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May 5, 2007

CBS surrenders to racist commenters
Posted by Teresa at 06:50 PM * 61 comments

Via Orcinus and Majikthise, word is that CBS has disabled comments on stories they publish about Barack Obama: does sometimes delete comments on an individual basis, but Sims said that was not sufficient in the case of Obama stories due to “the volume and the persistence” of the objectionable comments.

There has been a fierce debate about how news outlets should handle reader comments.’s Jim Brady, whose site, like, does not have the resources to filter comments in advance, told Howard Kurtz that he’d “rather figure out a way to do it better than not to do it at all.”


Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that CBS is getting hit with all kinds of vile garbage. Fox, Limbaugh, and the rest of the great right-wing noise machine have been breaking new ground in suggestively code-worded racist propaganda. And as usual, the wussy, unpatriotic fraction of the population who spend their lives waiting to be told whom they can hate have responded with enthusiasm. But CBS is hardly the only forum where those guys have been making themselves felt. We can’t shut down every discussion of Barack Obama that turns septic. It’s a perversion of the public discourse. It makes it much easier for the media to lie about Obama. And it’s exactly the result that the right-wingers are hoping to get.

But this claim that CBS and the Washington Post don’t have the resources to moderate their forums? Malarkey. For a few thousand bucks a month, CBS could have one of the most talented and experienced large-forum moderators* I know, plus trained secondary staff, riding herd on their comment boards. For that deal, plus someone already on the CBS payroll volunteering to keep an eye on any interns who want to learn how to run a genuinely open, civil, responsive public news forum, CBS could have comment boards that were the envy of the journalistic world.

I’m not holding my breath while I wait for them to call.

As for the Washington Post, their organization has the resources to employ the worthless Deborah Howell: crooked journalist, blatantly incompetent ombudsman, a complete disaster at dealing with readers who can talk back—and, apparently, proud of it. God knows how she even got hired for that job, unless it was done under the provisions of the Full Employment for Someone’s Old College Roommate Act. In terms of lost credibility, missed opportunities, and reader goodwill in exactly the demographic groups where newspapers are hemorrhaging readership, she’s cost the Washington Post dearly—and she’s still on the payroll.

These are the organizations that don’t have enough resources to manage their own online comments? Spare me. They can do it any time they want.

Haven’t we lived through enough years of having the public discourse distorted beyond all recognition by small groups of noisy right-wingers who pretend they’re the voice of the people, and an irresponsible, collapsing news industry that indulges them in that deceit? There’s not a single structural problem here that wasn’t known to Usenet when Kibo was a sprat.

Comments on CBS surrenders to racist commenters:
#1 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2007, 11:40 PM:

Yeah, well. I think this falls into the category of dogs returning to their vomit.

Can I take this space to put a vote in for that book on comment moderation?

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2007, 11:57 PM:

Given that Obama's already getting protection by the Secret Service, it's going to be very nasty by the time primary season arrives.

But you'd think that CBS could find a better way to handle comments. Not that every place does - I stopped reading Huffington because there were far too many commenters who appeared to be of the basement-dwelling right-wingnuttistan persuasion.

They need to read about comment moderation. Then find a way to disemvowel the trollish ones.

#3 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 12:10 AM:

What, are they using AutoAdmit as their hiring pool?

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 12:21 AM:

Hey, I've been working on it all weekend.

#5 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 01:19 AM:

Heck, disemvoweling can be done with software. If they can't bring themselves to hire a real human with a heart and a brain and courage, can't they hire a programmer to pick ten key words and disemvowel every post that contains them?

#6 ::: Michael R. Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 02:01 AM:

Teresa @ #4: "Hey, I've been working on it all weekend."

This is *great* news! How are you going to publish it?

#7 ::: Anticorium ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 02:25 AM:

can't they hire a programmer to pick ten key words and disemvowel every post that contains them?

Considering the way that AOL made it impossible to share chicken recipes or cancer-survivor stories, and Napster made a star out of Ritneyb Pearss, I'd say automated filters might not be adequate to the task.

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 03:33 AM:

Teresa, you're pitching your price too low.

And there's no room in your budget for glossy letter-headings, a plush office, and all the conventional perks of journalism. Where's the expense accounts?

Do this right, and you could fund a monthly team-building exercise at an SF convention.

Just a few thousand dollars per month makes you look cheap. It makes journalism look cheap. And nobody in that business wants to look like a cheap whore. If they're expensive, they can kid themselves that they're something better.

#9 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 07:03 AM:

Dave Bell @ 8

If they're expensive, they can kid themselves that they're something better.

And afford to buy much better cosmetics to cover up with.

Seriously, Teresa, you'd have to charge much more to get that gig. Large corporations like CBS won't believe that anyone who charges less than a few thousand a day is worth hiring for a sensitive job like that.

Although I wonder if you really want the grief of having the CBS VP for Public Relations surgically attached to your shoulder and watching everything you do.

