Input on a new comment policy

Until now, we haven't had a formal comment policy at Tenth to the Fraser. While I do moderate comments as they come in, so far there have been only a handful of comments I've had to block. Our commenters have, for the most part, been passionate community boosters. When they've disagreed, they've done so respectfully. Criticism has, for the most part, been of the constructive sort. But our readership is growing. And with it, so are the numbers of commenters I'd call trolls.

Until now, we haven’t had a formal comment policy at Tenth to the Fraser. While I do moderate comments as they come in, so far there have been only a handful of comments I’ve had to block. Our commenters have, for the most part, been passionate community boosters. When they’ve disagreed, they’ve done so respectfully. Criticism has, for the most part, been of the constructive sort. But our readership is growing. And with it, so are the numbers of commenters I’d call trolls.

If they were all the worst sort of trolls, this wouldn’t merit a post. Comments that are clearly not fit for public consumption are easy to spot and easy to ban. They are off-topic, bile-spewing, ‘drive-by’ anonymous comments made by those who have no investment in the community and no desire to be part of the conversation. They transgress my top three rules for blog comments:

  • Stay on topic
  • Be respectful
  • Don’t get sued

But what has me writing this post is that we are entering a grey zone. We now have some commenters who I believe are genuinely invested in the New Westminster community, and yet they are behaving badly on our site. They are not the typical troll, who makes trouble for trouble’s sake. I believe them to have good intentions.ย The problem is that they’re communicating their feelings and concerns in disrespectful, off-topic and sometimes legally dangerous ways. I want to encourage debate on our site. But I can’t allow personal attacks, allegations of conspiracy and even criminal behaviour, and other obstreperous behaviour.

I am wondering if perhaps the trouble could be mitigated by clarifying the rules of engagement for those who want to play the role of critic (whether criticizing what someone is saying on this site or using this site as a platform for political criticism). In other words, a comment policy.

In addition to my big three rules above, I will now insist on a valid email address for all comments. While I think we will continue to allow quality anonymous comments and pseudonyms, if there’s no way for me to contact the person then it’s clear they’re not looking for dialogue. Such comments are no better than graffiti on a bathroom stall.

Before I create the “official rules” I’d like to give the opportunity for our regular commenters to weigh in. What do you think? Do I need to spell it out in detail or are a few simple rules enough? What else should be included? Got any examples of comment policies you’ve seen on other blogs that you think were well done?

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

24 comments

  1. I like the light-handed approach that you are taking to this problem. If it gets worse or does not get better, then you might have to increase your moderation of comments. At this point, the first warning tells people to act with respect.

  2. (Blush)
    Felt a little uncomfortable in my chair, realized I was sitting on my tail again !!!!
    I wouldn't worry about getting sued, you can hardly control the actions of others.
    You also mention political criticism, you can make that stop in a jiffy if you stop putting up stories that lend themselves to politics. You could shift the whole thing over to kite flying, catching butterflies, how to grow daffodils and lets not forget knitting right Jen !

    I found it really interesting to see so many people come out of the woodwork with the IDA and 'on to me' stories, while your featured story remains comment-less. Like I said you should be proud to have such activity, albeit with a few concerns including my 'get a rope' comment. I was curious though, why did you allow that "on to me" comment that upset you to be put up when you had the power to delete it ?

    It seems you already have the power to moderate comments as you see fit.
    The idea of the email is good compromise but I wouldn't delete a good 'anonymous' comment just because it had no email. It would be interesting to see some of these nasty troll post you deal with, do you keep them in a cage ๐Ÿ™‚

    N.W.

    1. "why did you allow that "on to me" comment that upset you to be put up when you had the power to delete it ? "

      …maybe to prove that there really are people out there who like to pretend they're big, powerful, scary monsters. I, for one, was surprised to see that comment. I expect that kind of bullying from kids who haven't been taught better, not from adults.
      Hm, maybe your trolls are very computer literate 7 year olds?

      1. That's exactly right Clara. I allowed the comment because I was shocked by the content, and it reminded me that it's time to open up the discussion about what kind of dialogue should be allowed in the comments here. Norman, I could have banned it, but it's not the only comment I've received of that type. Rather than start unilaterally banning comments, I wanted to shine the light on this kind of behaviour and publicly speak out against it. I was making an example of it. I have always had the power to ban comments I dislike, but I would prefer to allow an open dialogue (and that extends to the process of banning/allowing comments).

        Norman, it doesn't bother me that some stories remain comment-less. I've learned that the number of comments doesn't necessarily reflect people's appreciation of a story. While the knitting isn't your cup of tea, there are a number of readers who do want that information, and so we do both. We write about the things that interest us. Some of them are hot topics, and some appeal only to a small niche. That's just fine by me. I personally thought Jen's knitting piece was great, and I was very glad she shared the information.

