Technology

Me against the Troll Army

It’s time to get rid of online comments

by
• 1,029 words

“Don’t read the comments” has become a popular mantra among my media colleagues. It’s not that we don’t care what our readers think. It’s that many of the comments appearing under online news articles are full of hate, profanity, and blunt insults. For a reporter or columnist, it’s soul-crushing to imagine that these angry people are our most devoted readers.

But someone’s got to wade through the muck. And at the Telegram newspaper in St. John’s, that someone is me. It’s not a job I do alone, but it’s one I do every day. Sitting there in my small, nondescript office, I scroll through hundreds of ripostes, taunts, threats, manifestos—and the occasional genuinely incisive comment. I try to insulate myself psychologically from the bitterness and ignorance on display. But over time, the scalding verbal cascades have taken their toll on me.

The original idea behind reader comments was a noble one. For too long, the mass media had been controlled by intellectually incestuous elites, futurists complained. These crowd-sourced forums were a way to open up the conversation with readers.

Unfortunately, editors found, these conversations quickly ended up in the gutter. Typically, the hundreds—or even thousands—of comments that accumulate under a popular article are supplied mostly by a small group of mutually antagonistic, logorrhea-afflicted partisans, haters, and ideologues.

The Huffington Post was one of the first major outlets to pull the plug on this social experiment, halting anonymous comments in 2013. This year, the Daily Beast announced that “we will be removing the commenting function off our site,” on the delicately stated pretext that “the conversation around our articles is increasingly happening on social networks.” Almost a month later, the National Post told its audience that they’d have to go through their Facebook accounts to post comments (the idea was to remove the mask of anonymity that enables “vitriolic personal attacks”). And then, in late September, the Toronto Sun killed its comment boards on most articles, noting that the “anonymous, negative, even malicious personal attacks, albeit by a minority, has led us to conclude our current commenting system is not serving the interests of the majority of our readers.”

Patrolling this toxic playpen is part of my livelihood, so I have a financial interest in its continued existence. But after doing this job for ten years, I’m burning out.

It would be easier if I could just zone out and let the hate glide over me. But I have to remain alert at the keyboard: commenters often try to sneak things in, and my job has a cat-and-mouse quality to it. “Nothing says midlife crisis like the sound of a motorcycle,” wrote one fellow under an article about older Harley-Davidson riders. Seemed fine—until I noticed it came in under the name “Harley Phagg.”

As I write this, a Telegram commenter whose racist commentary has been blocked in the past is trying to slip in offensive slurs by using different names, such as “Golliwog” and “Jigaboo.” Others offer zingers that are childish and cruel, such as “If Peter MacKay is given an enema when he dies, his body can be placed in a matchbox before he is buried” (a line crudely plagiarized from Christopher Hitchens, who was talking about Jerry Falwell).

Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster, Nietzsche reminded us. “And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” For years, the abyss has been looking into me every workday. On the obituary of a well-known St. John’s lawyer, someone wrote, “He was a friendly, two-faced liar. I feel for his sons, on a human level, but the world is a better place now.” In other cases, whole professions are casually dismissed as malignant, as in “We all know that Police Officers are the most corrupt people in the Province and the Country, especially since they are the worst rapists going because it is legal for them to do it.”

At one point, I became so enraged that I suggested our newspaper create an alter-ego for me (“The Angry Moderator”) who would call out the most idiotic commenters. My boss said no, and was correct to do so. In effect, I was asking to become the ringleader of the anonymous circus.

It’s not as if hatred was unknown to the pre-Internet era. Many years ago, I had a memorable phone call with an unhappy reader that began not with “Hello” but rather, “Now you listen, fuckhead.”

Yet these sporadic callers (or angry letter writers) at least aroused themselves to the task of direct, one-on-one communication—and, more often than not, they would tell me their real names. Anonymous online trolling, on the other hand, is a 24-7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually into my newspaper’s well of ideas.