#10 ::: Jp ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 11:52 AM:

Anticorium@#7: AOL (and most others who've attempted it) messed it up because they didn't think through the problem properly. It's really not all that hard. I had to write a forum for a mainstream but impoverished sports publisher once, and although it was a few years, and broke the problem down into categories -

1. Character sequences which should always trigger a filter
2. Character sequences that should always trigger a filter, except when used as part of a few specifically defined words
3. Character sequences that should only trigger a filter if surrounded immediately by word boundaries
4. As 3., but checking for the sequence with standard word prefixes and suffixes
5. Character sequences that should normally be left, but which should trigger a filter if used with specific other words
6. Character sequences that should normally trigger a filter, but where the filter should be aborted if used with specific other words
7. As per 5. and 6., but using a scoring algorithm where more finesse was required

(Like I say, this was a few years ago, so I might not have quite remembered the list correctly.)

It took about a day to work out the categories, and another day to implement it. Then about a week to work out what went into what categories. Then about a week to respond to all the different ways people found to game it (leet speak, interspersing punctuation characters with the targeted character sequences, and so on).

Every now and again I'd drop in and see if anyone had found a new workaround, but it didn't happen very often. And the only time it picked up any false positives was when I hurriedly released a change without testing it, which ended up asterisking out any word ending in 'ing' until I somebody noticed the wailings from the users.

#11 ::: Anton P. Nym ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 12:18 PM:

I wish it was as easy as you make it sound. I'm doing moderating on a high-volume forum (on a volunteer basis) as part of a 20-person team, and it gets away from me (us?) on occasion.

Of course it could be we're doing it wrong, in which case I welcome suggestions on how to improve the process, but from my experience it can be pretty tough to ride herd on that many cats. Even with naughty-word filters and the like.

-- Steve

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 12:19 PM:

I think that there is one big positive here: the scorpions are coming out from under the rotting bark because they see Obama as a threat. He has a real chance of winning, and, if he does, he moves the US back on the path to greater equality and inclusivity. That frightens the hell out of those idiots, so they respond by bringing out the old-fashioned racism.

#13 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 01:30 PM:

For an idea of what the Post thinks of Obama, there's always Sally Quinn's column.

Same thing the Post did to Clinton - he's an outsider, not one of us; even though Quinn has, as she says with great self-pride, managed to get over his being black.

#14 ::: Jp ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 02:33 PM:

Anton@#11: I wasn't trying to claim that automated filtering could replace moderation. Just that it was possible to do it without fouling it up as badly as AOL did it.

However, you can use to flag posts for attention as well as automatic editing or deletion, depending on the triggering circumstance. On a really active board, that can identify a "you people" trolling (for example) early enough for a moderator to nip it in the bud before it derails a thread.

#15 ::: Anton P. Nym ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 03:26 PM:

Jp, alas I find myself being unclear. (Again. Dammit.) My comment was directed more at Teresa's original post than at yours.

Profanity filters are a great assist (even if they sometimes lead to interesting discussions about aircraft c***pits) but the truly insidious easily find ways to bypass them. Heck, we even started having to examine posts mentioning fast food products, because "BK" became a slang term of derision for "bad kids" used by the unsavoury to incite flamewars. In a large community, terms for intending or delivering offense mutate at a terrifying rate.

Strong moderation also requires ways to filter out sock puppets, and typical forum systems doesn't seem to be terribly good about handling "alt" accounts of users familiar with IP spoofing and cookie manipulation. (Even if they've learned how to do it from script-kiddies.) Again scale becomes an issue; banning a sufficiently large block of IP addresses to get rid of a pernicious individual would, on a large site like CBS, shut out enough of their intended readership that the collateral damage from smiting the troll would do more harm than the troll could do on his own.

If there's some way to automate the process, or at least turn it into a reasonable job for a staff of 20 part-time volunteers on a site with three million daily page views, at a sane price then I think some fairly serious buyers will beat a path to that developer's door.

-- Steve

#16 ::: billg ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 03:57 PM:

The more important issue you raise is the abililty of small cadre of rightists to use comment flooding to force people to stop talking about whoever or whatever is on the hitlist du jour. CBS and the WaPo can easily afford to throw people at the problem, but many operations legitimately cannot. We really, really need a tech fix for this problem.

#17 ::: Jp ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 06:12 PM:

Anton, that's why you need to revisit it regularly, because behaviour changes in response to moderation. It's also why context-based rules are important - 'BK' appears in a comment with words 'mayonnaise' and 'fries', trends away from flame, 'flame' could go either way, so leave that neutral, 'idiot' and "$likely_forum_hot_topic" trend towards flame - think of the way spam filtering works.

As a filter term, "cock" is an interesting one, sitting within categories 2. and 7. There are the obvious exceptions like "cockpit" and "shuttlecock", but otherwise you have to judge it by whether words such as "crows" and "chicken" are in the same post, or "sucks", "your mother" and "in hell".

Sock puppets are harder to detect, yes. We never had problems with those, somehow, so I never really looked at them. IP addresses are useless for the normal DHCP/proxying considerations. I suspect you could do something with response patterns (User A only ever appears within 3 posts of User B), but you'd need a few posts from the same sock puppet to get a reliable pattern. Even then I doubt you'd get anything reliable enough to do anything more than flag the situation to a moderator.

