When newspapers launched websites and allowed real-time comments on articles, they hoped to establish a new marketplace of ideas.
What has developed, instead, is not as much a marketplace as a really crummy garage sale.
One where the shoppers hide behind card tables and wardrobe racks and call each other morons and idiots, socialists and fascists.
One where good questions and constructive criticism get drowned out or shouted down. The trolls usually win. What they actually win is beyond me.
I’d have no misgivings about naming names here, were there names to name. Since most commenters are anonymous, I don’t know their identities any more than you do.
Which brings us to “almostinnocentbystander,” a commenter at the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
In February, “almost” took an anonymous shot at Kootenai County Republican Party chairwoman Tina Jacobson over $10,000 missing from GOP coffers. Jacobson filed a defamation suit against “almost” in April — and took the Spokesman-Review to court as well.
On July 10, Kootenai County District Judge John Patrick Luster ordered the paper to turn over information identifying “almost.” (However, Kootenai County GOP activist Linda Cook came in from the cold Monday and claimed to be “almost.”)
Yes, the prospect of being “outed” by a judge could have a chilling effect on commenters — especially those with a compelling personal or professional motivation to stay in the shadows. But let’s keep it in some perspective here. As the Spokesman-Review’s own Shawn Vestal argues, in a terrific July 12 column, the comment boards have become little more than “a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. ...
“The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense — not protecting a whistleblower, not battling the government for access to public records — is repulsive.”
And there is your other, perhaps more salient chilling effect. This legal mess could conceivably happen to any newspaper that allows and posts anonymous comments — including the Statesman. No matter how carefully a newspaper tries to monitor its comment sections, there exists some element of legal exposure.
Is the risk worth the reward, the bump in online page views?
Since this coarse online shouting match does little to enhance a newspaper’s brand as a leader of constructive community discussion, when does the whole circus become more headache than it is worth?
I know this much, from personal experience.
I do read comments at this blog, and I try to weed out the off-topic posts and personal attacks, but I respond sparingly. If a commenter raises a good, on-point question, I’ll try to respond — and if a commenter makes a factual assertion I know to be false, I’ll try to set the record straight. However, my most constructive, transparent dialogues with readers generally take place on Facebook or Twitter. I’ll go where this conversation is taking place, and, yes, I wish it occurred more often at IdahoStatesman.com.
If Luster’s ruling prods newspapers to rethink online commenting, that may prove to be a blessing in disguise.