Coping with Jerk Swarms
How should the mainstream media deal with abusive posts?
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (email@example.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
One Friday last June, in one of the shortest-lived community journalism experiments ever, latimes.com invited visitors to rewrite the newspaper's editorials using a collaborative editing tool called a wiki. By Sunday morning the first wikitorial had been mired in foul language and photos, and was replaced by a note from site editors apologizing to "the thousands of people who logged on in the right spirit." (See "Wiki: Don't Lose That Number," August/September 2005.)
Before launch, the editorial staff conceded the experiment "may lead straight into the [D]umpster of embarrassing failures." But they were hopeful that it might "lead to a new form of opinion journalism." They invoked the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as an example that "works bewilderingly well" and where contributors "share in some general way a commitment to accuracy."
Since then we've seen Wikipedia's good reputation besmirched by a few historical revisionists, ending our bewilderment. (See First Amendment Watch, February/March 2006). We've also seen washingtonpost.com close the comments feature on one of its blogs after the Web staff was overwhelmed by hundreds of posts that Executive Editor Jim Brady described as "personal attacks, profanity and hate speech" directed at the paper's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, over an inaccurate statement in a January 15 column about lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
For news sites trying to embrace the spirit of open dialogue, the problem of the jerk who wrecks it for everybody is a growing headache. Not only are news sites ill-equipped to deal with a flash flood of violent language and dirty pictures, but their stature and visibility practically guarantee it will happen.
Latimes.com fell victim to the garden variety hacker. The topic of the editorial didn't matter; the lure was the chance to deface a famous newspaper with millions of viewers. Washingtonpost.com encountered a very different species of spoiler: the fiercely partisan mainstream-media-hater. While the Web site had allowed comments on post.blog and numerous other blogs for some time, it took just the right politically loaded topic to turn things in the wrong direction.
Most Web teams are equipped to pluck out the sporadic vulgarity and hate speech that plague heavily trafficked discussion boards, but these storms were something else. Brady blamed the post.blog onslaught on a handful of bloggers who urged their readers to vent their discontent. Likewise, an editor at latimes.com blamed a post on Slashdot.org for triggering the wikitorial attack. No one's saying the Web's power to organize is a bad thing, but crowds anywhere can get out of hand.
Jerk swarm is a problem because it diminishes the value of a site for the majority of visitors who aren't jerks. Amid the accusations of arrogance and old thinking, it's often forgotten that editors aren't the only ones who want a modicum of order on their Web sites. Professional news sites have a reputation for being comfortable, civil places to be, and – inconceivable though it may be for some bloggers – many people visit them for that reason. "I sincerely feel that the post.com needs to research a filter method that will rid them of profane or threatening e-mails," wrote a viewer during a live chat Brady hosted on January 20, "and allow the 90 percent of us who are articulate, civil, and concerned citizens [to] communicate with our local newspaper."
Some sites scrutinize comments before they go live, but that takes a lot of resources and compromises the real-time feel of a conversation. Most sites let posts go up unseen, weed out the bad ones and pray that the volume stays manageable.
Whether a site filters comments before or after they go live, either system will become overwhelmed by a full-scale swarm. When that happens, a response plan is essential – and post.blog could've had a better one. According to Brady, the fastest option was to shut down the comments feature completely, obliterating the entire conversation. Using screenshots that showed debate but not vulgarity, critics then charged that the claims of misbehavior had been a ruse to squelch criticism. Brady repeatedly explained that those screenshots showed sanitized pages and pointed out that the site generally goes out of its way to encourage feedback, but his explanations fell on deaf ears. If there had been a way to stop accepting new comments while existing posts remained visible, the backlash might have been tempered. Also, while Howell corrected herself in her January 22 column, the online version of the original column still had no correction or notation when AJR went to press in March. See ( "Too Transparent?" page 16.)
The Friday before Presidents Day, Brady reopened comments on post.blog with a stern reminder of the site's policies against personal attacks and profanity. In a blink, the Howell brawl was roiling again, with more than 400 comments added during the holiday weekend – many of them angry accusations against the newspaper and Web site.
For news sites, not offering a public platform for criticism would do more damage than the jerks ever could. However, launching forums without a swarm response plan is a big gamble. If a flagship site like washingtonpost.com is still feeling its way, the rest of us have much to learn. Fortunately, insight often comes from the Dumpster of embarrassing failures.