As to commercial viability - relatively few organisations run forums as a commercial enterprise, the target installed software base is highly fragmented, and the functionality is easily copied once described....

#18 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 07:23 PM:

Jon @ 13: Wow, that Quinn column is repulsive.

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don't know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice?

Note that "what does he stand for?" and "what would he do in office" don't appear to be important things that we need to know about him.

I realized that when I look at him, I don't see a person of color. I see a really smart, appealing, thoughtful person.

Words fail me -- but they really fail her. I'm sure she doesn't *mean* to say that "person of color" and "smart, appealing, thoughful person" are mutually exclusive, but did nobody at the Post notice that that's exactly how this self-congratulatory, white-privileged bilge reads?

#19 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 08:56 PM:

Y'know, I think moderation will eventually become a high-paid profession. Part of the problem, I think, is that CBS and the Post haven't yet figured out that this is what they need; it's taken the internet community about 20 years to accept that moderation is a necessity in large open discussion forums and, after all, we have the most experience--the big media operations just don't know yet. So I hope you finish that book soon; maybe it'll help them learn!

#20 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 09:04 PM:

Jp @ 17

"Soc*alism" is another problem. And "p*ker-faced" requires attention too.

#21 ::: Jp ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 09:39 PM:

PJ, I get the drug reference, but I don't get "poker-faced". Or, or, or do I? *Studiously stares at cards, unconsciously tapping table with index finger*

#22 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 10:19 PM:

Jp @ 21

Well, for Ghu's sake, don't try gam*ng the system! (Probably need to watch the punctuation with that one, too: a comma in the middle might be lethal. Which brings up the memory of a scanned/OCR'd piece of legislation which had DC bonds being lethal obligations.)

Another word which might be problematic (same drug reference): spec*alist. It's common enough to need to be an exception to the filtering. Hsll, my job title, as anonymous as it is, would be moderated out on that one ('project specialist', formerly 'technical specialist': both translate as 'redshirt', but the former is a higher grade.)

#23 ::: Jp ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2007, 10:57 PM:

Well, that's what category 3 was for - to avoid having to define too many exceptions. I had soccer fans in mind, so Scunthorpe and Arsenal were the particular examples that I was trying to support.

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 12:18 AM:

Guys, when I mentioned that moderator, I wasn't talking about myself. I've added a footnote saying so to the main post.

I'll concede that my quote was underpriced. Is $10,000 a month enough for credibility, or does it need to be higher? At the point that the price is high enough to have professional credibility, is the service so expensive that organizations can claim that at those prices, they can't afford to moderate their discussion boards?

Savvy moderators tend to be battle-scarred veterans of Usenet and other wide-open venues. It's a bit like hiring a sheriff for a growing town on the Western frontier: you want someone whose skills and judgement were honed in a free-for-all social environment, and you hire them to make sure those same conditions never arise in the area they police. That's doable. But if you also require that they dress and act like a city slicker, hiring's going to be a little more difficult.

You want glossy corporate moderation? You can get it, if you pay through the nose and don't have more than 200 people in the conversation. It helps if you speak German -- most corporate moderation and mediation firms seem to be located there.

Alternately, you can hire someone like this guy here, whose professional specialty (insofar as I can make it out) appears to be marketing, PR, and corporate communications. (I'm always dubious about "communications professionals" who write impenetrable, jargon-dense prose.) This is the site I Particled on 20 April 07 with a subject line that read, "Moderation: the clueless leading the clueless."

What impressed me about his piece on blog comment moderation was that (1.) it grew out of paid work he was doing for a client, and (2.) so much of it was wrong:

For the fast few weeks, I have been working with a client regarding their comment moderation practices. This has inspired me to find a variety of resources like those at Ask E.T. on the subject.
Ask E.T. is short for "Ask Edward Tufte." It's a slow-moving sercon personal forum. He asked his questions in public, and they gave him an unobjectionable general answer. It's not what I'd call research.
Going through these resources a few things became clear.

* Companies and organizations should have some sort of blog policy clearly posted to the blog. This provides a reference document to justify the removal or denial of any comments.

No. You don't need a public policy to justify the removal or denial of comments. In fact, having a public policy is a liability. Before, commenters had no justifiable expectations. They just commented. Now, you've put the rules out where everyone can game them. You've also opened yourself up to accusations that you haven't followed your own rules.
A blog policy need not be complicated and should be expected to be subjective and for the ease of use for the moderator - not the commenter Push Button Paradise has a straight forward policy.

* Bloggers must adhere to their own blogging policy. If you have stated why you will remove comments, then it is important that you follow your own rules. This becomes particularly interesting if you have a blog comment contest.

