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Delay In Removing An Insulting Comment

By Andy Alexander

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 interactivity@washingtonpost.com.

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.

By Andy Alexander  | September 2, 2009; 2:34 PM ET
 
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Comments

First, you could have written this blog without repeating the false, scurrilous allegations about Ms. Kagan's personal life; it would have been sufficient to say that they were false and quite probably slanderous/libelous. It is not particularly helpful to remove the nasty post when you repeat its content.

Second; I understand the WaPo, like everyone else, has limited staff. However, I think abuse complaints should have a very high priority for your "interactivity" staff, so that posts such as the one you reference are removed promptly - i.e., within 30 minutes of the abuse button being clicked.

Posted by: vklip | September 2, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

so that posts such as the one you reference are removed promptly - i.e., within 30 minutes of the abuse button being clicked.

Posted by: vklip | September 2, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

No... five minutes.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | September 2, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it is time to change Federal law to impose limited liability on the publishers of the comments as well as the author.

I am not suggesting the Post or other newspapers assume immediate responsibility for these unedited comments. But clearly the wild west, uncontrolled and unmonitored facilitation of slander is not fair either.

In my opinion the law should be changed so that the web publisher has eight to twenty-four hours from first notice (e.g. the Abuse report click) to remove the comment before becoming resonsible for its posting.

The fact is these Posting, because they are part of the Post's website reflect on the Post. I think the Post should enlist volunteer moitors who are responsible to the Post for these threads. The LA Times monitors most submissions and their comments section is much more intelligent and readable.

The comment section in the Post is offensive. Of course, so are many of Andrew's columns and blogs.

Posted by: krush01 | September 3, 2009 5:56 AM | Report abuse

I guess republishing the scurrilous comments in the context of discussing the failure to remove them promptly constitutes "fair use"?

(For those who missed both the original posting AND the column above, an anonymous poster accused Cheryl Kagan of REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED.)

Posted by: TheProFromDover | September 3, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

To discuss the issue of not removing scurrilous comments in a timely manner, you *repeat* the scurrilous comments? Does that make sense?

As for the statement "Commenters who get blocked sometimes re-register under another anonymous handle, but Straus said this tactic isn’t often used," who is Straus kidding?! Not only do they re-register, their new comments typically include a reference to their previous handle(s) so that everyone who previously found them infuriating can continue to be infuriated.

Posted by: multiplepov | September 3, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

When is this Hal Straus going to be held accountable for these continuing attacks on civility?

Posted by: Michael_Corones | September 3, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

What is this unnamed "Federal law" that indemnifies web site owners for publishing third-party comments?

Really. It would be nice to have a cite. I had no idea Congress was tech-savvy enough to craft such a law.

Posted by: DupontJay | September 3, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

I've moderated high volumes of comments for newspaper sites. One full-time, lower-level staffer dedicated to comments can monitor and moderate 20,000 per week with occasional guidance from a higher-level editor. If the Washington Post values discussion from commentors it must put forward the relatively small amount of resources it takes to keep comments viable and clean. Newspapers that treat comment moderation as unimportant might as well trash their commenting systems altogether.

Posted by: ewalsh | September 3, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Unedited, anonymous comment sections have offered little but profanity to public discourse. At the very least, readers should be required to list their names and hometowns, just as they do for letters to the editor. I have yet to hear newspapers properly justify these sections. They are a blight on the newspaper/journalism industry. Chris Poore, Lexington, KY

Posted by: thepoorehouse | September 3, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to present the opposing view to most of these comments.

First, while certainly the Post must become more responsive in removing offensive comments, I applaud the Post's courage in allowing the immediate posting of unredacted comments. I like seeing the unfiltered public response to the news and opinion in the Post, horrifying though it sometimes is. I use the Report Abuse frequently, too, because I believe we all share the responsibility for keeping public discourse civil.

Second, I see no wrong in repeating the harmful allegations in this context, where they are clearly labeled as untrue, irresponsible, and the work of an eccentric who abuses the public trust. The Kagans are not harmed by this.

