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A note to Edge readers on comments

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By Wednesday, May 4, 2016 Viewpoints 9

Editor’s Note: In recent weeks, there’s been an another upsurge in comments on stories on The Edge. In particular, comments have been coming fast and furious in response to the tragic situation at Eagleton School, a crisis that involves issues of fairness, the rights of those accused of a crime to be presumed innocent, and the nature of the alleged abuse at the school. 

Once again, however, we’d like to repeat the advisory we published last November (see below), urging our readers to observe the etiquette of civic debate that requires the authors of viewpoints to identify themselves. 

We are adding one additional guideline: comments that come to us via a deliberately disguised email address forfeit the privilege of being published on The Edge. 

Great Barrington – Here at Edge Central we’ve been watching with pleasure and not a little amazement the flurry of activity in our Comments section, where so many people are exchanging views on the topics presented in our stories, reviews, letters and columns. The majority of the comments are thoughtful, well-written and advance the discussion of the issues at hand, just what a news and information medium should provide to encourage free expression and to promote a better understanding of what’s really going on and where it’s leading us. Indeed, it’s what we had in mind when we started The Edge – a forum for news and ideas worth sharing that creates a sense of community.

The comments are a place where ideas are shared, people join forces, organize and occasionally fight, and a place that enriches civic dialogue and good journalism so that we can continue to provide our readers with important, well-researched stories.

The dialogue is mostly healthy. But sometimes we are aghast at a comment that attacks the previous commenter, moves into personal territory, or mean-spiritedly abandons the issue at hand to expand on a paranoid or cynical paradigm. Sometimes the sheer volume of comments is too much for us to monitor, and false information is left to stand, though often it is corrected by another reader or a reporter.

Digital media has changed the way people interact with the news and each other. In the traditional newspaper medium, from which we come, letters to the editor were routinely fact-checked, with names, addresses and phone numbers confirmed, a standard that nowadays is more honored in the breach than the observance. But digital media is different and presents a conundrum, especially in a small community.

Some of our commenters use their full name, a name that can be found in the white pages with an address and phone number. Others give only their first name, but we can see their email addresses and so know they simply do not want to be too public. Others use fake names and real email addresses. Others yet use masked email addresses and fake names. On one occasion, a reader began commenting using the name of a prominent local resident, one who, it turned out, did not even use email.

Occasionally, we remove a hateful comment, or one that uses the Comment section to promote an agenda that has little to do with the topic. This is rare, but we are increasingly scratching our heads and spending a lot of time trying to sort out what we call the “comment problem.” Where do we draw the line between a critical comment and one that is designed to bully? We still want the comment area to be a place where people can safely travel, but also a place where real debate happens.

We’ve considered several options: requiring the use of real names, and checking them; allowing any name to be used as long as the email address isn’t masked; and requiring the reader to also add his town of residence. The idea is that with more transparency, a reader will think twice before making asinine comments or ad hominem attacks, especially in this new world where every mark one makes in the digital world is as everlasting as a tattoo. Still, we would prefer that those choosing to comment on The Edge would be willing to — as they say — “own” their viewpoints and observations by identifying themselves, much as they would at a New England town meeting.

So we scrolled down to review our terms of use policy, which we urge our readers to take a quick look at. Here is what it says about comments:

We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention, that is, comments that disguise the writer’s email address and identity, or comments whose writer uses someone else’s name. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We will also consider your comments for the letters column. 

We realize we have been generous – perhaps too generous — with our policy, not always rigidly adhering to it in the interests of encouraging a robust discussion. But given local controversies now ramping up, we will take this opportunity to follow it more strictly, by removing any comments with masked email addresses, any that stray from the topic, or that attack another reader.

We welcome your ideas (and comments) about how we can serve you and our community better, and about how to manage comments.

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Carl Stewart says:

    Thank you, Editor(s)

    People who wish to comment publicly on an issue should be willing to identify who they are. Except in very unusual circumstances, remaining anonymous is both unfair and cowardly.

    Not that it is necessarily the gold standard, but the New York Times will not publish a letter unless the writer is fully identified. Among other things, this greatly reduces the problem with libelous statements being made.

    Lack of civility has, unfortunately, become all too common. It would be nice if we all understood that we can be passionate about an issue without being cruel to those who disagree.

  2. Karen Smith says:

    Don’t be afraid of setting limits. …Long overdue enforcement boys and girls. It is hard to soar with eagles when you are surrounded by turkeys.

  3. Sam Ernst says:

    It’s the right thing to do: stand behind your comments. We are a small community, and we should do everything in our power to fight against the depersonalization of the world, even online.

