On the computer. Photo by Surat Lozowick.
On the computer. Photo by Surat Lozowick.

We recently deleted a comment posted on the Rivard Report Facebook page by a San Antonio reader who asserted San Antonio’s City Council and City Hall is a hotbed of greed and corruption. There was, of course, no evidence offered to support the allegations. The comment was nothing more than the ranting of a seemingly angry citizen who often seems agitated by our stories and responds by posting intensely negative and provocative invective.

We told the reader that his comment was inappropriate and was being deleted, and incidentally, had nothing to do with our story about the many applicants for two open Council seats. Facebook comments flow on to the Rivard Report site along with comments posted directly to the story. This gives readers two ways of adding their voice to our stories. Our decision to delete the comment provoked another San Antonio reader, who asked not be identified in this article, to accuse us of censorship.

A recent deleted comment.

We don’t buy it. Censorship is one of society’s most misused words. Preventing the sale of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is censorship. The Israeli government excising text from reporters’ dispatches is censorship. Telling high school journalists they can’t cover the school administration in the school newspaper is censorship.

Prohibiting the use of obscene or denigrating language on the Rivard Report or comments that attack a class of people – women, blacks, gays – is not censorship. It’s standards. Editors here do not allow individuals to post articles on our site without reviewing the content. Why is it any different that we also oversee publication of responsible content in our comments postings?

The C-word shows up most frequently when you push back against Internet trolls, often but not always anonymous readers who post verbal attacks that reinforce their political differences with those they disagree with – President Obama, officeholders, the police, liberals, immigrants, women. In many cases the actual comments are only peripherally related to the story and are intended to incite other like-minded individuals to pile on with their own comments. Many trolls routinely resort to misogyny, racism, homophobia, unsubstantiated charges of wrongdoing, and other forms of hurtful personal attacks.

We curate comments on the Rivard Report site to maintain an atmosphere of civility. It’s something that differentiates us from other local media and the overwhelming majority of readers appreciate the difference. Like every website, we value our traffic, or unique visitors and our page views – up to a point. We don’t resort to cheap tricks to get clicks, and we don’t have an “anything goes” comment policy just to artificially build traffic numbers to impress advertisers.

There are, for example, more than 40 comments posted on a story we published last week about last week’s City Council discussion of banning cell phone use while driving inside the city limits. Most of the comments are quite thoughtful, and most people who commented support the ban. One posted comment is borderline insulting of Police Chief William McManus, and one that we deleted used an obscenity to express hostility toward McManus and all San Antonio police.

cops comment

Try to find another local media site that attracts that kind of engaged reader interaction on a given story. It simply doesn’t happen on sites where people are free to spew anything they want. It’s an Internet truism: The more standards you set for comments, the fewer total comments you get, yet the comments you do get are far more thoughtful.

The New York Times published a story on this very subject last week, Web Trolls Winning as Incivility Increases, which documents some extreme cases of trolling, such as that suffered by Jezebel, the women’s website run by Gawker Media. Jezebel suffered repeated attacks by anonymous trolls posting graphic photos as comments. Jezebel editors manually took down the offensive material. Such curation is time-consuming, but it pays dividends. Many Jezebel stories have extended, thoughtful conversations and comments posted in response to stories.

The Times story also reported that last week Zelda Williams, the daughter of Robin Williams, was attacked on Twitter by trolls who sent out insensitive and abusive tweets blaming her for the comedian’s apparent suicide. Williams fought back initially, but then gave up and suspended her social media accounts. Twitter later announced that it had suspended the accounts of individuals who attacked Zelda Williams, but most social media users agree that for the average person, Facebook, Twitter and other sites seldom react so proactively and usually offer inadequate remedies to attacks and harassment.

Farhad Manjoo, the Time’s technology writer who wrote the troll story, recently wrote a column for slate.com in which he argues for elimination  of all anonymous comments, citing studies that show people who are allowed to post anonymously often display their worst attributes because they believe they will not be held accountable.  Slate requires readers posting comments to register with third-party identification, such as their Facebook account or their Google account. That doesn’t eliminate trolling, but it helps.

“In almost all cases, the Web would be much better off if everyone told the world who they really are,” Manjoo writes.

The debate will continue. Some argue that anything and everything is fair game online, and that any efforts to referee the tone or content of the conversation amounts to an infringement on free speech. We get that criticism and have decided we prefer a few critics to the alternative. Others argue there has to be some system for differentiating between good faith exchanges of ideas and viewpoints and the vulgar and insensitive ranting of people showing their very worst side, hoping you will take notice and that other like-minded trolls will join in the bashing.

I hesitate to conclude in this fashion, but the Rivard Report welcomes your comments on the subject. Keep it civil. If you don’t, well, you already know our response.

*Featured/top image: On the computer. Photo by Flickr user Surat Lozowick.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.