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Online comments: ‘Our goal of civility is falling short’

Discussion

A Monday story headlined "Israel fires on pro-Palestinian protesters; 20 reported killed" drew more than  700 comments in its first three days online. As with many stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the comments had moved far beyond the news report and had devolved into personal attacks and hateful speech.

On Thursday afternoon, comments on the article were restricted, which means they'll only be posted with a moderator's approval. A note in the comments section from Reader Engagement Editor Martin Beck says, "It's our opinion that this discussion has run its course. And moderators will be setting a *very* high bar for approval of any more comments."

The Times is committed to allowing an online discussion. In an April 2010 memo, Editor Russ Stanton explained: "As unfettered as the discussions may be, they are worth hosting -- and cultivating. The fact is, readers of online news expect to be able to participate. They want to be able to share their opinions and interact with journalists and other readers."

Comments on news articles (as opposed to blogs) run through an automated profanity filter, then are posted automatically. The idea, as announced in that 2010 memo, is that the commenting community will police itself, with users being able to report inappropriate comments as abuse. Any comment reported twice will automatically be removed from the site. These hidden comments will be held for review by a small group of Times moderators, who will decide whether to republish the comments or keep them off the site.

More often than not, this works.

But a few hot-button topics seem to bring out the worst in online commenters: immigration, LGBT issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Monday's article about the protesters was no exception. On Wednesday, Beck posted this caution:

"Our aim is to provide a forum for civil discussion of our articles and the issues raised within. Clearly, our goal of civility is falling short on this thread (and on many articles about the Israel-Palestine conflict).

"We ask commenters to be as cordial as possible and stop using loaded terms (including but not limited to anti-Semite, brown shirt,  Nazi, paid-propagandist) to describe other posters."

In an email Thursday, Beck said, "I'd say the comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the toughest to manage, largely because the topic itself is so contentious.

"It’s very difficult for us to figure out a commenter’s intentions by reading a comment. Did they mean a statement to be anti-Semitic? We go through that with every comment that’s flagged or moderated."

Another problem is off-topic comments that turn hateful.

An article Sunday profiling the rehabilitation of a Marine who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan drew comments suggesting that the young man -- whose last name is Ortiz -- was an illegal immigrant. The story has nothing to do with immigration. Those comments were flagged as abusive and were removed.

On another article, about the upcoming closure of the 405 freeway, reader Sarah Williams of Los Angeles emailed, "I am disturbed by the hate speech contained in the comments section of this article. A reader is repeatedly using [a slur] in reference to other commenters. This is very ugly and does not belong on your website."

This is also dismaying to the reporters of the stories that have been overtaken by off-topic or hateful comments.

Columnist Steve Lopez said in an email, "I've had many emails from people wondering how I handle the onslaught of vulgar and racist responses, often unrelated to my column. They also wonder what the unsuspecting subjects of the columns and stories must think about having that kind of nonsense appear next to the stories, like graffiti on a bathroom wall."

And Op-Ed columnist Patt Morrison emailed, "Personally, I think most comments were of a higher quality when they required pen, paper and a stamp."

This is not unique to The Times. Other news organizations are grappling with the same issues. The Boston Globe takes the following steps to curtail abusive comments on sensitive stories:

"As a rule, we permanently disable comments on all stories about people who have experienced a personal tragedy, as well as all obituaries."

"We also temporarily disable comments overnight for stories about immigration, religion, and religious figures. Commenting on these stories should be enabled at 7 a.m., and the stories should be given extra attention throughout the day so that we can move quickly if the comments degenerate."

And the New York Times opens only a fraction of its articles to comments.

In an email to the L.A. Times moderators, Beck included a link to the "Community standards and participation guidelines" of the Guardian in the U.K. These "10 simple guidelines" spell out plainly and clearly what's expected of online commenters. The list concludes:

In short:

If you act with maturity and consideration for other users, you should have no problems.

Don't be unpleasant. Demonstrate and share the intelligence, wisdom and humour we know you possess.