        1. I didn't mean to imply a negative regarding comment-less stories like the rec centre or the knitting piece by Jen, only that comments are a gauge of readership. I read them both. How many others read them ? What percentage of people that read a story comment on it. Do you have counters for page views and stuff like that sorta like youtube ? Would give you a good idea as to how many 'lurkers' there are to people who contribute comments as a gauge.

          I like my hot topics with jalapeno pepper jelly and wasabi please.

          N.W.

          1. We can see how many people have read each story, but I don't use that as an absolute gauge of how a particular story affects people. Sensational headlines may draw eyeballs, but I'm more interested in connecting with people who "get" what we're about and want to be part of this community. A very, very small percentage of people who read a story comment on it. I haven't calculated that number on our site, but the rule of thumb number is about 1-2% of readers leave a comment. It will be more on sites where the audience is accustomed to participating in dialogue online (i.e. sites by bloggers for bloggers!) or where the audience is highly connected and networked offline (i.e. a family news blog). It can also be lower, of course, especially if the content isn't very interesting or if the audience is less accustomed to commenting online.

  3. I think you have handled this situation well at this time and have gently reminded people to respond properly or not be published. Good for you for bringing back politeness and manners for this blog.

  4. I think that it's fine to insist on an email address that you keep private. I also think that it's best to be as liberal as possible with which comments you allow, while ensuring that commenters stick to the rules you've laid down (and of course you can set whatever rules you like, but I'd say the ones you've listed are pretty reasonable).
    If it's off-topic, ditch it (perhaps encourage them to do a guest post if it fits the blog but not the particular post).
    If it's disrespectful, ask them to rewrite it.
    The legal stuff is always tricky. Obviously you don't have to take any legal risks for the freedom of expression of those of us who comment here. You may be doing just that by taking on the role of "editor", though, rather than just allowing all comments.

    1. Thanks Chris. That's more or less what I've done to date. I have never yet banned a comment without personally replying to the author via email and giving them a chance to revise their comments to meet my criteria. When someone has written an articulate, but long and off-topic, comment, I've invited them to guest post.

  5. Very interesting comments from you again Norman indeed! If you take the ime to read the recent story in the Newsleader about Briana's municipal media counsulting firm you will see that she is more of an expert than think. Maybe the city could consider giving her a contact aswell.

    1. Gee Golly Geena
      I did take the ime to read both our newspapers, and a few others too ๐Ÿ˜‰
      I think the city already gives her a contact ! I have a contact too expert than think. (there I go again!)
      I have never heard of a blog being sued for comments. What a world that would be !
      I have heard our city is being sued for misconducting affairs. Did you know that ? it was in the paper, if you could find the small tiny article on the back of a page buried in between the adds.
      When did I say she is not expert ? She run's this blog quiet well in my never to be humble opinion !
      She knows very well what stories get commented on, and which ones don't !!!! It's not my fault I have nothing to say about the new facilities at the rec centre !
      All I suggested is that she already had the power to remove those comments but didn't.

      Did you notice your comment is off topic and doesn't really contribute to the story Geena ?
      Maybe when you need to suggest is banning me, because you think I don't read the newspaper and know whats really going on in town. Ever been to a session of council ?

      N.W.

      P.S. Briana maybe you could clarify your legal problems or what is constituting this fear of being sued ?

      1. Norman, in Canada publishers don't have as strong a protection against being sued compared to the US. There is precedent here for website administrators to be held responsible for the comments their readers have left on their sites. I certainly hope never to have that happen, but I have already had one scary but friendly call from a local lawyer gently suggesting I moderate a comment that could have been construed as libelous. It may seem ridiculous, but it's a very real concern. I run this site out of my own pocket as a hobby. I am supportive of free speech, but not willing to get sued over it.

        1. I'm not aware of any court cases in Canada to date, but we don't have the "section 230" "intermediary liability" law that the US does that generally makes the poster, rather than the host, liable in the US.

          From http://www.cippic.ca/defamation-and-slapps/:
          "What is "innocent dissemination"?

          As a general rule, all those who are responsible for publication of a defamatory statement can be held liable for it. This could include the owner of the website, the people who edit it, and those who author the content. However, those who only participate in a purely mechanical way in the distribution may be exempt from being sued. This could include an Internet Service Provider who does not know of the material that is being published through its service. Innocent disseminators will not be liable provided they were not negligent in not knowing the material contained a libel.