Posted by: martimr1 | September 3, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

If only about 150 messages a week get removed---out of sometimes more than 20,000---I would say that is a stunning success. It suggests that more than 99% of comments on the Post site fall within the rules. What I would like to know is how many comments are reported to moderators as objectionable where the complaint is NOT sustained and the comment NOT removed.

In other words, in the view of moderators, how many complaints have no merit?!

Yes, there are opinions and comments that are incendiary, and sometimes deliberately so. But there are FAR MORE opinions that are simply unpopular and impolitic and, yes, even abrasive, but do NOT fall obviously outside the rules as written.

Just as there are trolls lurking in these forums, posting to provoke, there are also those who routinely declare umbrage at the posting of views that refute or dismiss or ridicule one orthodoxy or another. Free exchange of ideas makes for some rough edges, and the Washington post ought not pay employees to suppress robust, even sharp, debate. Certainly not if the goal is merely to preserve decorum and protect the sensibilities of genteel readers.

Toughen up, people.

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | September 3, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

ewalsh,

Let's see. 20,000 comments per week. One "lower-level staffer" working 40 hours. That works out to, on average, 500 comments per hour. (And, of course, the volume is much, much higher during peak times, since the majority of those 20,00 comments are submitted during daytime hours, Monday through Friday.) That works out to about eight comments a minute, or one every 7.2 seconds.

Meaning that in about the time it took to read this comment, three more would have come in.

I'd love to see you -- or any one person, low-, high-, or mid-level -- keep an eye on that many comments.

This is not to excuse The Post's laxity in this particular case. But let's not pretend that monitoring reader comments at a large news site is a simple matter requiring little commitment of resources. It is not.

Posted by: btomaso | September 3, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Re: DupontJay

I think it's Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Not sure if I can post the link here, but there's plenty of info on it all over the Interwebs.

Posted by: AnonymousPost | September 3, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

when i was a newspaper editor we had uh, well, editors. -- william of san antonio.

Posted by: okpress | September 3, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Freedom of Speech can be abused by creeps and liars. It is called deceit and manipulation.

What do we do? I would rather see these blogs notwithstanding the risk of abuse.

WAPO must be aware that many blogs are insulting and demeaning and yet if it does not quickly respond to an alarm bell then it has to do better next time.

Ms Kagan may be consoled by the idea that each blog is probably only read by a handful of people and that most of us are broad-minded enough to discount wild claims.

Posted by: robertjames1 | September 3, 2009 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry, George Will and the other extreme right wingers here have had clear and provable falsehoods in print for weeks if not years and no one has ever corrected those.

You should read Kinsley's column today (he's one of the "extreme left wing radical liberals" that the Washington Post presents to balance all of the extreme right wingers and Neocons writing for the paper. One of the more hilarious ideas in the universe that Kinsley would be seen that way). It sheds some light on how about 99% of the efforts that this newspaper makes at any sort of accountability are just blowing smoke, to cover up the real lies that you print daily and no one corrects.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | September 4, 2009 5:31 AM | Report abuse

btomaso wrote:

I'd love to see you -- or any one person, low-, high-, or mid-level -- keep an eye on that many comments.

******

Other sites manage to handle it just fine. The Washington Post is pathetically inept at online publishing. Just tacking on a wide-open "comments" section and then having someone frantically run around trying to delete only the most offensive ones is no way to run an online forum of any kind.

The WAPO has gotten everything about Internet-based writing wrong, including but not limited to letting go one of the real stars of the blogsophere, Dan Froomkin who's now thriving at the Huffington Post.

Fair enough that there's a learning curve involved, but that's no excuse really, it was the WAPO's decision to engage in Internet publishing big time, no one forced them to. If you're going to put everything online and then pay so little real attention to it ("maybe next year we''ll start having some sort of real comment controls and policy, we'll see") then you deserve all of the complaints you get.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | September 4, 2009 5:37 AM | Report abuse

One wonders what the speed of the correction would have been--or if the comment would have appeared at all--had the candidate been one of your right-wing friends.

