Kurt Mitman | Trolls R Us
Sorry to be Kurt | Why it’s time for The Daily Pennsylvanian to clean up the comments section
September 26, 2013, 6:13 pm · Updated September 27, 2013, 12:01 am·
Sorry to be Kurt
Over the three semesters I’ve written this column, I’ve received a lot of support from the online comments on my articles.
“You sir, are a fuckwit”
“Thank-you Mr. Mitman for your trite and stupid opinions. Typical smug, self-satisfied, leftist garbage.”
“Your article is bad and you should feel bad.”
The comments above are by no means the most offensive or inflammatory ones I’ve received. Nor am I the only columnist that receives regular vitriol in the comment section.
So is there value to having online comments?
On Tuesday, PopularScience.com announced that it would no longer be accepting online comments on new articles that were posted on the site. Part of the rationale was the ability of trolls and spambots to hijack the comments section, derailing any hope for fruitful discussion amongst serious commenters.
The explanation cites a study that shows how uncivil comments polarize readers and change their interpretation of the story. Further, the study shows that ad hominem attacks were effective at negatively skewing readers’ views.
On Tuesday night, Executive Editor of The Daily Pennsylanian Jennifer Sun tweeted about this development. Former Managing Editor Sarah Gadsden replied to Jen and asked me what I thought, given my column on Tuesday in which I talked about ad hominem attacks and the politicization of economics research. Today, I decided to weigh in further beyond my quick response on Twitter the other night.
A quick perusal of comments on my own columns revealed that there is some constructive debate going on around the topics that I’ve written about. And allowing readers to comment or ask questions allows the author or others to clear up points that may be confusing or unclear (granted, that just means that I as a columnist have failed in making a lucid argument).
But the vast majority of the comments are simply ad hominem attacks against me, which then cause people to point out that the attacks are ad hominem, which then spawns a debate over whether I should be a columnist for this paper or a student at Penn altogether — in short, a complete distraction from the actual point of the column.
The comments section has calmed down over time — perhaps because the trolls got tired, or maybe because nobody reads my columns anymore.
How then, can The Daily Pennsylvanian foster a stimulating comment section without it becoming a cesspool for trolls?
First, I think that a paper like the DP should be more active in curating the comments section. It’s not a glorious job, but it would help clean things up. The current policy is that they won’t take down any information unless it’s defamatory, meaning that ad hominem attacks that contain factually correct information (maybe marginally correct is a better characterization) are left up.
Some exceptions are made — a comment outing a columnist as a homosexual was removed last semester. But it’s unclear where the line for ad hominem attacks is drawn. Generally, it’s the wild west.
That should change — both for the DP and other college newspapers. When the author is directly attacked, or if the commenter goes off on some tangent unrelated to the topic of the article, the comment should be removed.
Second, I see no reason why the DP should allow anonymous comments. Nothing is discussed in the paper that would require people to comment anonymously. Require school email addresses to register, and for alumni or others in the Philadelphia community, require some type of registration that would link to the person’s real identity. People are much less likely to troll when they can’t do it anonymously.
People should be allowed to freely express their opinions. But the DP should be allowed to and should restrict the discussion on its site to constructive debate about the article at hand, since that is the goal of the opinion section after all. If people are really that eager to contribute unproductively, I encourage them to take the debate offsite, through, for example, a subreddit.
There’s no panacea for balancing openness and keeping comments focused. While I think that the move of PopularScience has gone too far, I think that this paper could do much more to foster lively, on-topic debate in the comment section.
And now, you trolls can go to town.
Kurt Mitman is a 7th-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every Friday.