  4. A tax lawyer says:

    “Online anonymity gives us so much more than we would gain from stripping it away. It gives us the freedom to know what people really think, for better or for worse. It is the essence of democracy for us to be able to conduct the difficult debates out in the open, where they can be challenged. Rather than trying to chain people to their names, we should be seeking to protect the current capacity we have to deliberate without fear of reprisal, and putting our efforts towards superior architecture for displaying, moderating and encouraging constructive behaviour in large-scale online discussions” -Ethan Zuckerman

    1. Beth Carlson says:

      Great quote. Having watched many of the comment section debates on the Edge I would like to note that some seems to be confused about what free speech actually entails. Not all speech is protected speech in the United States. Libel, slander, assault (defined as the threat of bodily harm that reasonably causes fear of harm in the victim), hate speech, obcsenity, speech that incites immanent lawless action, and copyright infringements are examples of speech that are NOT protected as free speech in the US. (It in interesting that there appears to be a strong cultural trend away from the obscenity laws). Anyway, just another thing to think about when slamming off a fast emotional reaction or comment . Free speech was initially about our right to question government–a right not to be taken for granted.

      Information drawn from the following Wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech_in_the_United_States

      1. A tax lawyer says:

        Beth, I couldn’t agree with you more about your free speech comments.

        On the subject of anonymous comments, though, the Edge is making a terrible mistake that discourages minority opinions being voiced in online discussions.

        Scrubbing comments sections for any reasons other than those that you mentioned will create a far more conservative comment section where minority opinions are not voiced as often but of course the edge can do whatever it likes.

        Meanwhile, I noticed a lot of the comments that were scrubbed recently from the article about the fatal car accident had more to do with criticism of their journalistic practices that with the standards posted above.

        At least their are consistently thin skinned I guess.

  5. Madder Green says:

    The Edge comments are *not* like a town meeting, where you know who’s there. This is the internet, folks, and whatever you post will be there for a very long time, and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. If the Edge wants to host a town meeting, there should be a private forum, beyond the reach of search engines.

    Masked emails are great, because phishers and crackers have a harder time putting all the pieces together — amazon, gmail, twitter, facebook, banks, IRS, etc. A famous tech writer got hacked through his apple id, and from there was able to access the writer’s email and then everything else, because he used a consistent email address.

    It’s just prudent these days to use masked or pseudonymous emails. I have different email accounts for different levels of security, including protonmail. I use DuckDuckGo as my search engine (no tracking ever, unlike Google). And I will continue to post pseudonymously on most public sites. And I’m slowly weaning myself off all of my gmail accounts!

    BTW, The Edge has 4 trackers on this site (according to my Don’t Track Me app).

    I agree with A Tax Lawyer re encouraging discourse / debate. But even more strongly, I urge The Berkshire Edge to change its policy to acknowledge internet realities.

  6. Joseph Method says:

    I agree with A tax lawyer, especially his point about comments being scrubbed on the train accident thread. A good practice is to at least leave a note that a comment was removed, rather than just leaving a gap, so that people can have a sense of the amount of moderating/censorship going on.

    Here are some quick thoughts:

    1. It’s your site. You can do whatever you want with it. These are just suggestions and observations.
    2. The practices of print journalism are just that. The internet, and indeed every site and online community, is a different context where you have to adjust standards. The New York Times does allow anonymous comments on its *online* articles.
    3. The way you’re defining anonymity in your post is still ambiguous. At some points it seems like you’re just going to enforce “real email addresses” and at other points it sounds like you have to use your full name (e.g. not just initials or your full name). You should clarify the rules and be consistent in enforcement.
    4. You can be anonymous while still having an identity. Because you have people enter their email and name each time they post you have a problem with establishing identity, since a person could use a different name with the same email address and you probably wouldn’t notice. If you had people log into an account you could know that “JM” is the same person each time without knowing their full name. On the New York Times site they have the concept of “verified” commenters.
    5. There simply is a stifling effect of commenting in public using a real name. It leads to the phenomenon of “self-censorship”. We can claim that it’s good because it promotes “civility”, but we should be aware that anonymity is more important for some people than others. I feel secure enough in my job (and my ability to get future jobs) that I don’t mind posting with my real name, but that’s not everybody. Many people live precarious lives where a requirement to use your full real name is a barrier to engaging.

  7. Ed O'Malley says:

    I love reading your extemely well reported and written stories, and do generally read comments to get a sense of how the community receives the information, or not. I find myself wincing at some of the emotional and ofttimes personal attacks. However I have to agree with Ethan (a tax lawyer), and with Beth’s caveats to what “free” speech is allowed. My suggestion, made in the interest of resolution but most likely not financial practicality, is to provide a part time “comment” reporter so to speak. That is, someone who’s job is to review comments anonymous or otherwise, for malicious or hurtful content not protected by “free” speech, just as a reporter would seek and vet information about a news story. I know I know, where’s the money to pay for it to come from…but it would certainly increase the value of the product knowing discourse was moderated.
    Ed O’Malley

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