OPINION

BRENDA LOOPER: Toxic talk

Nothing better to do?

"Baby, can't you see, I'm calling. A guy like you should wear a warning."--Britney Spears, "Toxic" (2004).

Anything that puts a Britney Spears song in my head is inherently evil/infuriating. I'm ashamed I even know enough of "Toxic" for it to be in there.

Yet that's what I think of many times when I read the comments on our site and others that allow anonymous posting.

I guess I should be happy it's not "Oops ... I Did It Again." Why is her music so earworm-y???

While I police the letters that go on the Voices page, rooting out those with libel, opinion stated as fact, name-calling of private citizens (public figures have less protection because they are, well, public), etc., I don't serve the same function on the comment boards of the Democrat-Gazette. I'd have no time to sleep if I did that in addition to my actual duties.

Some commenters would need blocks of time dedicated to them alone based on the sheer number of comments they make, especially those known for harassing other commenters with insults, off-topic inappropriateness, reposts of the same comments on multiple pages, and large sections of stories/opinion pieces copied from elsewhere, usually without attribution.

To quote a meme from several years ago: Ain't nobody got time for that. (Yes, it's grammatically incorrect. No, it's not the end of the world.)

Those with complaints about commenters on our website can report the posts that are offensive at the link directly under the comments, and they'll be reviewed by our Web staff and removed if necessary. While I can pass along reports sent to me to the Web staff, I can't do anything about them.

We're not the only publication with toxic commenters. I'm often aghast when reading comments at the end of Washington Post stories. Between the name-calling, conspiracy theories and assorted threats, it's hard to believe some of these people had mamas. The New York Times a few years back decided to open comments for just a handful of stories a day for a limited amount of time to allow for human moderation. Now it uses machine-learning technology called Moderator to open up more stories, but still only for a limited amount of time.

"But my freedom of speech," I hear some of you gasp. And yet again I remind you that the First Amendment dictates what the government can and cannot do. Private businesses in the U.S. are not part of the government, and many have this nifty little thing called "Terms of Service" on their websites. If users violate those terms, a business can deny them use of its platform. And it's not like people can't comment at all; that's what social media is for. Stories can be shared to Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, and commented on there.

When the actions of certain commenters on a website get too out of hand--such as when there's rampant name-calling, obscenity, libel, threats and the like--it becomes a deterrent to other commenters. I mean, who wants to go somewhere they're constantly abused? That means the website may just step in to make it a hospitable place again by closing comments and/or banning some users for violating the terms of service.

As our own terms of service say, when you post comments on Arkansas Online, "you are participating in a community that is intended for all our users. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any content posted on our site at any time for any reason."

So you have to behave because one bad apple ... well, you know the rest.

Reminiscent of that "tyranny of the minority" concept I mentioned last month, we've been letting a small, very loud group bully those of us who do abide by the rules. And of course, when they're punished for breaking the rules, they cry victim. We see that often with Twitter users who have been banned, because apparently rules only apply to other people. Protecting the rights of the majority of the community members? Meh. All that matters is they were forced to face the consequences of their actions, and that's just not fair.

And this is why we can't have nice things.

In January 2018, KQED reported that in the years since Popular Science was the first to eliminate public comments on its site in 2013, other media sites have done the same, including Reuters, NPR, and Vice News. In announcing Vice's decision in December 2016, Jonathan Smith of Vice News wrote: "Comments sections are really just a continuation of that age-old tradition of letters to the editor, a cherished part of many publications and a valuable way of creating an open dialogue between magazines and the people to whom they are ultimately accountable. ...

"But without moderators or fancy algorithms, [the sections] are prone to anarchy. Too often they devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise."

Do you mean there are people whose apparent sole purpose is to infest comment boards to create chaos? I'm shocked. I almost spilled my water I'm so shocked.

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Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 06/19/2019