Blog comment contests are lame. If they also expose you to the laws regarding the conduct of contests, so much the worse for them. Anyway, people don't comment to win prizes. They comment because they have something to say, they're interested in the conversation, and there are other people present whom they want to talk to.
* Comment moderation has become a sensitive issue very recently with the media exposure of the recent threatening comments received by Kathy Sierra. This is a clear justification for moderating comments on personal, organizational and group blogs.
This is clear justification for moderating comments on any blog, not that justification was needed. If you maintain a public forum, you have to have moderation.
* Posting of comments is not a free right to be expected by readers. The very basis of blogging is to promote conversation between individuals. You should expect a blog to be like someone’s home - they can always throw you out if they do not like you. A good summary of the whole commenting position is is offered by Nielsen Hayden.
I'm not going to argue with that, except to maybe point out that there are two Nielsen Haydens.
* Blog comments are not protected by any free speech right and rational commenters have never assumed such protections. This is why you have a policy, to show what is permitted. Indi has a nice post and series of comments on this subjet.
Okay, this is confused. Commenters don't have the same right to be heard on your blog that they have to be heard in society in general. They have freedom of speech, but you own your website, so neener. At the same time, a comment that's posted to a weblog and is accepted and displayed has the same right to not be censored by the government that the rest of the site enjoys.
* If you do moderate comments, simply be prepared for the reaction and provide an outlet for it.
If you're firm, polite, self-confident, and consistent, the only troublesome reactions you should get will be from net crazies who'd react badly no matter what you did. Having an outlet for disgruntled readers is a good idea if you're moderating a large board, but if you're a blog or a smallish site, the appropriate outlet is the rest of the web. Let your irate users go there to calm down.
The UAE community blog has an interesting thread on this point. Folks seem to agree moderation is expected. It is what you decided not to show that you must have a clear policy.
Perhaps there was a cut-and-paste error?
Do not simply choose to eliminate comments of those who do not agree with you
Darn straight. How are the rest of your readers going to learn the rules?
* Bloggers do not want to moderate comments.
Er. Um.
They usually feel they must to block out truly objectionable content that veer off of the subject matter or attacks (as opposed to debates) another individual’s opinions. The Atheist Experience has a good post on this choice.

* Don’t mock the comments you eliminate or whose posts you moderate. This aggravates the commenter and others.

True. The big temptation to avoid is altering your readers' messages. You can take all the vowels out of them, or delete them entirely, but start changing them and all hell will break loose.
Don’t let your commenters mock others either — unless that is your policy.
My policy is that anyone who's mocking anyone in my comment threads had better be good at it.

Thus for Dan Katz: not one of the bad guys, but he did an entire piece on comment moderation without once using the words troll, sockpuppet, random nutcase, or fixed ISP address. I'm afraid the online world is going to be a while figuring this stuff out.

#25 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 03:19 AM:

Teresa @ 24

I can't say I'm up to date on high-profile consultant fees these days, but based on past experience with consultants in the 90s, I'd guess that 10K / Month is a bare minimum, and 20 is probably more like it. And that's just for the principal and assumes the principal has time for other work as well. If this is a full time job then you should charge more, and if you provide the services of others as well you should be getting paid for them on either a per-diem or billable hour basis (or estimate probable needs and figure that into a fixed-cost contract).

#26 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:02 AM:

#18: Sally Quinn is the wife of Ben Bradlee, former Post editor-in-chief.

If any at the Post did notice, they knew enough to keep quiet and keep their jobs.

#27 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:00 AM:

One of my friends installed several mods on a board he runs. They were "anti-troll" mods, brilliant in their trickery.

There was one poster who would continually come back, with new names and I.P. addresses, after being banned. No sooner was one name banned than another would show up.

So instead of banning this new account or a whole block of IPs, he assigned this person the "troll" tag. What this does is make this person believe your site (or his internet) is acting up. If he tries to navigate through your page, or clicks on a post... and 60% of the time it won't load, or will take him back to the index with an error. When he posts it'll either hang forever without giving the posting confirmation message or it'll look as if he successfully made a post... but the post will never appear. It can be set so that this happens all the time, or so that a specific percentage of posts make it through. Hopefully the troll will grow tired of battling with your "broken forums" and go somewhere else.

Now, as long as this mod is used only in very very rare occasions, I think it is absolutely brilliant. The problem is, if it becomes well known that this mod exists, people will recognize it, or game it, or become paranoid they are being blocked whenever the site or their internet are having legitimate problems. This is fine when the boards or blog are explicitly yours, but can cause controversy when you're running a board for others.

I'm wondering if anyone here has any thoughts on this kind of thing.

#28 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:22 AM:

Leah (27): I don't have the technical chops, but I've occasionally done that on an informal all-manual basis.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:42 AM:

And yes, it's a dangerous maneuver. People resent secret rules and mechanisms. Also, inoffensive readers whose browsers are acting up will be sure they've done something wrong.

#30 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:28 AM:

>> Do not simply choose to eliminate comments of those who do not agree with you

Darn straight. How are the rest of your readers going to learn the rules?

I realize that you probably overlooked this as too obvious to mention and/or are joking here, but I think it might bear clarification: "Don't disagree with me" should not, not, not be one of the rules, or your public forum will never be worthy of participation by any being with two neurons to rub together.

