Last week, a tornado of opinion touched down on this film review at The Scope's web site including one comment that was quite malignant.
Within days, editor Elling Lien moved in with a virtual bulldozer to wipe the mess clean.
It started when freelancer Adam Clarke wrote a balanced but ultimately critical review of Down to the Dirt, the recent film based on the novel by (and starring) Joel Hynes.
The review generated some colourful online comment, either agreeing with or opposing Clarke's critique.
But then, a more menacing post appeared, actually threatening Clarke and advising him to watch his back. It was signed by Joel Hynes'.
It was, however, an impostor. Several hours later, the real Joel Hynes called Elling Lien, making it clear that he did not write the post. Somebody was playing a nasty game of make believe. Lien immediately removed the bogus comment.
At this juncture, Lien received a message from me, asking about the comment.
"Actually, to tell the truth I'm thinking of deleting the rest of the comments attached to that article," Lien replied. "People - on either side of the critical fence - were getting mean, and I don't think it should be our role to publish that stuff. I'll defend the article, but I won't defend all the comments posted, so I'm wrestling with that. Do these comments stand up to our mission statement?
Not long after sending me this note, Lien went in and deleted all comments from the film review.
"It's good to offer fair criticism, but not cool to be mean about it," he said, "especially in such a small arts scene as we have here. I think criticism is an important part of the creative process, but can get to be just a scrap. And that's no good for anyone. The internet is the wild, wild west."
On that last comment, I agreed, and offered my solution.
"One way to address it is to not allow anonymous comments," I wrote. "People are generally more circumspect and thoughtful when they are 'on the record' when people aren't willing to stand behind their opinions, you have every reason to delete."
Elling did not agree with me on this point.
"I'm definitely opposed to pre-moderated comments," was his reply. "I think they're a real barrier to communication. I get frustrated when I post something and don't see it appear right away (ie. The Telegram>:))
"In my gut I'm pretty sure it's just as good for the site owner to have automatic comments and not be not aware than it is to approve something that is libelous or illegal."
Lien added that this is not the first time he has seen a dust-up in the comments' section. For him, it goes back to "pre-Internet" days, when early adopters were actually using telephone-line modems to connect and communicate.
"I used to host a local BBS (bulletin board system) back in the just-pre-Internet days called Line Noise. People would call my private line and connect to my 2400 baud modem connected to my Mac Classic which had a message board and a primitive file sharing system. We had about 400 users, and the discussions would get pretty heated. I would delete things if they got personal or out of hand, but usually I'd leave things alone."
Things got a little out of hand when, one day, his father received a call from the police, informing him that his son was teaching people how to make bombs.
"These days, type how to make a bomb' into Google and you turn up 247,000 results, but back then it was thought to be top secret information," Lien said. "Apparently some kid had discovered a file on the BBS, and had told his buddies he was going to build a bomb. I had no idea the file was on there, since someone had submitted it and it went online automatically. The police, who weren't familiar with BBSes or the Internet at all (or maybe they had some 'expert' who had taken a two hour course or something) got pretty suspicious of me and the site... They told my dad they had a record of all the numbers I'd phoned from that number and were going to monitor the site. I definitely deleted it right away, but that was it. It was weird, and I was scared by the whole thing, but the idea I should pre-moderate the BBS still seemed out of the question and contrary to what people appreciated about the site."
Yes, the Internet was and still is the wild west of electronic communication.
We wandered a little there, but it's interesting stuff. Now, back to topic: online impostors, and ways to prevent this and other abuse of comment systems.
I know that certain local bloggers have been victimized by this behavior, in that their names have been signed by unknown people to inflammatory comments to posts at other blog sites. The intent, of course, was to make the victim look ill-informed or inept.
If you have a story to share, or an opinion to express on how to monitor the comments section, please comment below.