May 17, 2014 2:07 pm -

Anonymous TrollThe National Journal has thrown in the towel and eliminated its comment section:

At National Journal, we believe that public service is a noble calling; that ideas matter; and that trustworthy information about politics and policy will lead to wiser decisions in the national interest. Those principles are reflected in everything we do—from the stories we write, to the events we produce, to the research and insights we offer our members.
But there’s one place where those principles don’t seem to hold: in the comments that appear at the end of our Web stories. For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable.

The debate isn’t joined. It’s cheapened, it’s debased, and, as National Journal‘s Brian Resnick has written, research suggests that the experience leaves readers feeling more polarized and less willing to listen to opposing views.

Interestingly, The NJ has kept the comments open on their announcement, which of course has some of the types of comments that they (rightfully) object to having posted on their Web site, which I will not reprint here. Let’s just say Godwin’s Law is alive and kicking.

Previously, Popular Science was (I think) the most high-profile publication to turn off comments, saying that the established facts of science are not up for debate. Mother Jones famously tracked down one of their trolls (and kind of liked him).

Is this a trend that other Big Media sites should follow, or are they clueless about  how the online world works and they need to adapt? Other than a Harry Reid-like nuclear option, what else can a website do to curb the abuse? Laura Hudson at Wired has a great piece up offering solutions from the experience of the on-line gaming community that could translate:

Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law. Social networks could take a strong and meaningful stand against harassment simply by applying the same sort of standards in their online spaces that we already apply in our public and professional lives. That’s not a radical step; indeed, it’s literally a normal one. Wishing rape or other violence on women or using derogatory slurs, even as “jokes,” would never fly in most workplaces or communities, and those who engaged in such vitriol would be reprimanded or asked to leave. Why shouldn’t that be the response in our online lives?

To truly shift social norms, the community, by definition, has to get involved in enforcing them. This could mean making comments of disapproval, upvoting and downvoting, or simply reporting bad behavior. The best online forums are the ones that take seriously their role as communities, including the famously civil MetaFilter, whose moderation is guided by a “don’t be an asshole” principle. On a much larger scale, Microsoft’s Xbox network implemented a community-powered reputation system for its new Xbox One console. Using feedback from players, as well as a variety of other metrics, the system determines whether a user gets rated green (“Good Player”), yellow (“Needs Improvement”), or red (“Avoid Me”).

In another initiative by Riot’s player- behavior team, League of Legends launched a disciplinary system called the Tribunal, in which a jury of fellow players votes on reported instances of bad behavior. Empowered to issue everything from email warnings to longer-term bans, users have cast tens of millions of votes about the behavior of fellow players. When Riot asked its staff to audit the verdicts, it found that the staff unanimously agreed with users in nearly 80 percent of cases. And this system is not just punishing players; it’s rehabilitating them, elevating more than 280,000 censured gamers to good standing. Riot regularly receives apologies from players who have been through the Tribunal system, saying they hadn’t understood how offensive their behavior was until it was pointed out to them. Others have actually asked to be placed in a Restricted Chat Mode, which limits the number of messages they can send in games—forcing a choice to communicate with their teammates instead of harassing others.

Is it the death of Free Speech for the National Journal to turn the comments off? Hardly. They can still be reached via email, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other usual social media channels. But the days of anonymous trolling at the NJ are over.


No responses to When Trolls Win

  1. Carla Akins May 17th, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    I use my real name and (usually) my real pic (that’s my considerably adorable new grandson). I find that I’ll only post something I’m willing to own. It doesn’t work for everyone. In my local paper, a woman using an avatar was essentially tracked down in real life by a guy using his real name and picture. He was angry over her making him look foolish, so he contacted her employer and outed her. So I understand there are very valid reasons to remain anonymous but it makes it much easier to slip over the line.

    • Shades May 17th, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      I respect you for doing that, and, of course, my FB posts are under my real name, but we’ve had some seriously deranged and threatening trolls here over the years. I often post what region of the country I live in and what I did for a living. I do not want those people to know my name.

    • Anomaly 100 May 17th, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Same here. I always use my real name.

      Best regards,


    • jenny_whyme May 17th, 2014 at 3:47 pm

      Interestingly enough (at least to me)… for a long time I didn’t use my real name on twitter. Not that I’ve ever posted something I didn’t choose to own… I decided that I needed to own everything I post.

      • Carla Akins May 17th, 2014 at 4:10 pm

        I’m not always blessed with the best decision making capabilities. So it gives me a breather, kind of like a mnemonic device for not making a rash statement.

    • Tengrain May 17th, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      I admire that you do that. More than one of my employers in Silicon Valley reserved the right to fire you if you said anything about them and all of them demanded Facebook accounts and passwords. You learn after a while to keep your private life private.