Take some responsibility for the quality of the conversations in which you're participating. Help make this an intelligent place for discussion and it will be.

Good advice.

Late Thursday, one of the moderators emailed an update on comments on the Israel-Palestinian article: "Users are submitting more comments with reasonable language/fewer personal attacks since they know we will not accept anything less."

If only that were the case with every comment.

--Deirdre Edgar

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Comments (29)

Here's the problem:

The thread was closed after one of the right wing religious fundamentalists stated she was going to call the Times owner in Chicago and complain unless the moderator started doing his job. She believed that there were numerous anti-jewish comments.

I thought the threat was laughable. However, shortly after she made the threat, the moderator closed the thread. And now the moderator is apparently allowing only pro-Israeli posts.

Tell me this is not what it appears to be. Because I always thought the whole "Jews run the media" claim was ridiculous.

Did Shoshanarubin actually call someone and get the kabosh placed on pro-Palestinian posts? If so, it's borderline scandalous.

Enforced civility is just elitism by another name. All it does is move the discussion to the rich and educated class, just having a dress code at an expensive restaurant to keep the riff raff out, while the rest of the country eats at McDonalds. Yes, they are rude and crude, but who's opinion matters anyways? Yours? Mine? An ex-cons? A racist?

Sure, you can filter comments so Professors and soccer moms are the only ones who post, but what's the point? If the comment section is reserved for a few nice, polite, whole foods shopping, star bucks sipping elitists making thoughtful remarks, you've haven't created civility, you've just locked out the dirty unwashed masses.

By the way, the angry masses are the one's who will burn your store down during the next riot. When the powerless have even less of a voice, they will throw grenades. One mans troll is another mans wit.

"But a few hot-button topics seem to bring out the worst in online commenters: immigration, LGBT issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Add teachers to the list of topics that engender hate speech.

@slipslap

It's easy to blame all the violations on those who dont agree with you. But you obviously miss the point that we are all responsible to police ourselves. Any pro-Palestinian commenter railing on pro-Israeli posts is clearly a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, since I've seen the kind of verbal warfare that emanates from both sides of that debate.

As someone who was involved in the Israel/Palestine discussion that was cut off, I read this post and your other post about a new commenting system using Face Book with great interest. A couple of points I'd like to comment on and some suggestions:

You note: "commenting community will police itself"
My reply: Why should I have to police other users hate speech on your site. I personally would prefer not to have to read any of your articles on Israel because in my opinion your paper is biased and your articles reflect that bias. However I know that any article on Israel will attract many hate filled comments and so I feel compelled to get involved in the discussion to try to counter those comments because we all know what happens when hate speech is allowed to fester unanswered.

You note: "Any comment reported twice will automatically be removed from the site".
My reply: That is clearly open to abuse since commenters on any Israel article often group together and flag others comments even if they are valid. Clearly this was happening in that discussion since there were postings well within your guidelines but they were being deleted. In addition, it appears that there can be a long lag between when someone notifies you of abuse and when the item is removed. By that time many people have seen the post and are already deeply offended or hurt, and it's too late to take that back. Finally, what if only the haters are reading and posting comments. Then no one will flag the post. There was a virulently anti-semitic post that sat on your site for 2 weeks. Is it acceptable that you host that kind of content, even if unwittingly?

If you use Face Book and users are able to identify each other, then someone can take offense to even a trivial comment and track that person down and do injury to them. That would probably open you up to legal liability and no one in their right mind would use their real name on a topic that generates so much anger and hatred as the Israel/Palestine issue.

You have stated in an email to me that you track IP addresses. You have the ability to but never seem to ban anyone. I've purposely posted comments that violated your rules many times and not only did I not get banned, I was not even threatened with a ban. You should permanently ban anyone who violates your rules more than a certain number of times, after warning them regarding what they said and what rule they violated. Once they've been banned, you can allow their posts to appear but replace their content with a line similar to what the SF Chron uses which includes a line saying this user was banned. When users see that people are being actively banned, it gives teeth to your threats and users become more civil.

