Delay In Removing An Insulting Comment
Cheryl Kagan is familiar with the rough and tumble of politics. She served eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates. Now the Montgomery County native is running for the state Senate. But she and her husband were taken aback last Friday when they were alerted to an insulting anonymous comment on the Post’s Web site. They were also surprised it took several days to get it removed.
Under an eight paragraph story about the Montgomery College faculty voting no-confidence in the school’s president -- a story in which Kagan wasn’t even mentioned -- a commenter using the handle “immigrantjustice” wrote that “everyone knows” Kagan has “carried on” with a member of the Montgomery College board of trustees.
“In fact,” the comment continued, “her carrying on with others husbands has put newe [sic] meaning in ‘a woman’s right to choose,’ as she is so fond of saying.”
It also said Kagan had gotten a teaching job at Montgomery College “when everyone knows she is as dumb as a doornail.” Kagan is a graduate of Vassar College.
Kagan, who is married to Montgomery County public school teacher David Spitzer, told me by phone that the accusations of infidelity are “completely and totally and thoroughly untrue.”
“If someone anonymous can post ugly and unsubstantiated personal attacks that can remain for several days” before being removed, she said, “that’s quite troubling.”
Also troubling, the Kagans say, is that it took numerous phone calls and at least two online “Report Abuse” alerts to The Post before the comment disappeared from the site. The Kagans say they, or those calling on their behalf, spoke with at least a half dozen Post editors, writers or editorial assistants over several days before the comments were permanently removed.
It’s another example of the challenge faced by The Post, which has a limited staff to monitor comments that can exceed 20,000 in a week. Under The Post’s system, comments appear immediately after readers submit them. In a typical week, between 100 and 150 are removed because they are deemed inappropriate.
In this case, it appears there was confusion on the part of Post newsroom personnel on how to alert the Web site to remove the comments.
Hal Straus, who runs the “Interactivity” group that handles commenting, acknowledged the delay. The complaints about the Kagan comments “weren’t conveyed to the Interactivity team promptly,” he said in an e-mail.
Before readers can post comments on the Web site, they must first agree to a set of rules that define broad categories of “inappropriate content.”
Readers who spot comments that appear to violate the rules are urged to click on the “Report Abuse” link next to the remark. That alerts one of The Post’s monitors, who are supposed to evaluate the content and remove it if it doesn’t comply. The Kagan’s say the “Report Abuse” alert was used at least twice before the “immigrantjustice” comment was deleted shortly after 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Straus said readers can also alert his staff by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Under federal law, those posting the comment -- not the Web site carrying the remark -- are responsible for it.
In this case, Straus said, he reviewed the commenting history of “immigrantjustice” and “saw that we’d deleted several of his/her previous comments and that a number of others were borderline.” Based on that track record, Straus said, he blocked “immigrantjustice” from posting further comments.
Commenters who get blocked sometimes re-register under another anonymous handle, but Straus said this tactic isn’t often used.
What can be done?
Straus said newsroom personnel are being reminded about how to quickly alert the Web site when they are notified of an abusive comment.
Some Web sites have technology that will “quarantine” any remark submitted by a commenter with a history of abuse. It then must be reviewed before being posted.
A comment filtering system “based on user ‘reputation’ is part of many discussion tools -- but not ours,” Straus said. The Post next year will fully implement a new “content management system” for processing all print and online content. Straus said he is “confident” it will include new tools to help better control abusive comments.
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