For years, our office was located in the Village Shopping Centre. I would walk through the food court, watching people read my newspaper over lunch. Is that the guy who signs himself “Pizza Tongs”? I’d wonder. Is that Cashin Delaney? Harley Phagg? That seems paranoid, I realize. But if you were to find a bag of dog shit hanging from your doorknob every day, you’d start to look at your neighbours differently, too.

Sometimes the abuse gets unsettlingly personal. I had one commenter who suggested that I’d get a rock through my living room window after I chastised a popular Newfoundland politician. Some commenters make it clear that they know where I live (a frightening thing in a relatively small place). Yet I don’t know anything about them. The relationship is entirely one-sided.

Anonymous Internet communication has its place. It’s a great way for corporate or government whistle-blowers to communicate with ombudspersons, for instance. But the model has collapsed entirely in the mass media, where discussion forums have created a climate of bullying and abuse.

We tried to create a conversation. Instead, we unwittingly empowered the most bigoted and enraged members of our society. Let’s seal this cesspit and move on.

This appeared in the December 2015 issue.

Russell Wangersky (russellwangersky.com) is the author of Whirl Away, a collection of short stories.


  • Bruce_Philp

    I could not agree more. There will be those who say that the principle of free speech trumps its abuse, and so comments should be encouraged no matter how nasty they are. What’s missing from that argument is that the trolls aggressively silence reasonable voices. It’s they who are depriving us of free speech, as surely as terrorism deprives us of free movement. Thanks for having the courage to say so.

  • Lorri Maley-Bell

    I so agree…the first time I entered a comment I was attacked by trolls. They succeeded in silencing me as I was so disgusted. There simply is no way to communicate and share ideas with all the abusive comments which often include personal insults. Amazed that many came to my rescue and defended me against this troll however he had already succeeded in diverting the conversation and moving away from the topic at hand…if that was indeed his original purpose it was a success.

  • Claudette Lacombe

    I was a little surprised to see comments allowed here. LOL I wish this article wasn’t true. I wish we could have an intelligent conversation facilitated by journalists bringing us the topic and facts for discussion. Unfortunately, what you say is true and pervades all social media platforms. I came close to unfriending or deleting a few people during recent months due to vitriolic comments and memes related to the Canadian election and now Paris. My blood pressure can’t take much more of it. However, I stand by my determination to allow alternative opinions to enter my life. I think it can be dangerous to delete them all and forget they exist. I don’t want rose coloured glasses. I want crystal clear identification of who’s saying what and where the facts they throw around so blithely originate.

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    I’ve long wondered why news outlets haven’t adopted, developed, or iterated on more sophisticated comment systems like Slashdot’s.

    It’s not perfect. It doesn’t eliminate Anonymous Cowards or preclude demagoguery, but it at least disallows mindless upvoting, minimizes sockpuppets, and rewards commenters who have a long, consistent record of good behaviour with “karma”—i.e. freedom from automatic moderation. The cesspool is still there, but you need to deliberately adjust the filter settings to let the smell waft up. The average user doesn’t, so is able to pick out the highlights.

    Whether it’s that one or another, I think it’s possible to have a commenting system that facilitates real discussion. We haven’t disproved that possibility; only shown that most existing/popular systems are inadequate.

    To answer my own question—why haven’t papers adopted something better—a couple of guesses: simplest is lack of resources (i.e. tech development talent or the money to hire it). But maybe also papers (and the developers of third-party systems like Disqus, Kinja, Livefyre and the like) see that trolls are, in one sense, frequent, loyal users who rack up lots of pageviews and thus ad revenues. A system that drives away these users would be as bad for revenue (not that it is very big in the first place) as it was good for the possibility of real dialogue.