NY Times moderators will sometimes post comments to a particular discussion, so you know they are reading the comments. Especially related to papers policies it allows people to know they've been heard. You often see people requesting moderators take some action but it doesn't appear they are responding.

So in conclusion, what I find distressing is not that there are people in the world who hate others based on race or religion, that unfortunately is a given, but that the LA Times, a respected media source, gives them legitimacy by allowing them to post hate filled comments which don't contribute anything useful to the discussion at hand.

The answer to this problem is quite simple: Require all posters to be identified with true name, address and telephone number. Prohibit all anonymous comments.
It is well known that people behave differently and out of character when in a crowd or mob situation. There is no personal responsibility with anonymous comments which differ little from KKK terrorism with terrorists hidden under white sheets.
But the LA Times editors want it both ways: They want all the comments to increase readership and hence increase revenue. Eliminate the anonymous comments and you will eliminate most of the garbage.
Winfield J. Abbe
150 Raintree Ct.
Athens, GA 30607

Slipslap - way to go off topic. The topic was about civility not "the thread".

Juan, right on! That should be repeated every time some jackwad decides he is more civil that someone else. BTW, are you legal ;-)

Interested, go pound sand. It's not teachers it's ALL government union slugs.

Yes, we have become more uncivil over the years, that being more evident by 2 of the 3 comments on this story. I am especially concerned by those who would have me believe that the poor and uneducated are banned from stating their opinions because the McDonald's crowd have no control over being rude and crude.

Many in this country try to divide the people using such statement but I, being poor but educated, believe that it is a choice to be civil to those around us. The problem being, in my opinion, that people choose not to be civil. You can be poor and uneducated yet treat people as you wish to be treated. A great number of the poor and uneducated are no different from the 'rich' and educated. Actually, I find the 'rich' and educated often to be more uncivil than others as they seem to think their status gives them the right to be uncivil.

Overall, those who think like the commenter on 'enforced civility' are most likely to be the one burning the stores down and throwing grenades.

Civility is a choice, and as we see in politics, many of the 'rich' and educated are the least civil of us all.

RE: "Enforced civility is just elitism by another name." Are rules of logic elitist? If I ask that online postings not use a few shocking words to distract from their failings with grammar and coherent arguments, is that elitist? People use ad hominem attacks and stray off the subject in their "heat of the moment" reactions to the news in blogs. I'd rather read postings from people who can spell and are talking about something related to the column they're responding to. Well thought out arguments tend to be more successful than minor or major outbursts. Civility vs. spontaneity is an old argument. The spontaneous side tends to be anti-intellectual, and they view things that are spontaneous as being "more honest". I like spontaneity in jazz concerts and Jackson Pollock paintings, not so much in the news and in people's reactions to the news.

If you are verifying authenticity requiring the acceptance of a cookie by the commetor's computer , the LAT could put restrictions on individual posts. Take away the freedom of expression if the writer won't be critical in a constructive manner but who decides what is offensive? The community at large with help from the LAT's finger, can shame a hate-speech rant. Isn't that the elegance of a comment board. It self polices.

If people write a response revelvent to the subject and do so without profanity or insulting comments then it will be posted.
This assumes that people can keep their emotions in check. When articles are hot-button topics emotions run high and civility goes out the window.
Special interest groups post in order to mislead the public with false information or to simply change the topic of discussion away from one that exposes their lies. The SIGs run operations either paid or volunteers who operate 24/7 on some issues (healthcare reform). Scripts are issued or talking points are followed in an attempt to shape public opinion in their favor.
This is where the filters fail. Polite Propaganda by SIGs is a tool of modern warfare against society. Mis-information sugar-coated easy to digest language for the uneducated masses. A low cost undetectable method to deceive. Free speech to end freedom.

