Trolls, spammers, sock puppets & free speech

Personally I don’t like to work too hard on researching blog posts only to get someone respond with a comment rubbishing it! But I do like to be in the right place/right time. And today that has yielded a post about blog posts, well specifically blog comments, inspired by one expert community panel discussion and another from the Editor of the Leicester Mercury on removing comments for posts about the McCanns.

Exhibit one from community guru Patrick O’Keefe (I’m waiting for his cool community book to arrive from CA via Amazon). Called “How to Deal with Trolls, Spammers & Sock Puppets.” Here is the panel description from Patrick, with the video of the discussion below:

You just wrote the greatest blog post you’ve ever written. You researched the subject, spoke with sources, conducted interviews and completed a well thought out, well written article. You hit the post button and your baby is up. Here comes the praise! The first comment you receive? “You’re stupid, you’re ugly and you’re writing sucks.” Whether you call them trolls, haters or griefers, they’re out there, waiting to ruin your day, harm your community and taint your world.

Or maybe the first comment was something like, “Hey, nice article, check out mine!” Just like there are people who’d like to harm you, there are also people who’d like to cheaply benefit from your work and your audience. Spammers can do their own sort of damage.

But, neither of these two groups need harm you, if you know how to deal with them. This panel will give you the knowledge you need to tackle it.

Exhibit two, the blog of the Leicester Mercury Editor Keith Perch, and my home town newspaper. Now what’s really interesting here is the fact he has to deal with people wanting to leave comments about the McCann’s, but he has been forced to withdraw the facility due to trolls. Interested? Then read this on the subject of ‘Free Speech’, with extracts below from Keith Perch’s blog:

One very irate reader – probably ex-reader – emailed me with a bitter complaint about the Mercury’s'decision to deny freedom of speech’ to our readers.

She wrote: ‘I am of course referring to your apparent decision to omit an ‘add comment’ facility for the most recent story about the McCanns … the British media’s generally misplaced sympathy for the McCanns and lack of ability to acknowledge that the parents deserve to be criticised (and convicted) for their negligence makes me suspicious that this a deliberate move by the Mercury to gag their readers.

I’m not convinced the name or email address supplied were genuine, but she was clearly very angry. It is a very difficult area for us – we give our readers the ability to comment on articles on our website without requiring them to register and without us putting in any form of pre-moderation (ie we moderate posts after they show up on the website, removing those which we think create a legal issue or which are in some other way offensive).

We certainly allow things on to the website which we would not allow into the paper – I guess we think it is clear that it is the opinion of the reader and not something that we would necessarily agree with. But we do have to draw the line somewhere.

So what about the McCanns? It is true that we don’t allow comments on any stories about Maddy or her parents. Why is that? We used to allow posts, but there is a small group of people out there who are convinced that they know what happened to Maddy – they have no evidence, but they are happy to make their allegations publicly and forcefully. Every time we have allowed comments on our stories about this family, the articles have become swamped with baseless accusations.

However, the right to free speech comes with a responsibility and the bile that is poured out by a minority on this issue, leaves us with little choice. I don’t like the decision, but I don’t see what else we can do without using resources we don’t have to moderate more quickly. I am considering changing our comment system to allow only those who have registered to comment. This, I think, would give our readers more commitment to the site and it would be much easier to build a system of trust that meant we didn’t need to moderate at all or where the readers themselves could moderate.

But that’s for the future. For now, I’m sticking with the ban even though it cost us a reader.

3 thoughts on “Trolls, spammers, sock puppets & free speech

  1. Hello Mr. Hall,

    Thanks so much for the kind words (“community guru”… makes me blush :)). It means a lot to me. I really appreciate you picking up the book, as well, and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

    I think that the decision is reasonable. You and I both know that freedom of speech has no place on any professionally run community or website because freedom of speech means EVERYTHING. It’s not practical.

    The important thing is to cultivate the proper community that fits within whatever your looking to accomplish or what your brand is. Do you want a website where people can’t feel safe browsing from work or around their family? There is no right answer there, just what your audience is. If so, there are things you’ll need to remove. Do you want a website that is riddled with personal attacks and bitter, nasty arguments? Again, no right answer, but whatever you decide will require maintenance.

    As the Editor of the Leicester Mercury rightly points out, you can’t use resources you don’t have. If you don’t have the ability (whether financially or time wise) to properly manage a comments area, it’s better not to have one at all. That’s a wise choice and a sign of taking the responsibility seriously, rather than just trying to generate as many pageviews as you can and cash the check.

    But that’s part of the issue, isn’t it? Most people don’t understand or have an idea of the responsibility and the commitment it takes to properly run a blog comment area, or forums, or some other form of social media that has to be managed. A lot of people think it’s the proverbial, stereotypical kid in their parents basement removing comments they don’t agree with. (As an aside, the “kid in the basement” can sometimes do a better job than anyone else – I was that kid!) They think of themselves as on the side of “right,” when they couldn’t be more wrong.

    They can’t get past “OMG, THEY REMOVED MY COMMENT. I AM SOOOOOOOOOOO ANGRY. THEY HAVE INFRINGED UPON MY RIGHT TO SAY WHATEVER I WANT, WHEREVER I WANT, ABOUT WHOEVER I WANT ON THEIR PRIVATE OWNED WEBSITE. GRRRRRRRRRRR. I’LL SUE! I’LL WRITE LETTERS!” long enough to understand that someone is actually thinking about these things, not doing it willy nilly, and actually cares and is trying and has a responsibility, not to some angry readers, but to all, and to those who you write about, the people who work at the publication, the people who pay the bills and others and balancing that responsibility is a challenge.

    Best of luck. If I can help or provide any advice, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Patrick

  2. Hi, interesting post Stuart, especially since I started reading Patrick’s book myself this week. I’m about to start an online community and already learning lots from it.
    Best wishes,
    Stephanie

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