  • A.E Starr

    While what you say is so true and I empathize with the futility and exhaustion you must feel as a result of performing the job you do, I must say – and I mean this sincerely, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” We can’t let the bad guys win. We have to let them keep their anger, while fighting against giving in to them and letting them ruin what can have some benefit for us all. Recognize them for who they are, and move on. Focus only on the positive. I know this all sounds trite and cliched, but this is a perfect example of where we have to rise above and be the role models, the change, we want to see in the world. Look, there are 5 really supportive comments here already. No negativity so far, anyway… You want to eliminate the possibilities this represents, because of negativity that you can choose to resist? That is sacrificing the good, for the sake of the bad, and we can’t let that happen. Don’t let a few bad apples ruin the whole bunch. Focus on the good and let the bad fall away.

  • KoolGRap

    Very good point about anonymity. Commenting itself isn’t the underlying issue. Obviously really dedicated people will use anonymous accounts to avoid being screened out, but the more you can eliminate anonymity the more people will have to stand behind what they say, and I have a feeling a lot of trolls would turn to stone

  • RCraigen

    The solution to bad speech isn’t to shut down forums for speech. It is more, and better, speech.

    This urge to shut people out of the conversation does not, in my view, arise from the putrid comments made by guttersnipes in comments around the internet. It arises from the distress some feel about other, contrary points of view holding sway.

    The trash talk you find in comment fields is a small price to pay for the extraordinary voice these informal forums provide to everyday folks who otherwise are relegated to the sidelines in public discourse. On balance this has enriched our world today. I trust the good soul of the folks in our heartland to hold sway in the larger world of internet conversation far more than the I-know-better-than-you-what-speech-should-be-allowed e-bureaucrat moderators whose every thought is how to control the larger discourse in society in the way that pleases them most.

    There are numerous solutions to the problem of comment field incivility that do not amount to this kind of impulse toward thought control.

    (While that impulse has much in common with the censor mentality let us be clear that on a PRIVATE website control or ending of open comments does NOT constitute censorship — it is an exercise of ownership rights of those running the site. I am not arguing it is never ok to close comments. I am arguing against developing an anti-comment mindset across large-subscriber venues that arise from a desire to manipulate public thought and discourse.)

    First … if you’re offended by it, don’t read it. Nobody’s forcing you to read anything. The ugly thing about the internet is that it’s the Wild West. The beautiful thing about the internet is also that it’s the Wild West. Wear your chaps and fire from the hip when necessary. Know when to hold ’em … and know when to fold ’em, know when to walk … er, you know.

    Second … If you’re sick and tired of incivility, there’s nothing stopping you as a web owner from establishing your own rules and moderating accordingly. It’s your site, exercise your ownership rights. And don’t let anyone else dictate. Not the trolls; not the offense police. It’s your right, and if people like you don’t defend it, it will fade over time until that freedom is gone. Kick people off and block them freely as you like. Shut things down or limit “membership” if you find all of the above to be too time-consuming. Again, you do not owe anyone your time as moderator. Moderation in all things :-)

    Third … if it is the anonymous trolls that have you down … simply forbid anonymity. Require full disclosure of identity at a minimum to YOU as owner. Or if you think it appropriate, to the general public. Make people accountable for their words. It’s remarkable how much more civil people are when forced to comment in their own name rather than under an assumed identity.

    Fourth … paywall. It needn’t be a prohibitive amount. In fact, I would argue in the vast majority of cases for a completely trivial payment, almost a token amount. It’s a simple principle called “skin in the game”. Not many open sites try this but it is truly delightful to participate in conversation on such sites.

    Note, you are likely accustomed to paywalls to viewing. I’m talking, however about paywalls for COMMENTING. The general public may be permitted to view those comments. But you only get to add your 2 cents if you’ve already paid your dime. It’s the best route I know to civil discourse online.

