Online vitriol keeps editors busy

Posted Aug. 06, 2010, at 8:50 p.m.

In the newspaper comic strip “Blondie,” Dagwood Bumstead’s boss, the penny-pinching Dithers, tells Dagwood he resents his recent e-mail demanding a pay raise. Dagwood explains that he chose that method of communication because face-to-face never works. “That’s the trouble with spineless 21st century workers,” Dithers replies. “They hide behind beepers, texts, tweets and e-mail.”

“OK, then. May I have a raise?” Dagwood asks. “Not a chance,” replies Dithers. “But I appreciate your asking face-to-face.”

If old man Dithers does not easily suffer the crowd that hides behind the anonymity of beepers, texts, Tweets and e-mails in making demands that back in the day before Al Gore invented the Internet were generally aired person-to-person, I’m guessing that he’s probably also not a huge fan of a large share of the online commentary that seems to have replaced civil dialogue these days.

Media outlets, sports franchises and other enterprises long ago discovered that a swell way to create a buzz while building brand loyalty was to include a readers’ comment section on their Internet websites, encouraging visitors to sound off about what they had just read.

I suppose it was an idea whose time had come. In the swiftly changing realm of technology we either keep pace or we wake up one morning to find ourselves hopelessly out of the ballgame, an unfashionable goober standing out in a multitasking crowd of Tweeters and texters, cell phones glued to their ears and I-pods in tow as they sally forth to seize the day.

Still, the level of much of the discourse in the comments sections can be less than inspiring with the commenters often questioning everything from each other’s logic and motivation to their ancestry. Diplomacy is not the strong suit of many participants in the reader forums, who, performing without adult supervision and cloaked in a mantle of anonymity, often write what they would never consider saying in person to the object of their wrath.

What starts out as thoughtful comment on the topic at hand can quickly morph into name-calling and political screeds that can turn off Web surfers, devalue a brand and spook potential advertisers, according to a report on the website marketplace.publicradio.org. “The free-expression free-for-all is wearing thin. And the cost of all that online vitriol is mounting,” the report suggests.

That is why some businesses, including an increasing number of media outlets, have called in the comment cops — outsourcing comment-monitoring responsibilities to companies that specifically monitor posts for inappropriate comments.

The Bangor Daily News, which recently made it easier for readers to share and comment on stories, does not farm out its monitoring of content. The BDN policy on reader participation, stated at the bottom of stories soliciting comment in the online version of the paper, offers guidelines for acceptable commentary.

As the Internet evolves and the privacy and libel laws governing the medium presumably evolve with it, cases are beginning to pop up in which spiteful commentary that may have seemed like a great idea at the time has come back to bite the author.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has reported that a judge in next-door New Brunswick recently ordered a Moncton newspaper to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter. The order came after the person’s online posting was considered defamatory by its target, a Moncton firefighter who had written a letter to the editor criticizing a speed limit imposed on the province’s ambulances. Possible further legal action awaits pending settlement talks in the case.

In April, a Nova Scotia court ordered a Halifax weekly newspaper to release all information it had to identify individuals involved in a controversy with two senior fire service officials who claimed to have been defamed by anonymous online postings in which allegations of racism, cronyism and incompetence in the regional fire service were made. Once they had the names of the commenters, the firefighters sued for defamation, the CBC reported.

The court cases illustrate that privacy on the Internet has its limits, said Dalhousie University law professor Robert Currie, who said he’s seeing a diminishing appetite on the part of websites and Internet providers to protect people who anonymously post.

That should be of no worry for the majority of online commenters, who keep the discussion civil, though spirited. But it could have a chilling effect on the bomb-throwers.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.com .

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