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Advice for Dealing with Negative Online Comments

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Comment sections in many forums seem to showcase the worst of humanity. Unfortunately negative comments tend to be particularly bad toward women in the technology field. Learn the difference between a good and bad comment policy, how to set your own, and strategies to deal with commenters intent on being mean.
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The Twitter account @AvoidComments posts every day, sharing nuggets like, “The comments section: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” and “I'm rubber; you're glue; everything you write in the comments is horrible so I don't read them.” It’s an on-going reminder that on many sites, comment threads are unpleasant places to spend your time.

YouTube offers some particularly bad examples of poorly behaved commenters. It’s easy to find comments ranging from inane (and entirely unrelated to the post) to racial slurs to threats of violence. For women sharing work online, the less immediately offensive comments often focus on appearance, but they can be especially negative. Women running YouTube channels routinely report comments threatening them with rape and other harm, often on videos about topics generally considered non-offensive, like technology.

For many people, the ongoing negativity that lurks in the comments is just not worth the trouble. “Don’t read the comments” has become a mantra of sorts -- a routine reminder that if you aren’t going to enjoy what you find posted in response to many articles, you shouldn’t even bother scrolling that far.

There are people who post negative comments just for the sake of posting them. Trolls, as such commenters are often known, are out for the thrill of getting someone mad more than anything else.

Removing Anonymity Doesn’t Help

It’s worth noting that removing anonymity doesn’t seem to end hateful comments. In November, Google forced YouTube commenters to associate their comments with their Google+ accounts, which in turn means associating their comments with their real names. While many people were upset about losing anonymity or being forced to use a new commenting system, there are still plenty of nasty remarks showing up on the site. It turns out many of those commenters are comfortable associating their names with the messages they post.

But Is Doing Absolutely Nothing the Answer?

The problem with sticking to a firm policy of not reading any comments is that nothing will change: Trolls will continue to post such comments. Plus, comment sections without those negative comments can be valuable, allowing people to share insights and resources on a topic. Just giving up means you also miss the chance to build such opportunities. Regaining those spaces may be worth working to handle problem comments. As an added incentive, speaking up about the problem will help make it less acceptable for trolls to post their messages on different sites.

There are drawbacks to getting down in the mess with trolls and other abusive commenters, however. It’s not unheard of for attacks to get worse before they get better. Bloggers and other content creators have a long history of facing harassment and offline threats; in 2007 Kathy Sierra took down her blog in response to death threats. The harassment escalated at that point, with trolls posting her home address and Social Security number publicly.

It’s rarely helpful to attack trollish behavior head on. Getting in arguments with antagonistic commenters tends to be more trouble than it’s worth, if only because you can’t argue the opposition into agreeing with your point of view when the level of discourse revolves around threats and obscenities. The conventional wisdom, “Don’t feed the trolls,” is considered common sense for a reason. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no room to combat that sort of behavior.

* You can ban commenters from sites you own or control.

* You can report such comments to a site’s publisher or moderator, if it is operated by someone else.

* You can report threatening content to law enforcement.

For less combative commenters, it can be worth reaching out to them and discussing the situation. A quick email can remind someone who just didn’t think before they typed that it might come off sounding a little creepy or thoughtless. It’s a judgement call whether to respond in such a manner, however,  because what might seem mild to you might seem extremely discomforting to someone else. Some people consider discussions of their personal appearance and relative attractiveness, for instance, to just be a mild issue — emailing commenters posting about topics isn’t scary. But for other people, such conversations can trigger fears or memories that make the situation far more uncomfortable. Only contact commenters if you feel comfortable doing so.

Contacting commenters can also cause some situations to escalate. If you’re concerned that the situation could get nasty, avoid direct contact.

It’s also important to note that any time a comment escalates into a threat of violence, you should report it to the appropriate authorities. It is impossible to tell if a message is just a comment posted offhand or if someone seriously intends to harm you; the police are equipped to evaluate threats, so let them handle that process.

Taking Responsibility for Your Own Site

Just how much control you have over comments depends on where you’re posting your own content or what you’re reading. At the end of the day, the only sites that you can definitely impact are those that you own and operate yourself. For any other site, you’re going to have to appeal some sort of comment moderator to resolve any issue you encounter.

On your own site, however, you get the last word on comment moderation, every time. You can delete comments, ban certain commenters, and generally refuse to allow trolls to post to your site. You can draw the line anywhere you care to.

The first step to effectively handling comments on your own website, whether it’s a blog or in some other format, is to set specific policies:

  • Where will you allow comments on your site?
  • What sort of information (like an email address or a Facebook account) will you require commenters to provide?
  • How often will you moderate comments?
  • Will you allow comments to appear unmoderated until you have a chance to look at them?

It’s hard to set out in advance exactly what sort of comments are inappropriate for a given site. Of course, you want to remove any comments that contain hateful or threatening language. But what about those comments that are only borderline creepy? I routinely get comments on articles I’ve written that aren’t obviously problematic, but make me uncomfortable in some way or another. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone writing in a very aggressive tone.

