of fixing it unless attacks like those against grassroots and Dave K are repeated.

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By Noel Coward (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 14:22:14

@Highwater:

"RTH ain't that badly broke. Let's not talk of fixing it unless attacks like those against grassroots and Dave K are repeated"

So the real agenda now comes out. Censorship is ok, but only if the target of vile language is aimed at friends like those in the grassroots and Dave K, whoever they or he might be.

This isn't just intellectually dishonest, it is reprehensible highwater!

I maintain my point that regardless of who is the victim of vile, anarchistic, racist, damaging, slanderous language should have the same protections you offer your friends.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 14:46:13

Listen Troll Coward, "unless attacks like those against grassroots and Dave K are repeated" is not the same as "unless attacks against grassroots and Dave K are repeated". For someone just talking about being "able to read properly", either you're the one who can't read or you're deliberately stirring the pot. So why don't you slowly step backwards from your keyboard and think about how ridiculous you want to look before you post any more comments.

Comment edited by z jones on 2010-06-29 13:50:30

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By Highwater (registered) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 16:47:34

Also, if you were 'able to read properly', you would see that I am one of the ones calling for no censorship at all, even of nasty comments like the ones directed at grassroots and Dave, nor would I presume to rob them or anyone else, of their agency by 'offering them my protection'. That would be the same sort of paternalistic nonsense that spawns the censorship you are so enamoured of.

Comment edited by Highwater on 2010-06-29 15:49:17

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By Mr. Dreschel (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 21:52:48

I'm the only one calling for censorship on RTH. Not Highwater.
Just wanted to clear that up.

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By Noel Coward (anonymous) | Posted June 29, 2010 at 22:03:04

Tsk Tsk....am chastened by so many erudite individuals. Again, you attack the person, rather than the point. Surely, Ryan 'rethinking' RTH policy leaves the door open to censorship. I just happen to think that sometimes censorship is a positive thing if it eliminates ills worse than censoring vile language.

Surely you would agree that racist language for example graffitied on school walls should be removed, or that scribbled on notebooks or yelled out loud in a cafeteria...then why would you not remove the same from the printed responses on RTH?

For Highwater to accept the notion of censorship, she has to see the awful comments 'repeated'. How many times? Two, three, one hundred? Well, if you accept the appropriateness of dealing with the language, then once is too many.

As for Z Jones, I would suggest that my argument is a sincere debating point. You may disagree but that shouldn't label me a troll. Or is the definition of troll anyone you disagree with? And downvoting comments is a form of censorship, isn't it?

I am simply asking you to think straight. I think you are capable of figuring this out.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 29, 2010 at 22:29:37

Thanks for all the discussion so far. In response to this situation, I've tweaked the site's comment system so that comments with strongly negative scores are hidden by default, but they can be unhidden with a single click. As always, registered users can set whether comments are hidden, what the threshold is, and whether negative comments start to fade in colour.

Just to clarify a couple of points:

And downvoting comments is a form of censorship, isn't it?

Downvoting comments is a form of speech, not censorship. It is a way for registered users to express disapproval of a comment, and under the current setup it does not cause that comment to be deleted or to be inaccessible to other readers.

So what does a "Report Abuse" button get us that a downvote doesn't already do?

I'm inclined to agree that a "report abuse" button isn't really orthogonal to comment voting; but maybe it makes sense to replace up and down with something like "appropriate" and "inappropriate" or, if that's too verbose "fair" and "unfair". This might help to drive home the point that the purpose of comment voting is not to express agreement/disagreement with a particular viewpoint.

If you post something offensive, it gets "disemvowelled,"

That's a clever idea, but I'm not sure it's materially different from fading the text colour of highly downvoted comments.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 00:30:05

Do you want a site where everybody agrees with you? If you do then by all means hide downvoted comments. Comments get downvoted for all kinds of reasons. I have had many comments downvoted because readers disagree with them or dislike what I have to say. I have never attacked another poster just there posts.

Ryan, you are obviously smarter than the average bear. If the post is a personal attack delete it the quicker the better but, if the post is unpopular because many disagree with the post then just leave it alone. I know you can tell the difference.

The comments posted about Mahesh Butani are simply inexcusable. Down voting or hiding behind a single click are simply not enough. Delete them quickly and decisively. On the other hand A Smith has many posts that I (and many others) disagree with but he does not tend to cross the line leave them alone. I am sure you can tell the difference.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 10:47:36

For Highwater to accept the notion of censorship, she has to see the awful comments 'repeated'. How many times? Two, three, one hundred? Well, if you accept the appropriateness of dealing with the language, then once is too many.

Er, no. Again, for someone who enjoys casting aspersions on other people's reading and 'thinking' skills, you seem sadly lacking in that area. I do not support the deletion of comments on this site, full stop. However, because I recognize that many others feel differently, I suggested that we put off the debate until such time as personal attacks become more frequent and more damaging to the general discourse than they currently are. Clear enough for you?

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-06-30 09:49:35

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By Chris Angel (registered) | Posted June 30, 2010 at 14:26:53

Ryan, your thoughts on censorship and scope creep are golden. I am appalled at the number of people who have called for casual censorship. "You will know it when you see it" and the calls for cleansing rascist and offensive posts. Scope creep is an instant away as soon as you sign on to this way of thinking. If the number of anonymous asshat postings becomes too great; require registration. That in itself should take care of the bulk of these cowardly postings but stick to your guns and avoid censorship programs no matter how reasonable they sound.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2010 at 14:46:37

Be sure to check out today's blog entry, Please Vote on Proposed Change to RTH Comment Policy.

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