Another temptation that I think is important to avoid is to create a double standard for acceptable tone - this amounts to censoring content, disguised as enforcing politeness. If you can't think of a way to rewrite the post so that it expresses the same ideas but is acceptably polite, then you're probably about to censor the ideas and not their manner of expression.

That's not necessarily bad - a blog is your private space and you may not want certain ideas in it - but you should be honest with yourself and your readers and other commenters about what you're doing. A demand for politeness shouldn't translate to "sit down and shut up" - if you really need to say that, you should say it, not disguise it.

#31 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:49 AM:

If CBS is like another large comment-enabled site I'm familiar with, their software is probably controlled by an outsourced IT department several time zones away from whoever runs the moderation, and has tools that would make everyone here laugh in derision. So getting things right would require a fairly large initial investment in addition to the $10K+ a month that moderation would cost (more because traffic at news sites tends to be very spiky, so that much of the time your crack moderation staff will be sitting idle, but you can't just lay them off and call them back when needed).

And even for CBS, whose credibility is worth more than most, it's not so much about whether that money would be worth it for reputation (because they can save reputation more cheaply) but whether it would be covered by the ads they sell into the extra page views on Obama threads. Dunno.

#32 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 01:01 PM:

Teresa #29:

I think you may be ignoring a scaling problem here. There are a bunch of things that are very different in moderating a discussion on Making Light or a newsgroup, even a very busy one, and moderating something like an election-year CBS news web discussion about one of the main candidates. Off the top of my head:

a. CBS news is a target in a way that ML will never be. It pays the astroturfers to play every game imagineable to get favorable coverage in a blog with CBS' name behind it and millions of readers.

b. CBS news is a huge, diverse organization, which probably isn't capable of having a coherent policy on what's acceptable that isn't written down, gone over by the legal department and the upper management, published on the web, etc. I can't see how you can do moderation on behalf of that large of an organization with your own judgement as the final arbiter of what's acceptable, and written policies seem to invite disputes in interpretation and gaming the system.

c. Paid moderators introduce the agency problem--they're not you, enforcing your views and rules, they're someone else, with their own incentives and goals. They may be partisan, they probably will enjoy the feeling of power, they may be wary of mistakes in a direction that could make them look bad or get them fired, they will likely not want to do things that require huge amounts of time and energy, etc.

d. CBS news (most large organizations) lives in a world of business and political and legal relationships, and it's very hard for me to imagine that this won't drive a lot of the moderation decisions.

I suspect there are more. My point is just that doing this on behalf of a big organization that's a big target is probably really different from doing it on behalf of a small organization, or a few individuals. You've probably already thought through a lot of these issues, since you're researching a book on it....

#33 ::: Graham Blake ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 06:39 PM:

Deviating slightly from the discussion of moderation proper, and addressing the topic within which it arose...

I would agree that there are comments which degrade the level of discourse, and are best removed from the commons. However, I am not convinced that vitriol alone is sufficient to warrant comment deletion, let alone justify shutting down of comments regarding Obama and his campaign. I am quite curious to know how thin-skinned CBS is acting in all of this.

I am always concerned by the suppression of racist and other forms of hate speech. All too often I feel that sweeping this speech under the rug is more an act of denial than it is a defense of tolerance and equality. We grow uncomfortable when we are made to realise that racism is alive and well in our society. I think we should be uncomfortable about that. I don't think the solution to racism is to pretend it doesn't exist by removing racist speech from the public discourse. I am all for inviting the bigots of society out of their closets and into the light.

If Obama's campaign threatens to be successful I think it will provide us with a fresh opportunity to have a good look at ourselves and see intolerance within our society. It will bring out the kooks, to be sure, but kooks on parade will give everyone else an opportunity to demonstrate that we wish to rise above this mindless bigotry that still festers within our culture.

#34 ::: Dori ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:43 PM:

Bruce @ 25: two thoughts...

1) The current going rate for moderators with 10+ years of online community experience is health insurance + chicken feed. I know that personally, because I'd be thrilled to be offered it. And I'm willing to negotiate on the chicken feed.

2) If there really are jobs that pay that kind of $$$ to someone full-time, could you please let me know where employers like that can be found? Please?

#35 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:50 PM:

Graham #33: There's a lot to be said for the argument that racist slime ought to be exposed to the cleansing light of day.

I think it ought to be ruthlessly deleted when it's preventing a civilized conversation between normal decent human beings. The slimemeisters ought not be allowed to shout everyone else down.

There are moderation techniques for accomplishing both ends.

#36 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:58 PM:

#35 Patrick:

It seems like there's a pretty big difference between offensive screeds with a racist overtone, and racist ideas, or ideas that aid and comfort racists but have some independent existence. It's easy to recognize a foul-mouthed screed, and just as easy to decide what to do with it. It's much less obvious what to do with a discussion of the achievement gap that posits that the black/white IQ difference is the cause of the gap.

A lot of those topics are not discussed explicitly because it's hard to do without flames and name-calling. I don't know how someone as high-priority, and susceptible to boycott and political threat as CBS news, would respond.

