On June 18, the Arizona Daily Star switched its online comment feature to an exclusive Facebook format. Now, you have to be logged into a Facebook account in order to post a comment. One of the primary reasons given for this move was the elimination of anonymity, portrayed as the root of incivility in Star editor Debbie Kornmiller's blog announcing the change.
Well, here's a comment that would no doubt earn an ejection from the Star: What a load of horseshit. It's true the Star comment lines were polluted by trolls posting hateful, intolerant and outright racist nonsense, especially since Barack Obama's election. But the Star has no one but itself to blame, since it failed to moderate the comments in a meaningful or effective way.
Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon and current executive editor of Grist, skewered the anonymity argument a few years ago. He said that the "barroom brawls" that broke out in so many comment boards resulted from "a failure to understand how online communities work." He admonished hosts, "Don't neglect to hire ... actual people with a presence in the conversation" rather than just "faceless wielders of the delete button."
As in real life, you can't censor every potentially offensive comment—it's contrary to the fundamental American value of free speech. But, by all means, you need to intervene, early and often, and call people out. And not just moderators—members of the community should share the responsibility for setting standards. The Star lost control of its comment forum because it utterly failed to grasp this concept.
My experience with Star comments bears this out. A few days after Obama's 2008 victory, someone posted this gem: "Sorry blacks—Hussein is only half black, therefore he does not count as a full black. He is hereby classified as a whack—white + black = whack. Now all the whack churches can rejoice." It appeared in a long thread of vitriol, some of which equated Obama to Hitler and Stalin.
I countered that mess with sarcasm: "So, let me see if I got this straight. Obama is a socialist Arab baby-killer analogous to Lenin and Hitler who was supported by racist black churchgoers?" My comment was removed by moderators, while the comments I'd paraphrased were left up.
Confounded, I queried Ms. Kornmiller. During an exasperating email exchange in which she mostly ignored my pointed questions, she finally explained that "any reported comment that references Hitler is automatically rejected." She eventually admitted that the "whack" comment had been reported, but was allowed to stand by a moderator. Stunned, I pressed her further on the logic void of the Star policy in the face of such outcomes, but she imperiously threatened to cut off my comment privileges if I persisted.
I saved those exchanges, and then I began to save all of my comments, in case any more were censored. When a story on UNIDOS—the group that fought to save TUSD's Mexican American Studies curriculum—prompted an onslaught of hate, I responded with a message of encouragement for the student activists: "Please do not listen to the selfish, bitter haters that dominate these comment threads. They do not accurately represent the people of Tucson." My comment was removed.
When one of Arizona's most famous bigots, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, was finally cast out of office by voters, I wrote this: "The best way to address bigotry is to speak out and make clear that it will not be accepted in your community. Justice served, on a democratic platter." Also removed.
When another commenter posted a long, impassioned refutation of the trolls and a plea for civility, she was censored. I responded with this: "Unfortunately, the ADS comment police follow a mindlessly rigid policy that is decidedly skewed toward allowing all manner of thinly veiled racism, intolerance and hatred, while consigning comments (such as yours) that attempt to call people out for their antisocial ravings into the dumpster of oblivion under the label of 'personal attacks.' Go figure." Instead of backing us up, Star moderators proved my point doubly by removing my post as well.
I also saved many examples of the hate, including vicious comments explicitly advocating for the murder of Mexican migrants in our borderlands. You could get away with all kinds of nasty comments about gays, Mexicans and Muslims, but if you called something out as homophobic or racist, you were silenced.
Facebook, in the absence of moderation, will not solve the problem.