The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Anonymous Internet trolls don't have much to fear

SereneBranson Video of KCBS reporter Serene Branson speaking incoherently on Grammy night became a YouTube sensation.

For most people, the scary incident (later revealed to be triggered by Branson's migraine symptoms) provoked sympathy. That doesn't include the trolls who skulk about the Internet, waiting for the next opportunity to put their stupidity and callousness on display.

My “On the Media” column Saturday is devoted to how The Times and other news organizations are trying to minimize such drivel. They hope to improve the quality of discourse, so real conversation can flow.

That's not what happened after the Branson episode last week, which provoked a lot of lame chatter and a post on by one dimwit who had to call Branson a “party bimbo.” This charming reader further smeared the newswoman with a few other unsubstantiated claims--not worth repeating here. (Times editors quickly removed the offensive post.)

A lot of readers probably have wondered how people can get away with making statements that can be proved demonstrably false. And what about news sites: Don't they have some liability when they provide a forum where others are defamed?

People who post untrue and damaging e-mail can be held liable. But the law protects news outlets that provide the platform. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, news outlets are not legally responsible for third-party postings that might be libelous or invade someone’s privacy, said media attorney Kelli Sager, who sometimes represents The Times.

Most  of the noxious postings, like the one in the Branson story, probably go unnoticed by their targets. And, even when public figures become aware of the smears, most probably want to move on rather than get bogged down in legal action.

The absence of serious consequences, combined with the anonymity allowed on most websites, creates a fertile feeding ground for unscrupulous Internet trolls.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: KCBS reporter Serene Branson gained nationwide celebrity when she began to babble incoherently during a live report on the night of the Grammy Awards. Following numerous tests, her doctors diagnosed a "complex migraine." Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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Free speech is just that: Free. The founding fathers didn't say rational discourse, or enlightened polite chit chat, they said we are able to speak freely. As a newspaper, if you want to pursue libel charges, you must meet a strict criteria. Calling a public persona names doesn't meet that criteria. If you and the Times don't like the comments, don't allow people to make them, it's as simple as that. But be forewarned, this country has stood strong precisely because people can blow off steam verbally. Look around, it's a rare thing in this world.

Trying to raise the level of discourse with a city newspaper is a fools quest, you will never do it, because the unwashed masses will always outnumber the enlightened.

I respectfully submit that one mans troll is another mans wit, and your arrogance and attitude of moral superiority doesn't always make you right.

Free speech has limits. You cannot shout fire in a crowded theater, and you shouldn't expect people to listen intently to the ravings of bigots and chowder heads. Newspapers can and should try to improve the level of third party postings, A good start my be to require that the names and e-mail addresses of third party posters be published along with their comments.

I totally agree w/ you. What these idiots do is stifle any rational discourse w/ lies and defamation which they usually know is false.
Free speech doctrine applies to the government not to individuals or private websites. What these trolls do is stifle speech and not promote it. Any person who wants to have a rational discussion knows which sites to avoid. As a result the idiotic comments just flourish. A lot of these same trolls simply repeat their idiocy from site to site, giving the illusion that more people share their lies than actually do. When other media outlets allow these comments any semblance of veracity by quoting them or even believing a majority of people accept the lies and defamation and ad hominem attacks, then those media outlets only contribute to the problem and stifle any further discussions and the lies become accepted truths. This is not free speech, this is anarchy.

You won't find any more hateful and vile anonymous comments like you will on Huffpo, but your paper won't mention it because of its liberal stance.

The problem isn't so much with the stuff that's demonstrably false. It's with the nasty, undermining, degrading stuff, stuff which usually has so little "factual" content that there's nothing to prove false.

There's nothing that says that the LA Times has to give an absolutely unregulated forum to any wack-job who wants to say his (usually his) piece. The purpose of the LA Times is to inform and educate the community, and the forums should contribute to that. It's not a question of the ideology of the commenter, but whether they make a halfway coherent argument. Nobodys trying to kick the George Wills or David Brooks off the site, they're just not very much in evidence. I want to see the 9-11 conspiracy theorists go just as much as any of the numerous right wing nut cases.

Those who want to engage in gutter utterances will always find forums to do so, starting with The Drudge Report. The LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, many papers should be doing better--the New York Times is doing better (I think it actually moderates comments and limits them to certain articles). Otherwise people who have something intelligent to say, from any perspective, will stay away. That kind of constant coarsening of the discourse isn't good for democracy.

I was just thinking about this today. To be honest, blogging seems like a method in the 2000s to head off a total wipeout of newspapers by the internet. Althought, the NY Times doesn't moderate every article with blogs or reader participation. My feeling about the United States now is that Americans don't trust experts on issues. So by bringing blogging and public comments into articles, are we dumbing down the articles by having non experts put their opinions in? (That's actually a bipartisan complaint. The argument there is, who is an expert?) I wish more people, including myself at times, put more thought and effort into what they write. I've written what I've thought were great opinion pieces, pressed "send" and they were full of faulty transitions and clumsy spelling errors.

What year is this? 1995?

The trolls (lol) aren't held liable because they're commenters on the blog/social site/chatroom, as people talking outside the virtual world when not on the job, not as a reporter, public official, etc., but like debating at Starbucks. They're not restricted by organization dictates when speaking as just as a citizen. Free speech is wonderfully unrestrained, and the boundaries are vague. Makes for stimulating exciting communication. Also, commenters have scant protection from other bloggers, so why all the defense for high visibility folks? I enjoy the free-for-all. Think it's healthy, excluding of course profanity and violence threats.

I wish news sites had never introduced commenting. If I wanted to know other people's opinions about something, I'd ask; most of the time, I don't want to know.

Remember there was this NY Times columnist who wrote a book that described the "flattening of the world"? Anyone with a computer and an internet connection could now compete against anyone else in the world. I think the world of journalism just met the future. Anyone can comment. (But they should have to sign their name.) Thank you Thomas Friedman. (sp?)

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