#37 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 11:38 PM:

Patrick, #35: Thank you. You've just expressed something that's been bugging me for a long time about the "let them talk so you know who they are" argument.

And I think there's another piece of it as well: there's at least a perception that "what can be discussed is socially acceptable." This is certainly the reasoning behind recent Christianist attempts to outlaw "any positive mention" of homosexuality, and there's some plausibility to it. By the same token, one can argue that allowing free rein to people who express viciously racist ideas merely perpetuates the social legitimacy of vicious racism.

#38 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:41 AM:

Dori @ 34

The current going rate for moderators with 10+ years of online community experience is health insurance + chicken feed

You misunderstand me: this isn't a salary for a single permanent employee, or even a contract worker. This is a consultancy fee from one corporation to another; a service contract. As I said, I'm a little behind the times, but in the mid-90's the going rate to put a consultant engineer into a customer site for one day was $2K. Obviously less for a long term contract, but that figure would certainly be good for any contract shorter than a couple of weeks.

The reason for this is that at the time, the fully loaded cost to a medium-to-large corporation for a senior technical employee (design engineer, web architect, site provisioning planner, or whatnot) was $250K / year. By fully loaded, I mean all direct costs such as the employee's compensation package, travel expenses, training, etc., plus the per capita indirect costs like equipment amortization, facilities costs, admin support, etc., etc.

If company is to recoup that money for an employee who fulfills a consultant contract for it, the company must charge more than that per year. Failing that, they have to get some other benefit from the employee, for instance by owning any technology developed by the employee in the course of the contract.

So, sorry to spoil your vision of sugar plums, but the employee isn't the one who gets all the money.

#39 ::: Graham Blake ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:43 AM:

My apologies for any excessive verbiage to follow.

Patrick #35:

Agreed on all points. I only hope we can find a way to offer the newly emboldened racists enough rope to hang themselves.

albatross #36:

I also doubt CBS would want to wade into these waters. Mainstream media spends more effort reflecting an image of America back upon itself that Americans can live with than it does mediating public discourse in any meaningful way. I am not exactly optimistic that they are going to let themselves be used as a soapbox for a segment of the population a lot of people would rather pretend didn't exist. The excuse that they don't have the resources to moderate their forums is a convenient way of avoiding ugly truths and meaningful discourse.

Lee #37:

While I appreciate the sentiment behind your words, this sounds an awful lot like an argument for suppressing speech we disagree with as the path to having our ideas triumph over another's. Book burning and forbidden speech lies at the bottom of that slope.

I believe that an open commerce of ideas is the path to a rational consensus. I agree that discussion of homosexuality in a positive light has contributed to a growing tolerance within society, but I do not believe that tolerance is a direct result of positive speech alone, or even primarily. Positive speech and honest discourse has contributed to a wider recognition of an inherent truth, that gays are coincidentally also human beings entitled to civil rights, dignity, and tolerance. Racist speech has no such inherent truth working in its favour.

The inherent truth, in the Obama context, is that yes, a black man can be perfectly capable of serving as president of the United States, thank you very much. No amount of hate speech is going to change that. In fact, if politicians and pundits are forced to come out and publicly rise above the racists and bigots, then maybe, just maybe, they will bring some others out of that muck with them.

All that being said, I am not advocating a free for all of every vile racial epithet in every public forum. I would just like to see the true dialogue of America happening in an open enough way that people have to make a real declaration about what is right and what is wrong in a national debate that includes racial bigotry.

#40 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:53 AM:

Graham Blake @ 33

I agree with you that an Obama campaign with a perceived likelihood of success would bring out some of the racism that the US is currently in denial of. That's why I favor his campaign, not because I think he's the best person for the job*.

Just because I'm basically Chaotic Nasty, what I'd really like to see is an Obama / Clinton ticket. The election would be the ugliest thing that's happened in this country since slavery**, but if they won, it would leave the Republicans, especially the neobarbs, in position of making damn sure that nothing happened to Obama, because then Clinton would succeed him ... !

* Though I think everyone here will agree that he's certainly not the worst.

** And I'm not in the slightest convinced that that statement is hyperbole.

#41 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 08:14 AM:

#40 Bruce:

In my nasty moments, I hope for a Clinton vs Gingrich election. You've just gotta love an election where both major candidates start out with a 40% or so negative association.

#42 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 08:27 AM:

#37 Lee:

This has an interesting link to the earlier discussion of the Overton window, right? The window of acceptable positions is largely defined by what the MSM put on.

I think it's very hard to deny that allowing positive references to gays/lesbians in the media, and openly gay/lesbian characters in stories and personalities, has made homosexuality more socially acceptable.

But if you follow this line, I think you end up with CBS or the big MSM companies deciding what ideas are acceptable in their blog moderation, and even excluding discussions of real issues because they tread too close to the line. That seems fundamentally different from shutting down trolls.

Maybe that's necessary for running a blog, another part of enforcing community standards. But it seems like a kind-of lousy way to limit discussion on articles about the presidential candidates.

