My local newspaper is a cesspool.

The comment section of the online version has become toxic … filled each day with misinformation, bigotry, cruelty, and hatred.  This is the darkest side of social media.  When technology enables everyone to be a critic and publisher, even those on society’s frayed edges must be welcomed to contribute anonymously and freely.

What happened?  The Letters to the Editor section used to reflect the dignity and integrity of the newspaper itself. Letters were subject to proof of identity and editing. But today’s web-based “letters” more closely resemble a TV reality show: vicious fights, alliances, regular “characters,” and no-holds-barred drama. I have no problem with anybody publishing this crap or reading it in the forum of their choice. But this sensationalistic and shocking drama is now playing out before our eyes in the context of mainstream media.

This is the bleeding edge of social media ethics, a place where law, free press, individual liberty, and civility intersect. Whether you’re a blogger, Tweeter or simply a reader, the opportunity to have anonymous hatred pushed in your face affects us all.

As reported in a superb article by Frank N. Carlson, some are finally beginning to question the value of these remarks.  How do they fit within a newspaper’s mission?  A community image?  How is this different from “regular” journalism?  What are the consequences of catering to the fringe? And who defines “fringe?”

A catalyst for this awareness is that comment cruelty is starting to make news on its own. Carlson reported that the FBI actually subpoenaed a local newspaper regarding a threatening online comment made toward a murder trial defense attorney. Earlier this year, comments made by online posters made news when a courtroom debated the media’s allowance of racist, anonymous comments on its websites. And a few weeks ago, I posted a story about a local pizza shop owner who was sued for $2 mm for alleged libelous comments made through social media channels.

The online commentary has become so vicious here in Tennessee that the local newspaper called a community meeting and has now taken action to limit offensive authors. Here’s a summary of these steps to illustrate how one community is dealing with social media run amok.

1)    Newspaper readers can now turn comments “off.” Previously, comments would appear at the end of an article whether readers wanted them or not.

2)    Newly-registered commenters are on “probation” and are screened by editors before being published.

3)    If a certain number of commenters flag a comment for review, that comment will automatically collapse, or “auto-redact,” and a warning will appear to the reader that it may contain offensive content. This way, offensive remarks can be hidden when an editor may not be present to take them down. And if a user’s auto-redacted enough times, his or her user name will be automatically banned from the site.

4)    Newspaper staff members were encouraged to participate in the conversations to steer them back toward the focus of the article, or to correct misinformation and answer questions being posed by commenters.

5)    Editors are attempting to standardize and lower the threshold of what is considered offensive.

In this space I could not possibly examine all the issues and implications presented by the growing levels of commentary cruelty and efforts to control it.  That’s why you’re here.  : )   How do these issues impact you and your ideas about personal liberty, evolution of the traditional press, and social media?

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