Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bloggy Despotism: 2 of 2

In my years of newspaper and magazine work, I was a writer. Sometimes I was the editor-in-chief, but I was never on the dark side, publishing and advertising. That's the purity standard largely underpaid writers use to feel superior.

Yet this blog thing I've been doing for four years muddles all of that.

Ryan, Lynne and I share Left Ahead! That's largely a podcast site, with occasional commentary from each of us. I write on other of my blogs on non-political topics, as well as sometimes contributing to Blue Mass Group, Political Cortex and such.

This one differs though. I am the publisher in that I moderate comments and have a policy about what's acceptable. Occasionally, I censor and reject.

[Part one of this post deals with more general issues of speech related to blogs and the press.]

I started moderating here early to control obscenities and rantings from anti-gay and anti-marriage equality types.

A few commenters have asserted an absolute right to have their flaming messages on my blog. Of course, they don't have that right and it's not a privilege I'm about to give them. Those absolutists pretty clearly fall into that authoritative class I've discussed, such as here and here.

Asserting rights does not create them or make them real, no matter how many times you claim them, how loudly you demand them or how many times you assert them. Iterating claims at high volume doesn't make you right; it makes you loud and repetitive.

The glib response to a commenter unhappy with a blog's policies is that they can have their own blog or print messages on paper and hand them out to passersby. I'll turn to the standard use of Liebling's "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." (See part one of this post for more on that.)

On the other hand, I don't block fair criticism of me or my ideas or events and trends. I think of last year's column that lumped libertarians and neoconservatives in a post about some magazine gift subscriptions. That earned several strong comments here and a bucket of criticism on Reason Magazine's site as well as others.

Iterating claims at high volume doesn't make you right; it makes you loud and repetitive.

I use one current example, because it illustrates several of the issues. Since I instituted the commenting policy and readers have come to realize that 1) I moderate comments, and 2) I reject nasty and obscene comments, I have few that I need to reject.

Some people seem a bit obsessed and impatient though. Occasionally, commenters have left the identical comment many times within an hour. Others have even posted on their own blogs or others' that I was afraid to publish their comments when those didn't appear in a minute or two.

Well, it isn't in my policy, but the truth is that I do other things. I may not see or get to moderate a post until an hour or as much as a day or more after the electrons arrive. It's a bit like my cell phone. It works for me, not the other way around. When I'm home, I may or may not have the cell on my person and even then it's set to vibrate. I am perfectly capable of letting the land line or cell ring to voice if I'm doing something. My parents are both dead now. There is absolutely nothing that requires my immediate response.

My recent complainer:
  1. Commented on the post criticizing the unsavory white supremacist Hal Turner. I don't agree with the claims, which parroted Turner's stance, but I published that.
  2. When I responded to his assertion that Turner was too smart to face charges and that he stayed with court decisions in his threats, the commenter returned within a half hour to repeat the assertion. In addition, the winger gotcha lingo included, "Hal Turner has not broken any laws. Brandenburg vs. Ohio is key. Get over it. Until America turns into Canada Hal Turner will continue to utilize his freedoms." That comment used the identical legal link and added nothing to the ideas, so I didn't publish that.
  3. Next, the commenter apparently did not see his original comment, just my reply. I assume that was a problem with his browser cache settings, because I saw both. Then he asked why I would reply without the original. I'll set that down to technical unsophistication. It too added nothing and likely would have made the commenter look even sillier. I didn't publish that.
These were much milder than many I got of marriage-equality issues. They also are much easier on the ear and eye than those that BayWindows got on the same story.

They published the following two letters (see the last two on that page for the authors):
Subject: hit piece
What a piece of trash you wrote. Keeping sodomites out of public schools and the perverse lifesyle they promote is a good thing for a real man to do, such as Hal Turner. He’s not anti-semite either. He is against corrupt jews who srew this nation and everyone in it out of everything and shove this fagot shit down our childrens throats. I am a concerned father and will definitly do what needs to be done to protect my children from the filth that pours from papers like yours and the sodomites you promote. You think you’re protected and safe pretending to hide behind your journalism? Think again. I wouldn’t be surprised if some concerned people who are tired of your political bent-overness were to teach you a lesson. I’d be happy and would chear because another sodomite got taught a valuable lesson, don’t fuck with straight people, go back in the closet where you belong.

Subject: Hal Turner
Please refrain from using the term "anti-semite", because its a supremacist slur demanding a special consideration somehow distinct from "racist" I know you believe youre god’s chosen race, but in the real world you get no special consideration above the rest of us. The term is also strongly linked to supremacist jewish extremists like the JDL. Keep your garbage behind closed doors if you must spew it.
Over the past several years, I have gotten tired of deleting such posts and would not have published them. I can understand BayWindows' letting those commenters show their viciousness and stupidity. In contrast, I think we have all seen and heard that type of stuff. I don't know that more of it informs us.