As a Jew who left the Democrat party --- pre-Obama ---because of this feeling I had (and have to this day), that in slow motion, signs my grandparents chose to ignore in Germany, continue to surface.
I am repulsed, angry, terrified, and saddened. What makes it worse is that anyone who dares to support Israel: Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, etc are "racists.'
Why, foor instance, did the Los Angeles Times not cover this event:
http://wwwtwosetsofbooks.blogspot.com/2011/04/international-socialist-organization.html
Hamas-linked Al Awda conferences happen in Los Angeles every year. President Obama's pal Ali Abunimah is part of the team. And yet.....silence.
I lost my father when I was five. He took his own life. I have no memories of him , yet from his writings I get a sense that he lost faith in humanity. Is losing faith in humanity genetic? It can't be. Otherwise, the Jewish people would have disappeared centuries ago. Yet, in the past year. I can no longer say I won't find myself there. In some ways, I already am. Knowing that the majority of Los Angeles readers will only celebrate having one less Jew in the world is, fortunately, of no consequence whatsoever. Giving up on ones' self is selfish. Giving up on mankind, on compassion, on light instead of darkness, is something else altoghether.


Steve Lopez is something of a hypocrite. Remember what he did to former Bell crook Rizzo? Showing up at his community service job and outing him publicly; essentially inviting an enraged person to physically attack him?

Lopez' columns can be Wally Georgish. He likes to intentionally enrage. His columns dont deserve the same respect or moderation of most other columnists.

Civility has never been popular in the political arena. It is one of which almost NO one expects the truth. What does that say about ethics in government?

The press engaging in censorship is a bigger issue than civility.

Is this the first time the L.A. Times censored a thread? And this is the one it chose to censor--ACTIVE POLITICAL DISCUSSION ???

Something is not right with the 1st amendment if this is what actually happened.


Bullying has taken on new meanings with online activities. Disrespect abounds. Inability to dialog, as comments are no more than a reflection of a persons mind at that moment, which may change at the next moment. It seems some commentators appear like neighbors around the internet acting the same way everywhere they go. I have met internet people that lack real character, perhaps that is why they live their lives on the internet, perhaps not.

Expressing your view without hurting others in the process is not difficult, but also not easy. Civility has taken a back seat across America both online and at the work place.

I think folks should respect each other more genuinely and disrespect each other much less frequently, as that is what leads to most negativity or incivility in America today, a lack of mutual respect.

Civility? Did anyone see the Tony Awards last night? Apparently, when you direct offensive speech toward white religious people, it's "satire."

Can you say double standard? "Enforced civility" just sounds like censorship to me. I agree that many comments are harsh and are off topic but the author has the right to post it if he or she wishes to. If the Times doesn't like it then maybe they should not allow commenting at all.

Oppose disabling comments on any story, including personal tragedies and obituaries. Open articles for comments while the news is hot. Expressing an extremely negative or controversial opinion isn't hateful if worded in a civil way--superior news sources welcome such opinions. Too much censorship makes for a tepid uninteresting publication. Some news sites over-moderate and post only innocuous comments, presenting an inaccurate picture of public opinion. The result is an artificial site. Too many L.A. Times articles are Facebook-only. I choose to be anonymous and state my real un-sugarcoated opinion.

Let readers post, then delete racist comments across-the-board, and hateful and/or abusive comments directed at other posters. More leniency/indulgence for posted vitriol directed at subjects of the story, particularly politicians. Hateful/disrespectful comments to Times journalists...Guess that's the paper's business.

I reported a nasty racist off-topic comment that wasn't deleted--Hector Tobar's column on being an Angeleno Part II. Times reports civility problems, so I don't understand why it wasn't deleted. Times should review the questionable comments after one flag, not two.

Putting aside the analysis of the offenses in the thread in question, what is "uncivil" is as problematically defined as what constitutes the "Middle East," or " what the boundaries of the "Inland Impire" are.

If uncivil behavior can be defined, and its "modern" origin traced, I say that it arose anew during the hateful Reagan theocracy and then developed even more at the time when the use of the phrase, "politically correct," became popular in media and Rightwing talk radio.