Depending on the type of site you operate, it’s probably a good idea to make your site’s commenting policy public. Such a policy doesn’t need to be written in legalese. John Scalzi’s site disclaimer and comment policy provides a good example:

...you have no right to free speech on this site. This is my personal site, and I am not the United States government. I reserve the right to edit all comments, and to moderate all comment threads, as I see fit. Your comment is more likely to be edited, moderated or deleted if it contains phobic content (based on race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, etc), is a personal attack or threat toward another commenter, is entirely unrelated to the entry topic, features more than a “fair use” amount of someone else’s copyrighted work, has such poor grammar and spelling that it annoys me, is an obvious piece of trollage, or if I find it or you obnoxious and decide I’ve had enough. Don’t like it? Don’t comment. Simple.

Once you have a policy in place, you have an option that will allow you to stay out of at least part of the uncomfortable process of dealing with negative comments: You can turn the work over to someone else. Even for a small site, hiring a virtual assistant for an hour or two a week may be a worthwhile investment, especially if you find that you can’t ignore any comments you read. Asking someone else to do at least a fast pass through your comments can allow you to screen out those that may impact you personally before you even see them.

While there are some tools available meant to weed out certain comments (such as Akismet for WordPress), they are notoriously unreliable, and each platform has its own system, making it hard to recommend anything.

Whether you bring in help to enforce your comment policy or you do it yourself, it’s important to do so consistently. Especially if your policy allows for unmoderated comments to be visible to readers until you’ve had a chance to see them, you have to make time to regularly moderate your comments.

Reporting Troubling Comments on Others’ Sites

Most big websites have at least some sort of policy regarding limiting hate speech and other comments that can be shown to be damaging in some way. However, it’s rare that any sites make it easy to tell what sort of comments will be moderated or even reviewed. The majority of sites also rely on users to do a first pass of finding offensive comments. Consider YouTube’s community guidelines: They specifically state, “We encourage free speech and defend everyone's right to express unpopular points of view. But we don't permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity).” The guidelines also state that YouTube staffers review “flagged videos” constantly. This means a comment that, say, shared an opinion on the relative attractiveness of a woman in a YouTube video, wouldn’t necessarily violate the guidelines YouTube lays out.

It’s not a perfect system, by any means, but YouTube’s approach is common for a reason. On any site where users can submit content, it’s practically impossible to have a paid staffer personally review every single submission. The system falls apart, however, because few people actually take the time to flag problems. On social media sites, it’s common to report spammers — they’re annoying to deal with and hitting the report button can be a satisfying way to punish a bot account that has sent you pages of unwanted messages.

If there seems to be a human behind a social media account, though, there seems to be a mental block. I informally asked the Twitter users to whom I am connected whether or not they reported offensive or abusive language; most of the users I talked to admitted that they weren’t entirely sure how to report that behavior. Twitter actually has one of the most opaque processes for dealing with abuse: The person who is the specific subject of said abuse has to report it.

On sites where you can report offensive comments, you should take the time to do so. Whether you limit reporting only the comments that are directed at you personally or you report anything you see, you’ll still be improving the situation. While I’d like to be able to report every piece of antagonistic commenting I see, there just isn’t enough time in the world to stop and research the process on a new site that I may have just stumbled across in passing. You have to find a middle ground that is practical, as well comfortable for you.

Dealing with the Deep Dark Corners of the Internet

There is a question of how far you should be willing to go to combat offensive or threatening remarks, especially if you’re the subject of those remarks. There are plenty of blogs, forums, and other websites out there that you likely don’t frequent on a regular basis, but that are controlled by someone who may write up a response to a blog post you write, a project you post, or some other detail you share online. Deciding where to spend your time with such sites can be difficult.

I pay fairly close attention to what people write about me and my work on their own sites; with tools like Google Alerts, it’s very easy to access that sort of information. Early in my blogging career, I found someone had declared himself my ‘arch-nemesis’ because he thought my posts on his favorite blog weren’t technical enough. He posted this announcement on his own website. From a blogging point of view, I decided that I had no real right to do anything because he wasn’t posting to a site I had any control over or obligation to.

But I find myself thinking about that situation on a regular basis, wishing that I had at least sent that person an email, telling him that I considered his post to be a threat — and then acted accordingly. I probably wouldn’t have been able to convince him that he was doing anything wrong (based on my more recent experiences trying to resolve online arguments), but there’s a chance that the person in question didn’t realize that I would find his post threatening.

It’s generally not worth getting too involved in the comment threads that pop up on sites you’re not actually a member of. There are plenty of social news sites that can get a bit mean, but unless the comments posted include either threats directed at you or untrue material that could harm you if it came up in an online search, trying to remove such comments is probably not worth the effort. Even if the situation is rough, getting involved in the actual comment thread is rarely worthwhile; a better option is to either contact the website’s owner or host about getting the material removed or report threats to the proper authorities.

Don’t Be Afraid of Internet Comments

Reading the comments on many sites may expose you to some very unpleasant messages, but, in the grand scheme of things, ignoring such comments does more harm. Ignoring threatening or offensive comments sends the message that posting such remarks is okay, only allows a flawed system to continue. The more you can minimize such comments, the more fully you can take advantage of the internet’s opportunities for starting important discussions and sharing resources.

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