    If you’re wondering what all this looks like check out the model over at ricochet.com . First, they have a paywall for ALL comments. You can look through their comment fields and articles. How much does it cost? A trivial amount, in the same order of magnitude as a cup of coffee a couple of times per month. Less than you’d pay for a chat with good friends at Starbucks. The result is spectacular. Finally, there is a public and a private “side” to Ricochet. You can view the public side, but the private side is a blog on which everyone … *everyone* who’s a paid up member can post. But again … it’s completely civil. The best posts (judged by commenter response, and a panel of moderators) get promoted to the public side. Finally they *do* have a COC (code of conduct) but it rarely gets invoked. In fact, it’s a bit of a running joke in the comments. Check ’em out.

    • toomanycrayons

      “I trust the good soul of the folks in our heartland to hold sway in the larger world of internet conversation far more than the I-know-better-than-you-what-speech-should-be-allowed e-bureaucrat moderators whose every thought is how to control the larger discourse in society in the way that pleases them most.”-RCraigen

      Is that Gottfried Leibniz (misrepresented), or Pollyanna? Quote: ” A walk in the ocean of most men’s souls would barely wet your ankles.” I forget the source.

      • RCraigen

        I dunno. If I was to guess I might venture it is Leibnitz tossing a slur at his good frenemy Sir Isaac “shoulders-of-giants” Newton.

        I don’t suppose it’s something we’ll see eye to eye on regardless, which is precisely why it is necessary that open discourse remain unfettered.

        Liberals and Progressives (which are seemingly more and more inseparable these days) have of late developed this disturbing obsession with devaluing the common man, and reflect that very notion … the thought that they are immortal, far-seeing souls compared to whom the common rabble is shallow and unworthy to be heard. That’s why you see “liberals” and “progressives” shutting down speech on campus these days, even to the point of violence. That’s why it is Liberals and Progressives pushing the very illiberal idea that some people do not deserve to be heard. It about ideological conformity, and it is about shutting down debate so that one needn’t grapple with dissenting ideas. How far Liberals have strayed from classical liberalism.

        Regardless. I stand by my faith in the Shire-folk.

        • toomanycrayons

          If it helps in any way, I anonymously enjoyed your post, and was encouraged by it. All the best, tmc.

  • toomanycrayons

    “[THIS SPACE WAS LEFT BLANK INTENTIONALLY]”-(anonymous) Government of Canada form…

  • ted alden

    “Almost a month later, the National Post told its audience that they’d have to go through their Facebook accounts to post comments (the idea was to remove the mask of anonymity that enables “vitriolic personal attacks”)”

    The National Post? Really! That’s pretty rich. Hell they’re the guys that virtually pioneered the industry of trolling.

  • fhaedra

    Sadly, amen. Though I do trudge among the relatively anonymous, I have never been drawn to hurl nor to return the vitriolic poison that is the trademark of Anonymous Monsterism.

  • Canamjay

    I generally carefully consider unsubscribing from pubs which can’t seem to figure out how to ‘manage’ discussion.. and have done so recently with 3… The Atlantic is still one of my favorite forums who do manage well.. I’m still reviewing the Walrus, but this article focuses on the gate-keeper and I can understand why one might become weary in that role..but eliminating comments out of hand will simply drive me away… as comments in thoughtful pubs often provide valuable learning opportunities and the well managed ones (declining admittedly) will continue to get my attention.

  • GordonArnold

    Two changes will eliminate all but the worst of the abuse. First, do not allow anonymous comments. Few stories actually flow from these anonymous sources. Second,use a real moderator, not an algorithm. A real moderator would be able to block unsuitable material, such as racist comments or personal insults. The writer has my sympathy. For the last several years before I retired, I was the night web editor at the Winnipeg Free
    Press, and a great deal of my time was spent moderating comments. The thing is, when you are moderator, the cesspool only smells as bad you let it.

  • http://fedgeno.com/apps/global-paradigm-shift/ Fedge

    Your blog post is essentially a very long comment. Let’s ban it. Maybe you should just get another job. I wouldn’t spend 10 years moderating comments.