Posted by: kstack | September 4, 2009 5:45 AM | Report abuse

"Under federal law, those posting the comment -- not the Web site carrying the remark -- are responsible for it."

Whatever happened to newspapers, as a matter of journalistic ethics, taking responsibility for everything they print, regardless of who wrote it?

As a result of its apparent desire to fashion an economically successful online business model, the Post has recently ventured into the unregulated Internet morass where journalistic ethics are considered a quaint and unaffordable relic of the past.

Have the ethical standards of adherance to the truth and responsibility for what is printed been replaced by the standard of federal law not holding Web sites responsible for what posters write? If so, then look at how far the Post has fallen in its quest for revenue.

To cite Web law and its treatment of what is "printed" as being different for online material and as an excuse for a lack of editorial control (as opposed to the higher standards for the print edition of the Post) is the height of hypocrisy.

Saying that the Post does not have the editorial staff to police its online comment system -- and to note that they plan to address it with a software solution -- misses the point. If the Post cares about ethical standards, it needs to hire sufficient editorial staff, not lower its standards or look for a new piece of software.

I was saddened by the recent discussion of the incident where some online Post staffers posted something that was in poor taste. The ombudsman's pained response recounted the pressures the Post was under to compete in the online world, saying that such transgressions were to be expected. I don't expect them, and will not accept them. There was an almost plaintive and defiant tone to the ombudsman's remarks, as if to say "we are under cash pressure and we will continue to experiment to survive."

Sometimes mere survival is not the honorable thing to which a newspaper should aspire, especially when the effort causes it to violate journalistic ethics.

Posted by: tedb1 | September 4, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse


Well, their names are Kagan and Spitzer...
so,

of course they deserve their own column here. Right?

what if they weren't 'special'? The bad stuff would still be on line. Would it not?
Like the rest of us.

The Post, strangled and stupid and a mess, still did it's best for them. Others who've been abused, with different names,
can go haul.

Posted by: tryhard3 | September 5, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse


The Post never takes out any post in Praise of Israel,

or of someone blasting an anti-Israel comment.

Sometimes a post that gets a little too close to 'less than praise' there disappears.

Most people are clever enough to couch their sentiments carefully...

Posted by: tryhard3 | September 5, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

It's alwayssomething b oss. Right?

Posted by: Dermitt | September 6, 2009 9:19 PM | Report abuse

I have alerted moderation of countless comments violating the guidelines, rants that were obviously personal attacks and/or outright obscenitiy and vulgarity. I never saw that even one of them was removed. The numbers mentioned here, only 100 to 150 removed out of about 20000 comments show that it really takes totally over the top abuse, like calling to murder someone, for the moderation to take action.

But every reasonable reader taking a quick look at the threads will find that at least 10%, of comments, if not more, violate the rules. So that only 150 out of more than 2000 offenses are deleted raises serious doubts about the moderation team really doing their job. Imho they are not an "interactivity team", but an "inactivity team"! And new, improved software next year is good and well, but it's no excuse for Straus and his stuff not doing their job now. They are simply not up to their task, and this should result in personal consequences now!

And don't tell us they're understaffed. A good mod can review more than 3 comments a minute, 150 in an hour with a ten minute break, 1200 during a workday. So, even a single mod should be able to easily find and delete more than 150 comments among these! Especially since readers are actually helping him with this by flagging inappropriate content, and so he only has to read a part of the comments posted. And other websites, even blogs, with much snmaller financial resources than the Post, are doing a much better job than WaPo's inactivity team! The performance of Straus and his posse is totally pathetic in comparison. A shame for the Post.

Posted by: Gray62 | September 7, 2009 6:19 AM | Report abuse

You make a good point, Gray62. But you see, only 1/3 of the people employed by the Post actually do any work. And they also do the work of the other 2/3s who are out on the golf course. :-)

The Post only wants to have the novelty of being an online news organization, but not the responsibility. Takes too much effort.

Posted by: exPostie | September 9, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

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