#43 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 09:41 AM:

albatross @ 42

But if you follow this line, I think you end up with CBS or the big MSM companies deciding what ideas are acceptable in their blog moderation, and even excluding discussions of real issues because they tread too close to the line.

Isn't that exactly what the big media providers have been doing for decades? Oh, it was certainly more comprehensive, and, if you were looking, more overt, than it is now*. And that's what the current conglomeration in media providers is about. In the person of Rupert Murdoch, the capitalist oligopoly that thinks it owns the US** is attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together and present a single "acceptable practices" view of the world to us.

So having an outsider with a respect for discourse and a determination to foster diversity of expression without letting it drown out rationality moderating the blog of one of the big providers might be one of the most revolutionary actions possible in the current political environment.

* and in some respects that's the providers' own fault, since they went along with the narrowcasting concept, thinking to create a lot more markets for themselves, and suddenly found themselves depicting more than one version of reality.

** Regrettably, they have some justification for that thought.

#44 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:17 PM:

Graham, #37: There are times when I feel uncomfortably caught in the middle about this sort of issue. For example, it's hard to reconcile the argument that "violent video games don't promote real-life violence" with the real-life statements I hear from gays that things like having sympathetic gay characters in TV programs do work toward lessening the marginalization of GLBT people as a group. Both of these are things I want to believe, but they appear (at least on the surface) contradictory. And a lot of times it really does seem that whether "suppression of speech" is seen as a good or bad thing depends on which speech it is and whose side of the argument about said speech you're on.

I hope that makes my original statement more clear. And I do appreciate your response, because you've presented an angle I hadn't thought of before that I believe will help me refine my position.

#45 ::: Graham Blake ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 05:20 PM:

Lee #44:

I feel some ambivalence myself. I do not want to see this presidential campaign get derailed by a debate that centres exclusively on the race issue.

I do agree 100% that sympathetic gay characters on TV have significantly contributed to advancing the cause of civil rights, equality, and tolerance for gays in society. However, I do not believe racist dialogue emerging from the underground will lead to a wider acceptance and tolerance of racism in society. I do not foresee charming episodes of Little Racist House on the Prairie winning over the hearts and minds of the American public.

Most significantly, as Teresa raises in the original post, we can't allow fear of the ugly underbelly of society to hijack the public discourse at a pivotal moment in history - and believe you me, potentially electing an American President that isn't a pasty white dude is a pivotal moment in history. For too long the progressives of society have reeled in fear from the attacks of the right. Maybe this stems from a fear of fighting dirty. This is one area where we should have no fear of losing the debate, and no need to fight dirty. The moral high ground doesn't come any easier to hold than it does in this debate. To avoid it altogether would be a missed opportunity.

#46 ::: BigAl ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 12:52 PM:

Graham, Patrick, Lee and Albatross (all)

REally key point (made by one of you and I can't remember which, sorry).

At the bottom of the slope is the funeral pyre on which we heap books, personal liberty . . . Like anything, if I outlaw you today then . . .

So sure, I, just like everybody else, get a little ticked off (okay more than a little) by Coulter & Company. And there's far more out there that's totally vile because its anonymous. But I still maintain that its far better to fight for their right to say whatever they want, where ever they want, when ever they want, and most importantly HOW ever they want. Yes I've been offended (quite often) reading some of this trash. But being offended is unfortunately one of the prices paid. It's not free, in fact, it ain't even cheap! this thing we call freedom.

Beyond shouting "Fire!" in the crowded theatre, the debate needs to take place absent any restraints.

#47 ::: Jeremy Preacher ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 01:51 PM:

There's actually a whole industry full of professional moderators - the online gaming industry. We're mostly in the MMO side of things, but we have RTS and FPS folks in our clan as well. We're generally called "Community Managers" and most of us do quite a few more things than simple board moderation, but managing the expectations, reactions, and overall tone of a group of interested people on the internet is what they pay us for. It's a comparatively new profession but we've seen it spreading outside of our industry, and of course we all fervently hope it will continue to spread. Situations like this one make it even more apparent that a) we should be paid more and b) more places need to hire us.

(I know a couple of us lurk here, at least - hey, guys!)

#48 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2007, 03:00 AM:

BigAl, fine. Bt i thnk smthng wll b mssng.

#49 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2007, 09:12 PM:


$10K/month says "I'm a pretty good professional."

$50K/month says "I own the field, you can either hire me or someone incompetent."

I'd go with asking for $250K/month and you bring on your entire team, guaranteeing 24/7 service.

#50 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2007, 09:20 PM:


There's always the slashdot mechanism. Let them post anything, others can rate it (ability to rate is controlled via a meta-mechanism, based perhaps on how ratings agree with some standard), and the interface shows high-rated stuff by default. That way, no troll can interfere with the civilized conversation; the only requirement is that the civilized people have the rating power.

#51 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2007, 10:41 PM:

Bruce at 40: Am I the only one who read your comment with a shiver? The country is not in a good place at the moment. I remember very clearly what it felt like to lose, in what seemed like very quick succession, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy (the last two were in quick succession, just two months apart.) I don't want to go there again, and I believe it would be quite possible.