(Now, here I would add a short paragraph giving an illustration on what I mean. It would use a common-enough rude word but I can not use it due to the automatic filtering software, limiting my comment. This is called self-sensorhip, an illegitimate imposition by the LA Times.)

Formerly, being civil was kept in check by a common belief that embracing multiculturalism, respect for divergent points of view, embracing tolerance of different lifestyles, and not judging unpopular opinions harshly was a high goal in public discourse and an accepted aspect of good citizenship.

Then Rightwingers like the Gingrich of old and the new KKK began to bristle at having to check their civil behavior and language, so they used "politically correct" as a criticism toward anyone and any idea which limited their hateful and disrespectful speech, thus liberating them to be nasty and vindictive in order to more easily promote Gopper and skinhead ideas.

The public emulated this style from our leadership, thus freeing themselves from the shackles of civility, to produce a more modern version of uncivil speech that seems more widespread in 2011.

@patrick Hear you on online bullying. It's prevalent, more so on privately owned sites with a small readership and handful of regular commenters. If you express opinions, values or belief system different from the regulars, they often gang up and direct abuse at you, with the blog owner(s) sometimes chiming in and suggesting that you get your so-and-so off their site. However, if you post innovative controversial opinions worded creatively, they usually won't kick you off, and the regulars read your posts and respond, no matter how mad they are! Kind of exciting, stimulating experience.

The incivility is simply a reflection of the transformation of American culture in the last 30 years or so, now empowered by technology. The problem is not unique to the LAT website. I see it on every news site I visit. It's the new normal.

Whose goal is civility? Civility is in the eye of the beholder. Some may think that not swearing, if even stating a point aggressively, is being civil. While others may think that just disagreeing with the writer is being uncivil. Unfortunately, most "journalists" today think the latter. I could say something but it would not be civil by even my definition.

John Dinglers well-meaning but contradictory post is exhibit A in why our society is less civil. He writes....

"being civil was kept in check by a common belief that embracing multiculturalism, respect for divergent points of view, embracing tolerance of different lifestyles, and not judging unpopular opinions harshly was a high goal in public discourse and an accepted aspect of good citizenship."

So far, so good. He respects divergent points of view. Then, he writes...

"Then Rightwingers like the Gingrich of old and the new KKK began to bristle at having to check their civil behavior and language, so they used "politically correct" as a criticism toward anyone and any idea which limited their hateful and disrespectful speech, thus liberating them to be nasty and vindictive in order to more easily promote Gopper and skinhead ideas."

This is essentially hate speech. He categorizes an enormous group of people as racist. Why? Because they disagree with him.

Today, so many of us feel entitled. We are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. The world is seem in increasingly black and white. Thus, anyone holding an opposing view is stupid, an idiot, a racist, ad infinitum.

I agree.

John Dingler does not tolerate intolerance. The intolerant hate that.

This would be a MAJOR IMPROVEMENT with my local

Arizona Republic

For something to prosper has to have the proper conditions for its grow. The same happens with humankind. If you work at a gas station, most likely you smell like gas, ergo, how can civility survive when this "Christian" nation-to add salt to injury-lives, dreams of war, violence. As that crooner so rightfully sang: It's impossible." How can there be any civility in this society of ours, when the same society allows a bunch of cowards, AWOL, drug addicts to kill a million plus of innocent civilians for oil? It's impossible. Without justice, there can't be civility. Civility is the fruit of justice and and if this country ever allows our Constitution to talk about civility, when it becomes, as with beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. When people allow their governments commit war crimes against other nations for any reason: Political, religious or economical, there can't be civility ever.

I refuse to join Facebook because it essentially destroys privacy and mines personal data that can be used by others to categorize each and every user in so far as what is most personal and private ....our political beliefs. You can be sure this move to Facebook is about stealing our privacy and cataloging every nuance of our beliefs and network of friends. I'll end my desire to share thoughts on forums if I'm forced to go via Facebook and give them my personal information such as phone number, photo, etc.


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