Online policing an imperfect science | Editorial
August 31, 2012 · Updated 4:55 PM
A newspaper’s online comment areas, like its letters page in print, ought to be a place for constructive community conversation where people can share opinions about community issues of broad concern, with the goal of fostering dialogue and an informed and engaged community.
Unlike with a news story, we do not fact-check online comments posted by readers. We simply do not have the resources. As a result, readers unfortunately can expect to see inaccuracies, distortion and even outright lies.
Fortunately, the people who are perusing these comments are generally adults who are able to make up their own minds about what they read.
While a few people abuse this forum that is provided – at no charge – by the newspapers here on Whidbey Island, most recognize the value of stating opinions in a way that respects the rights of others to hold views that differ.
Until recently, our newspapers used a system that allowed comments to be posted anonymously, leading at times to an unpleasant “barroom brawl” atmosphere that had little positive value to the community.
Earlier this year, our websites began using the social-media website Facebook to manage online comments. The change was in response to concerns about some anonymous comments that were, at best, inaccurate, and at worst, downright mean and ugly. The idea was that if people are required to use their real names, they would be much more likely to be civil and thoughtful in their comments.
For the most part, that has worked. Some of the trolls who revel in posting personal attacks on fellow commenters have disappeared, or at least have reined in their vitriol.
But the change to the Facebook comment management system has brought a whole new set of challenges, with some people complaining that their comments are being “censored” on our websites.
The new system uses filters that check for obscenities and swear words, but those filters have serious shortcomings.
Apparently the system struggles to tell the difference between the word “ass” and perfectly acceptable words that contain those letters, such as “assess,” “harass” and “asset.” In order to allow that comment to be posted, a newspaper staff person has to log in, read the comment and then approve it. With a small news staff, it’s not unusual for there to be a delay in getting comments approved and posted.
The online comment system isn’t perfect, but we do our best to provide what we believe is a valuable public service. For those who insist we are somehow “censoring” their views, we’d like to remind folks that the entire World Wide Web is open and available for them to post whatever they like.
As a newspaper, and as a business, we reserve the right to manage the content on our websites in a way that we feel encourages an exchange of views and ideas that benefits the community rather than harms it.
– Kasia Pierzga, Publisher