That said, I have to add, I don't support Hillary Clinton, for all kinds of reasons, and I rather like Obama.

Oh God, it's too early to do this.

#52 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 12, 2007, 02:04 AM:

Lizzy L @ 51

I make jokes about it all, but you are right, there is a distinct possibility of some deeply bad things happening.

As long as we don't deal with the problem of race in this country for good and all, it's going to hang over us, and somewhere along the line somebody, black or white, is going to twist the volume knob up to 11 for personal or political advantage and cities will burn. It's happened before. It doesn't have to happen again, but it will if we keep pretending the problem isn't there.

That's the one good thing about the kind of situation that an Obama campaign might bring: the masks come off, and we all have to stop pretending they weren't there.

Not that I like the idea. I lived through the 60's too. My wife came out of a subway one evening to find a riot that, according to the police and all the history books, never happened. No one knows how many people died in that city that night, if any, and probably no one ever will. I don't want to have that happen ever again.

#53 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: May 12, 2007, 11:17 AM:

Randolph said:

Y'know, I think moderation will eventually become a high-paid profession. Part of the problem, I think, is that CBS and the Post haven't yet figured out that this is what they need. . .

All of this discussion assumes that CBS wants actual discussion on their web site, as opposed to grudgingly including discussion boards because they were told that one can't have a web site without them.

#54 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: May 13, 2007, 07:20 PM:

#47 Jeremy: Can you recommend a company to apply to? Or perhaps companies?

Teresa, which company does your friend work for?

#55 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 13, 2007, 11:45 PM:

I'll have to ask my friend how he wants to be described.

#56 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2007, 12:05 AM:

Spherical, he says he wants to be described in ways that can't possibly give away any clues as to where he works.

#57 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2007, 07:27 AM:

Seth @50: There's always the slashdot mechanism

The slashdot mechanism is, unfortunately, too flawed to use on a site where you hope to promote serious discussion, IMO. Aside from the abuses of the system that occur on the slashdot site (I, for instance, have been permanently banned from moderating slashdot since some time around 2002 for some unknown offence -- perhaps moderating an editor down without realising who it was), it has two major problems:

* Gaming the system to gain moderator points is easy: post a few comments you know will be popular (it helps if you hang around to get one of the first twenty-or-so posts when a new story appears) and then you'll quickly get moderation points to do what you want with.
* It discourages open discussion, because people will generally only moderate up posts they agree with, effectively meaning that unpopular opinions end up being ignored.

#58 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2007, 01:16 AM:

A moderator needs to keep the peace,
to banish trolls and those who flame and rail.
Without respect the flame wars will not cease.

Discourse would fail if there were no police.
Enforcement cannot use the threat of jail.
A moderator needs to keep the peace.

Ignoring bullies will not give surcease;
facing their ranting anyone would pale.
Without respect the flame wars will not cease.

Once started pileups surely will increase.
Each poster adds a share of fire to the bale.
A moderator needs to keep the peace.

A flamer vents his spleen to get release
then hunts more victims, hammer seeking nail.
Without respect the flame wars will not cease.

No scheme will all the posters please;
some hope for reasoned speech to fail.
A moderator needs to keep the peace.
Without respect the flame wars will not cease.

#59 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2007, 06:59 PM:

I still can't do vilanelles.

We value moderation in all things.
The edges may define the battleground
But on their own, unbalanced and unsound,
They cannot make the peace consensus brings.
And sometimes in the drive to win a fight
Participants forget that victory
Is counted in the people who now see
The world anew, not in who's proven right.
A careful gardener of good debate
Can prune the branches, leave the essence whole,
Protect the fragile, dsmvwl th trll,
And understanding on all sides create.
Because we need what conversation brings
We value moderation in all things.

#60 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2007, 07:18 PM:

A good moderator must keep a steady flow,
keep watch for trouble without giving blame
and let the players get on with the show.

It's not a job that gives the worker dough,
to keep things steady, keep eyes on the game,
a good moderator must keep a steady flow.

You've got to ward off the desire to crow;
you get the trolls out, make them flee in shame
and let the players get on with the show.

You can't be certain that things are just so,
but still you're not here simply for the fame:
a good moderator must keep a steady flow.

There's much to do, and even more to know,
you've got to take the nimble with the lame
and let the players get on with the show.

This task requires you keep an even glow
to light the hopeful and ward off the flame;
a good moderator must keep a steady flow
and let the players get on with the game.

#61 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2007, 07:37 PM:

Jules #57

I didn't mean to suggest doing it exactly the way Slashdot does. We can learn from their mistakes. (Though they seemed to be doing some meta-rating a while ago; did that help?)

I did suggest including a mechanism for determining who can rate, which has nothing to do with making popular comments.

The ideal method is more like what I suggested for Usenet many years ago (and never got implemented): anybody can rate any article (perhaps in several dimensions). The software shows you articles that it think you would give high ratings to based on the ratings it got from others and how well they correlate with yours. That blocks troll raters, because others will assign them negative (or approximately zero) weight.

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