By Ryan McGreal
Published January 17, 2011
After a weekend of surprisingly heavy trolling in the RTH comments, I read a comment posted early this afternoon with interest:
Another comment thread completely sidelined and ruined by effective trolling. I really feel like this is happening with greater frequency these days. Can RTH please eliminate anonymous postings so the banhammer can be wielded when necessary?
Lately, I've been thinking the same thing on and off. So here's my question for RTH readers: Should RTH disallow anonymous commenting and require all commenters to register before posting comments?
When RTH first launched six years ago, we immediately established guidelines for posting comments that emphasized honesty, politeness, tolerance and respect. Yet the biggest challenge we faced in the comments area was not abuse but obscurity.
We tried to encourage constructive participation among readers and contributors. One way we did this was to allow anonymous commenting by unregistered readers. By lowering the barrier to participation, we encouraged people who were even slightly interested in the issues to weigh in.
I want to make it clear that many anonymous users over the years have provided consistently thoughtful, respectful commentary that has driven up the overall quality of debate. (Several of those commenters have gone on to register accounts.)
At the same time, trolling has long been a challenge. Trolls disrupt constructive discussion by diverting people's attention to refuting the trolls' spurious arguments. Persistent trolls can ruin a discussion and deter more legitimate contributions.
Over the years we have implemented a number of initiatives to try and limit the disruption of trolling, including community moderation via comment voting, comment thresholds for registered users to determine whether a given comment is displayed by default, and comment fading to visibly reflect popular disapproval.
By downvoting a comment, you communicate a message to other RTH readers that you believe a comment to be inappropriate. If several people downvote a comment, it starts to fade visibly (though it never fades completely), sending a clear message to each reader that the community at large disapproves of the comment.
This mitigates the desire to set the record straight by refuting the troll's spurious arguments, with the effect that trolls no longer attract outraged responses. Eventually, the troll gets tired of being ignored and leaves for greener pastures.
These methods have had some success at reducing the incentive to troll by reducing the perceived necessity of honest commenters to refute the trolls. However trolling remains an issue and seems to have been getting worse recently.
Trolls, like the Borg, will adapt to changing circumstances by making their comments look more like legitimate comments (just as spam adapts to spam filters by looking more like real email) and by playing to the sympathies of legitimate commenters with strong inclinations toward free speech.
A lot has changed here at RTH since the early years, when the comment form was filled with the sound of crickets chirping. More recently, on a given day RTH attracts thousands of readers and generates hundreds of comments.
A lot of those comments are insulting and disingenuous and offer no real contribution to the discussion. Community moderation eventually establishes shared awareness that these comments are inappropriate, but when the comments come quickly enough, they can still crowd out more legitimate discussion and even deter people from bothering to comment.
The evidence also indicates that trolls are much more likely to post anonymously than via a registered account. (This is not to suggest that most anonymous commenters are trolls.)
If we look at the 1,000 most recent comments (as at this writing), the average score of comments by registered users is 4.6, whereas the average score of comments by anonymous users is only 0.8.
Looked at differently, 368 comments were by anonymous users, and the other 632 comments were by registered users. Despite that, 160 comments or 43% the anonymous comments had scores below zero, but only 87 comments or 14% of the registered comments had scores below zero.
If we narrow our focus to comments with scores below zero, the average score for anonymous comments was -5.3, compared to -4.1 for registered comments.
Nothwithstanding periodic accusations (by identified trolls, of course) that I'm just a hair shy of Chairman Mao on the liberty spectrum, I've steadfastly maintained a strong commitment to free speech and against censorship - even, arguably, to a fault.
In the past I have asked the RTH community for feedback on whether to delete offensive comments and abided by the community decision.
At the same time, this grim essay by Eleizer Yudkowsky weighs heavily on me:
Somewhere in the vastness of the Internet, it is happening even now. It was once a well-kept garden of intelligent discussion, where knowledgeable and interested folk came, attracted by the high quality of speech they saw ongoing. But into this garden comes a fool, and the level of discussion drops a little - or more than a little, if the fool is very prolific in their posting. (It is worse if the fool is just articulate enough that the former inhabitants of the garden feel obliged to respond, and correct misapprehensions - for then the fool dominates conversations.)
So the garden is tainted now, and it is less fun to play in; the old inhabitants, already invested there, will stay, but they are that much less likely to attract new blood. Or if there are new members, their quality also has gone down.
Then another fool joins, and the two fools begin talking to each other, and at that point some of the old members, those with the highest standards and the best opportunities elsewhere, leave.
My naive liberal heart is not quite ready to start swinging the "banhammer" with joyful abandon, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect people to register an account before posting comments.
It provides a way to associate a person with their words - even if we only know the person as a pseudonym - and by raising a slight barrier to commenting it deters casual vandalism.
I'm prepared to give this idea serious consideration. Please let me know in the comments what you think.
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