Vent, but civilly


Across the Internet, more Web sites are reining in online comments, which too often are expressions of hatred, racism, stupidity, and anonymous cowardice. Some Web sites have even stopped posting comments.

Many commenters exceed the boundaries of taste, as they hurl insults and verbally harass those who dare to disagree with them. They form mobs that seek to intimidate and silence, not to encourage lively public discourse.

Yet one person’s editing is another’s censorship. Commenters routinely argue that the Internet works best as a forum for robust, uncensored dialogue.

Most Web sites, including The Blade’s, seek to impose minimal standards of good taste, cogent argument, and civility on their commenters, rather than provide venues for hotheads to blow off toxic steam. To ensure a degree of accountability, some sites now take comments only through social media such as Facebook and Google Plus, which require registration.

Since 2012, The Blade has required commenters on toledoblade.com and related sites to be Facebook members. “The tone of the comments improved,” said Greg Braknis, The Blade’s Web news editor. But he notes that the site’s administrators still have to remove out-of-bounds comments from time to time.

The Blade also wants to encourage links to Facebook, said Paul Hem, the newspaper’s editorial systems manager, because they attract readers to the Web site.

It isn’t a perfect solution to ensure responsible comments. Some identities on Facebook are fake. Linking to Facebook carries the potential for invasion of privacy, especially for those who put too much information on their Facebook page. Parents are concerned about naive teens; The Blade requires commenters to be at least 13 years old.

Things are moving fast in the digital sphere. Dee Drummond, a former reporter for The Blade who now lectures in the University of Toledo’s Department of Communication, teaches courses on professional use of social media.

She says she tries to bring home to students the ethical implications of finding a middle ground between permitting unfettered speech online and conducting a public conversation that is too constrained. One way to do this, Ms. Drummond says, is to tighten the rules for posting.

But ultimately, she maintains, online commenters have to take responsibility for what they write. If they don’t want others to censor them, they need to exert an appropriate degree of self-discipline. That seems a good resolution for 2014.