I see the advantage in eyeball hungry group blogs, like BMG, permitting instant comment posting. They do police after the fact and remove objectionable comments. On many such sites, commenters must register with a verifiable email address to comment at all, and repeat abusers of the site lose their posting privileges.

Instead, I moderate but allow anonymous comments. As close as I get to ID'ing anonymice is checking the stats log to see where they connected for the comment. I really don't have the time or interest to track these characters to specifics beyond location.

For example, my most recent disgruntled commenter logged into an ISP in Sarasota, Florida for each message. The comments came late afternoon or early evening. I might reasonably infer that this was a retiree suffering from the winger talk-radio self-righteousness disease, but that's on scant evidence. Although I do note from familial experience, my own tolerant mother turned into a Limbaugh dittohead at the end of her life following hormone treatments and other drugs that altered her personality.

In fairness to the nameless posters, some people do not have and seem befuddled by IDs. However, they do have the option on my sites of typing in a name. Judging from the rejected comments I have seen here, the nastiest seem to feel their anonymity gives them freedom to insult and offend, or try to at least. Yet, that too is on slight evidence and they might be as hateful and crude if people knew who they were as well.

Some persist in asserting all manner of rights and truth with little or no reason or evidence. That's a tiny step up from the unsupported and unsupportable it's-only-common-sense ploy though.

Some Options

Blog to blog to blog shows considerable variation in comments. Some find traffic levels and volume of comments to be great virtues. Their pages are often full of the trivial, picayune, and unpleasant. If there are strong ideas and original thinking, they are hard to find among the others.

A very few blogs attract and publish well written discourses and rejoinders. Their readers click there for just such insight and debate.

The range of blogs uses various methods for publishing and controlling comments, such as:

Wild Electrons: Those of us from the pre-WWW days of the Internet recall the prevalence of the BBS (Bulletin Board System). These live in archives, but also in a forum here, there, almost everywhere. Consider as an example, the Democratic Underground discussion groups.

Now, as then, these are often uncensored or barely censored. Anything you post on one of these is fair game and may elicit ridicule, personal insults, and lots of hair splitting from the many who don't have ideas of their own. Typically, it takes considerable abuse of others or raw language or violent verbiage to get the forum to ban you from commenting.

Likewise, several newspapers that added such readers comment areas have begun heavily moderating them or even scrubbing them entirely. Numerous other blogs big and small ask for reader help in identifying loony commenters early. For example, Huffington Post puts a Flag as abusive choice under each comment. That doesn't delete a comment, but does send a message to a human to examine its content.

Some blogs use this for post commenting. You're free to post until you blow it badly enough, often enough.

Gatekeeping: A lot of blogging software has the option to require registration. This is not infallible, but does provide a level of control.

Typically, a reader needs to provide a verifiable email address, as well as type in the verification characters to leave a comment. Abusive commenters can be banned, based on their registration information. Sneaky ones can get another disposable email address from a free provider, like Hotmail or Yahoo, and register with a different user name and email address. This will delay their getting banned again, but most of these characters won't be able to restrain their ranting and other abuse for long. Plus, it's trouble to get another address, so they may stick with less particular blogs for their comments.

Anal Retentive: Depending on the blog, I use several styles, up to the most restrictive one for this blog. Others allow anonymous commenting or pick up Google/Blogger ID for those signed into those, or OpenID. One of my WordPress blogs moderates the comments, that is, sends me the comment for approval, rejection or marking as spam. Once I have approved a comment, that person can leave them in the future without approval. That latter option has backfired a couple of times when seemingly rational commenters came back in a hostile mood.

This blog does not require registration, but does notify me of each comment. I can publish or reject those.

It is also set up with word verification — those seemingly random character strings to type into a box to send the comment to me. This is just to prevent automated system from leaving spam with bots.

What Obligation?

I don't know anyone who thinks a newspaper is obliged to publish every letter to the editor it receives. I see numerous examples here and other blogs of people who are indignant if their comments do not appear, or even if they do not appear immediately, or in the case of my latest fellow, if redundant ones with so-there interjections don't also appear after an initial one.

It is true that electrons are virtually free. A Blogger site has no monetary cost and a self-hosted one is generally in the range of 30¢ a day. Other than the time cost, there is no additional price to let ranters rant and nitpickers pick.

The small irony here is that my messages about not seeing all their posts...immediately...seem to be from right-wing commenters. Traditionally, these favor unregulated capitalism and would like the owners to control output. That should mean the blogger determines what goes on the blog pages.

Yet, the other traditional winger attitude is that any right they claim is supposed to be absolute. That attitude includes free speech, in that everyone should listen to what they have to say and any media, including papers or blogs, are obliged to publish their thought.

The conflict, I find, is easily resolved in favor of the publisher.

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Ryan said...

God, I'd never have time to moderate comments. I just let them all go. Luckily, I haven't seen too many offensive posts on my site, so I haven't had to rethink that policy.

massmarrier said...

I still get obscene or hateful comments from time to time, but not many. It's entered my mind to suspend moderation on this blog. I'm in no hurry.