Spoilers spoiling for a fight?: The impact of comment trolling and other unwanted online activities

Every time I login to this blog — or my other blogs — or my email, I need to spend time dealing with unwanted materials. Fortunately, it’s usually a small amount of two-clicks-til-total-removal spam that I need to deal with, but others have had more serious issues to deal with, ranging from the limits of access to a email mailing list, to blog comments, to lawsuits about anonymous personalized statements perceived to be threatening and libelous. Interestingly, all of these issues have recently hit the larger legal community.

These issues were discussed in On the internet no one can hear you turning off your blog: the impact of trolling, including the comments on the University of Chicago law faculty blog and the now-shuttered Patry copyright blog.  The legal community is a microcosm of how difficult it is to contain the internetz regarding issues such as managing the limits of free speech, promoting discourse, community building (and in some communities the related issue of “safe space”), avoiding “true” threats, and the new permanence of the internet — where everything one has ever said or done is still available for perusal.

On Above the Law, a law news source, the new comment policy is:

As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means. . . .[W]e’ll be changing our site design so that comments will default to “hidden.” If you want to see the comments, you must affirmatively opt-in, by clicking a button to reveal them (either the “show them anyway” button within the post, or the “comments” button / counter on the front page).

On a popular law blog, Balkinization, comments have been turned off by default — to be changed by the post author:

[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.

Commenting within a larger discussion about commenting cultures on Concurring Opinions, James Grimmelmann states that

It’s all about social norms, typically as influenced strongly by early patterns. If people come to a site and see respectful extended arguments, they learn that norm of commenting. If they see illiterate YouTube-ish babble, they add their own bleats. And if they see nasty personal attacks, they say nasty things. Most highly successful online communities with positive norms had someone who took a very active early role in setting a good tone. (Metafilter and Flickr are well-known examples.) Once a norm is in place, it tends to stay in place, because visitors self-select into participating in communities with norms they like, and because regular visitors enforce compliance with the norms.

The details and the nuances of online community moderation are much more complex, of course, but there’s a lot of support for this basic tipping-point story.

Grimmelmann’s observations about the relationship between what is communicated within a community and how that becomes the norm within applies to what is summarized as “The Autoadmit lawsuit”.

As summarized in an article in Portfolio, anonymous comments were posted about actual women in lawschool on the Autoadmit message boards:

When it comes to Heller and Iravani, some of [the comments] were unique all right: uniquely sadistic, subjecting the women to what can only be called a cyber-stoning, in which participants vied to hurl the biggest rock. They wrote, falsely, that Heller has herpes and had bribed her way into Yale—helped by a secret lesbian affair with the dean of admissions—and that Iravani has gonorrhea, is addicted to heroin, and had exchanged oral sex with Yale Law School’s dean for a passing grade in civil procedure. The spectacle was either astonishingly horrific or almost banal, depending on how old and what sex you are, on what you deem funny, and on how much time you spend on the internet. And where.

Posters appeared to be overwhelmingly male; it was women, particularly beautiful women, particularly beautiful women at the top law schools, particularly beautiful minority women at the top law schools, who were most often skewered, dissected, and fantasized about.

I would include some examples of the anonymous comments here, but they are so that I don’t want to repeat them here on my space, where their inclusion will lead to this blog getting more spam comments (if interested read the amended complaint). Feministe has a series of posts detailing the reasons why women discussed on these posts and others believed themselves to be threatened.

The autoadmit comments were accepted and promoted within the online community and therefore continued. To “protect” the autoadmit community after the first series of complaints, many commenters made increasingly disturbing, threatening, and false statements to keep the community “safe” for those who wanted to make such comments; yet the “real world” impact (jobs, emotional impact) was perceived as only affecting those within the community — not those outsiders being commented on — trying to destroy their “fun.”

For websites and blogs (and social media) that want to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, this situation shows why it is imperative to have policies in place before there are problems and to have the policy inforced by the community and the “host.” That is the reason for our policy for The Learned Fangirl:

All opinions in blog posts are our own and do not reflect the views of our employers. Please comment, but this is our space, so we will delete comments that we think are uncivil, off-topic, spam, or otherwise inappropriate.


And in one additional law-based wrinkle to the Obama’s administration’ s implementation of  social networking similar to the campaign: the First Amendment. If you’ve been on any popular blog or website with frequent commenting, how useful do you think it would be for the government or the public if government websites had comments, yet were unable to edit, suppress, or modify the comments in any way? I would say very minimally useful, so I wish the Obama administration luck in making social networking work.

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As a directly on-point followup, the Autoadmit lawsuit was discussed in a very interesting post Trivializing Women’s Harms: The Story of Cyber Gender Harassment on the Concurring Opinions blog by Danielle Citron, yet the comments quickly devolved into exactly what the post asked: “Why do many disregard women’s experiences as trivial?”

She then posted a followup, Cyber Harassment: Yes, It is a Woman’s Thing, with more information about the gendered aspect of online harassment. She mentions that her proposal would address First Amendment concerns AND

Without the fear of rape threats, published home addresses, and technological attacks, women would continue blogging and aggregating their ideas with others online.

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