How to beat comment trolls

by Jason Preston on August 3, 2008

The New York Times magazine arrives on doorsteps this morning featuring The Trolls Among Us. Penned by Mattathias Schwartz, a staff writer for Good magazine, it is an excellent peek into the lives and morality of the people whose comments you probably hate the most.

You have to realize that anonymity on the internet is a joke.

Trolls, as they are known, are some of the most formidable problems that newspapers face in their attempts to engage with community. The LA Timesill-fated editorial wiki serves as an excellent example of a public space thoroughly hijacked (and subsequently shut down).

How do you beat the trolls?

First, you have to recognize that trolls can be divided into two categories: Those who are only willing to harass anonymously, and those who will happily continue trolling with their identities attached. You will only ever be able to get rid of the first kind.

Next, you have to realize that anonymity on the internet is a joke. The internet has made identity theft laughably easy—in the Times article, a troll who goes by the handle Weev produces Schwartz’s social security number with relative ease—the only saving grace is that most of our identities aren’t really worth stealing.

As the online privacy becomes more and more obviously an illusion, security will change from a “protect the borders” mentality to one of mutually assured destruction; if you can pwn my identity, I can pwn you right back.

Most people will adopt a persistent online identity for places like newspaper web sites. It will probably be based on a URL and it will connect directly with their “real life” identity—in other words, the “anonymous” online crowd will be relegated to places where a user’s identity is unimportant or unwanted information.

By definition, once participants in your newspaper community are forced to stake their reputation on their actions, you will get rid of the first category of troll: those who protect their reputations with anonymity.

There is a vocal and passionate group of people who will defend the existence of anonymous comments. If people are required to log in before leaving a comment, the thinking goes, fewer people will lend their voices to the discussion, page views will go down dramatically, egos will be hurt, and it will discourage the shy but intelligent from leaving that truly astounding comment.

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of good comments left anonymously. But the number one reason people leave anonymous comments is that registration is a barrier to action.

Here’s an example. You rarely see “anonymous” commenters on WordPress blogs because most WordPress blogs offer users three options:

  1. Enter a name and email address, then comment
  2. Log in to your account and comment
  3. Don’t comment

Which is slightly different from the anonymous commenter-ridden posts on most newspapers, because newspapers by and large provide the following three options:

  1. Enter no information and comment
  2. Log in to your account and comment
  3. Don’t comment

Did you spot the important difference? For a newspaper, either you’re a registered user or a nobody. Most people don’t mind being somebody, but they’d rather be nobody than spend five minutes filling out a registration form.

Most newspapers are in fact encouraging anonymous comments. This is like leaving the shotgun cabinet unlocked.

One quick solution is to allow WordPress-style commenting, where users can identify themselves without being forced through a registration process. Looking farther forward, it makes sense for newspapers to look at several of the consistent-identity platforms that are now vying for prevalence on the internet.

Most people don’t mind being somebody, but they’d rather be nobody than spend five minutes filling out a registration form.

Several proprietary solutions, such as Disqus, which also provides its own turnkey comment system, are gaining traction among popular blogs such as A VC, Scripting News, and Fake Steve Jobs. Outsourcing aspects of commenting such as spam management and technological innovations (Disqus now incorporates video commenting) could be a great way to free up development resources for projects elsewhere in the paper, especially once they release their API.

“There are several sites and applications currently experimenting with our new APIs before we release them publicly,” Daniel Ha, co-founder of Disqus told me via email. “Sites and developers will be able to hook into what Disqus offers without compromising the more custom aspects of the project.”

OpenID also provides a promising framework for universal user accounts. Unlike Disqus, it is a completely open framework that anyone can tie in to. MySpace recently announced that they will be incorporating OpenID, joining popular sites such as Livejournal, Yahoo!, and Blogger. If you believe Tim O’Reilly, there are some good reasons to put your cards on the open source table.

Going this route comes with its own drawbacks, of course. It’s not a turnkey solution for one—newspapers would have to devote resources to building and maintaining a system that links into the OpenID framework.

Regardless of what route newspapers choose to go, or which group of routes, the ultimate goal is to provide the user a way to comment by logging in to a user account they already have, while still working towards the larger goal of consolidating disparate online user accounts.

Like the proverbial shotgun in the unlocked cabinet, however, the anonymous comment does have some legitimate uses. It’s far more difficult to brush aside the argument that allowing anonymous comments provides whistle-blowers and repressed political minorities a safe, and important, forum for expressing their voice.

The unfortunate truth is that internet anonymity is far different than the anonymity of past newspaper reporting; internet anonymity lacks credibility.

Anonymous newspaper sources have worked for centuries, since well before the internet; you simply contact a reporter and request that your identity remain anonymous. If the reporter agrees, you’re good to go.

Laws protecting members of the press from being forced to reveal their sources are designed to protect this precise duality: A source must simultaneously remain unknown and believable. In this process we trust the judgment of the journalist in vetting the accuracy of both the identity of their source and the accounts provided.

In the long run, eliminating anonymity will require more than providing an e-mail address or even “logging in.” It’s fairly simple for a user to create a misleading username, voluntarily enter an incorrect birth date or gender, and lie in their bio. After all, what’s stopping them?

Most of the trolling that Schwartz writes about in the Times is not the kind of trolling that you normally have to worry about on a newspaper’s web site. A lot of those activities are actually illegal according to our current laws, and once the police get better at tracking down the perpetrators (and they will), that kind of harassment will probably show up less often.

Newspapers, in contrast, can have their own comment policies, use computer and human moderation to weed out the comments that are truly over the line. In this ecosystem, the way to really reduce the number of hateful (but compliant) comments is to do what’s possible to tie a person’s identity to their comments.

People will think twice before posting if they know their comment will show up in Google the next time they apply for a job.

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{ 2 trackbacks }

Leaving the shotgun cabinet open. Or not. : PĆ„l Hivand | blog
08.04.08 at 12:42 am
More evidence that real identities make for good online conversations — Eat Sleep Publish
08.25.08 at 4:10 pm


1 Monica Guzman 08.03.08 at 6:28 pm

Great points. I agree that reputation building is a good weapon against many trolls and nodded my head vigorously when reading about those lacking commenting options… The sad truth is that many newspapers have their own, sometimes old, blogging tools that are woefully behind the times. The good news is, the option of leaving a name is likely easy to add.

I hold out hope that one can cultivate a good community by lighting the way and rewarding those who take the steps by acknowledging their effort. That won’t eliminate trolls, but it might make their ramblings white noise in a civil discussion rather than another in a saw of muddled comments, their quality unimportant to the blog/story’s author.

2 Jason Preston 08.03.08 at 10:06 pm

A whole lot can be accomplished, as you say, by rewarding good commenters and leading by example, but I think it would be good to explore the ways that technology can make that process easier.

The sad truth is that many newspapers have their own, sometimes old, blogging tools that are woefully behind the times.

I think newspapers should either beef up their development staff so they can keep up with the back-end technology, or they should outsource their systems to a company that can.

3 DDDDepressionnnn 11.20.08 at 11:41 pm

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