EDITOR’S NOTE: Message boarders’ anonymity is not the only way to fix feedback forums

CHARLES TOWN – Some weeks back, I posted a story on my Facebook wall I thought was interesting, and soon found myself in a discussion with a few friends, a couple of whom disagreed with me. A back and forth ensued, others piled on, and then, predictably, the topic soon derailed amidst a flurry of four-letter word bombs and you- don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-abouts — I had long ago dropped out of the conversation and don’t even remember what the article was about — such that I threw up my hands and deleted the whole thread. Another day, another Facebook exchange.

But it’s like that just about anywhere.

Scroll down into the message board well of any story on a news website and it won’t be long until you find the fur flying. Those who study online media believe the descent into incivility is primarily a product of the anonymity granted these message boarders. That’s probably part of the problem, but as I witness all the time on Facebook where members use their real names, there’s no shortage of people disagreeing disagreeably. There’s no shortage either of bigotry, boorishness, hatefulness, threats of violence and stupidity with nobody making much of an effort to police themselves. It’s for that reason that I don’t hold out much hope that the effort written about recently by AP Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay of news sites efforts to tame the “Wild West” of Internet discourse by requiring users to sign in under their real names or register their email addresses will have the fully intended effect.

What will have an effect — and what worries me — is a plan by the Huffington Post and others to hire moderators to both screen, edit and delete readers’ posts for evidence of racism, homophobia and other forms of hate speech.

On the one hand, as the recent fallout over published comments by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson demonstrate, intolerance and bigotry cut both ways and online moderators will find they have their work cut out for them in trying to determine where a world view born of religious conviction ends and bigotry begins.

More worrisome to me is what happens when online moderators start tinkering with the content of readers’ posts. Currently, federal law protects newspapers from legal liability as a result of the otherwise- defamatory rantings of third-party posters, both those who inhabit message boards and bloggers, but I can imagine a scenario where that protection could be placed at risk if well-intentioned monitors start editing message boards.

Newspapers welcome feedback and interactivity with their readers. And readers clearly enjoy having the outlet within which to vent their opinions, if the popularity of message boards and such features as the Martinsburg Journal’s “Journal Junction” is any indication.

Here at the Spirit, I always enjoy getting phone calls and emails and even drop-bys from readers. I like nothing more than taking a few minutes to talk to the folks who turn to the Spirit each week as their source of news and information in Jefferson County. And, while we publish a lively letters to the editor section and offer message boards on our website, I’ve resisted adding a call-in feature (I frankly hate ‘em), but I’d be interested in hearing from readers whether they think that’s the right call. If you have same thoughts on the subject, you can reach me at editor@spiritofjefferson.com or by phone at 304-725-2046. As always, thanks for reading the Spirit of Jefferson.

— Robert Snyder

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