      • Carla Akins May 17th, 2014 at 5:10 pm

        My employers social media policy is very straightforward and in writing. As long as you don’t saying anything negative about the company or its product or act an ass as a representative of the company – you are free to go full-tilt troll. I simply don’t list my employer on FB and never mention where I work.

    • Budda May 17th, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      I’m a little different Carla. I come to sites for “cocktail chatter” not ‘white paper’ dialogue or long thought out thesis type discussions.

      Making a comment that might slightly offend someone is a risk I’ll take but I don’t have the time or inclination to defend for days some off the cuff remark that someone may have an issue with.

      • Carla Akins May 18th, 2014 at 6:49 am

        I do that as well. I think the “own it” definition may have been misleading. I should restate, it doesn’t have to be a “position” political or otherwise.
        I don’t want to regret how I’ve approached another person whether in tone or intent. It’s not a matter of defending my position, but who I am (or working hard to be) as a person.

  2. Chinese Democracy May 17th, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    the internet is a petrie dish for the disenfranchised and dysfunctional. Its a perfect place for them. I dont think trolls “won” I think the anything goes no matter what days are coming to an end. Harassing people now results in jail terms etc.

  3. mea_mark May 17th, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    It may simply be time for some online journals to hire some good moderators. They may have to charge a subscription but it might be worth it to some readers. Articles could still be available to all but only paying subscribers could comment and the subscribers could get a format with less ads.

    • Anomaly 100 May 17th, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      But where can they find these moderators?

    • Tengrain May 17th, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      That was my first thought, too, but I like the ideas presented in the Wire piece I linked to. I like the idea of the comments being a forum and letting the regulars police the joint. It seems more democratic to me.

      But I also like having different opinions, and not an echo chamber.



      • mea_mark May 17th, 2014 at 5:58 pm

        You would still need some moderation to make sure the whole forum didn’t get taken over by some kind of big move by one side or the other. Any site though would definitely be improved with more input from the regulars when they have a hand in its direction and quality.

  4. TiredOfThemAll May 17th, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I feel that the internet is getting to be more unpleasant.

    Between popups, slides shows instead of just tell me, 1, 2, 3… ads that start plying, when you don’t even know you rolled over, pay walls, (if you like only one or two sections or reporters)…

    I realize that they have to pay to put up the sites, but as I say, it’s getting less appealing,

  5. arc99 May 17th, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    I’m not sure that the examples with gaming forums are relevant to political sites like this one and the National Journal. At least at the gaming sites, there is a basic common ground (e.g. fans of the game or game(s) in question). In politics, there is little or no common ground.

    Witness just a few years ago when the United States was eliminated from hosting a future Olympic Games. Certain elements celebrated, applauded and high-fived an event which in their minds reflected negatively on a President they hate. They could not set aside partisan differences for just a few minutes and be an American.

    Self policing in my opinion requires agreement on a baseline set of standards. If we cannot agree that it is wrong to refer to a woman as a “slut” simply because you do not like her opinions, I see no way political forums can emulate the self-policing policies of gaming forums.

    From time to time I have thought about starting my own political site with some like-minded associates and shedding the anonymity of arc99. To tell you the truth, the reason I hesitate is not because I might write something I later do not want to own. It is because I unapologetically and emphatically own every single word I write.

    I am a liberal, a leftist and damn proud of what I believe in. I know that p*sses some people off to no end. Just look at some of the political advertising around the country. In many instances, all you have to do is call someone “liberal” without ever providing any explanation at all as to why just being conservative is so preferable to being a liberal.

    I am not afraid of owning what I write. I am afraid of some of the crazies out there whose response to my unapologetic liberalism would be harassment or actual violence. I tip my cap to all of the professional pundits across the spectrum who put their names and reputations out in public every single day. My hunch is that most of them may earn a decent living, but are unlikely to be able to afford 24×7 private security to safeguard their homes and families. In today’s world, that takes no small amount of guts.

    • Nobama May 17th, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      These public figures are putting their families at risk when a 10 second search reveals their spouses full names and employer information. Stay anonymous stay safe!

  6. BillTheCat45 May 17th, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Not that NJ didn’t invite the kind of comments they received much of the time 😛

  7. fancypants May 18th, 2014 at 10:09 am

    maybe we can blame the film makers who often make nj or nyc a disaster

  8. FriendofThom May 18th, 2014 at 11:12 am

    National Journal should respect their readers’ ability to skip the posts that don’t say anything meaningful and just contain personal attacks.

    • mea_mark May 18th, 2014 at 11:38 am

      One of things I don’t like though is all the clutter from the trolls. I don’t want to have to sort through all the garbage. I don’t go to NJ for that very reason.

      • FriendofThom May 18th, 2014 at 11:56 am

        Eliminating comments completely is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

        • mea_mark May 18th, 2014 at 12:07 pm

          I don’t think they should eliminate comments all together, they just need some moderators. The question I see is. Who will be the moderators and if they are paid, where does the money come from?