          In Canada, the defence of innocent dissemination in relation to Internet postings has, to date, not been well developed. Other countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have passed legislation in order to address the position of ISPs in Internet defamation cases. In the U.S., s. 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been interpreted very broadly by the courts so as to protect ISPs from incurring any liability in regard to material taken from other sources which is carried on their services. In the U.K, the Defamation Act, 1996, helped to clarify the defence of innocent dissemination for ISPs

          For a defendant to succeed using the defence of innocent dissemination, he must prove that he had no knowledge that the publication contained defamatory matter."

        2. Your important enough to be gently threatened by a local lawyer ?

          Congratulations !
          Your a somebody !

          N.W.

        3. As a moderator of a blog, unfortunately, you can be held liable for what people say, especially things that can be considered libel. This is why so many newspaper websites (think Vancouver Sun, Province, Globe and Mail etc. take down comments on hot-topic crimes and issues, as discussions can quickly deteriorate).

          Furthermore, if you refuse to take down the comment after someone has made a request for you to do so, legal action can be brought against you. This is simlar to regulations regarding ISPs in Canada, as they are now can be forced to give up information regarding the sources. The problem is the internet is a new area of the law, and so many issues that can be brought up are in a "grey area" within it.

          My opinion, for what it's worth, is that you should moderate the comments, and your rules are very well thought out and valid. Your blog is very popular, especially among local NWers, and while I don't comment often, I still enjoy reading all your stories, whether they have many comments or not.

          1. For someone to take legal action against you, first they must have money and some image to protect.

            If I slandered you, chances are you don't have the money to mount the cost of a tort.
            If you did, what would you expect to gain from taking Joe Dirt to court ?

            And as for ISP's as they are now can be forced to give up info regarding the sources, you would need a court order to get a private company to release records. Nothing "now", law enforcement (government) has been doing that for centuries.

            The only people who make these libel cases have money so they protect their power over the public they exploit.

            N.W.

  6. It is totally fair to expect a valid email address from people who care enough to leave a comment. I think your three rules are perfect – simple and clear.
    Like somebody's rules for parenting I saw once; behavior that is "safe, respectful and kind" is allowed. Is the comment/behavior breaking one of those guidelines? Then proceed with discipline.

    It is your blog, your business and your "house". If respectful debate is encouraged and disrespect is pruned, the respect will grow and flourish. Like a lovely rosebush. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. I think the idea of:
    "If you wouldn't write it down and sign it, then don't say it" should apply here.
    There's nothing wrong with offering a critical opinion, but it should be done in a manner that is respectful of other, ie say something about the subject matter not the person who wrote the article.

    Stick to the ideas of karma and the golden rule and we all should be fine.

    Cheers,
    Megan

  8. The city's communication department has done a great job on getting their word out Norman and yes I have attended a council seesion. I think the talented Briana should be given a media contact as well in with our city. To many negative nellies for me, lets spend some of those tax dollars on a positive spin

  9. On my blog, I've not really had too much of a problem with trolls or potential libel – at least to date. But, as far as I'm concerned, my blog is like my living room. Everyone is free to express an opinion, but they can't pee on the carpet and set fire to the curtains. Also, I want to know who it is I'm inviting into my living room, which comes in the form of a valid email address. I don't think that's unreasonable at all.

    I think the point about going off-topic is a good one, but needs to be understood in a certain context. Conversation often veers off to other things, and that's OK. I don't think that's what Briana means by going off-topic. On my site, and other sites I manage, a lot of people use comments as a way to link-build back to their own sites as a means of creating traffic without adding anything of value to the site on which they're commenting. This is what 'going off topic' really means, at least on my site.

    I suppose people comment anonymously for various reasons, although I'm not sure I fully understand them, to be honest. As far as troublesome anonymous comments go, I once heard a very simple policy expressed that I've since taken on. And here it is: Anonymous+Asshole=Delete. This may not be a problem here, of course. But, it's a good policy to keep in mind.

    1. Well, despite what some people think, we're not all unicorns and lollipops around here. It happens that we love New West, and that a lot of what we want to do is to highlight the great things about our city. But we are also occasionally critics of the things we see wrong with New West. I value our independence to write what we really think. I'm not looking to become just a PR outlet for New West (though I accept that some people assume that this is the case whenever we write something positive). That said, I wouldn't say no if the city wanted to sponsor the development of new features on our site, or buy an ad. Our ad revenue (little as it is) helps to offset the costs of running the site, and we hope in future to grow it enough to cover some new projects we currently don't have the time & budget to execute. Advertisers don't get any special treatment on the site. We always write about what interests us, and publish guest posts that we think offer value to the community from any individual or business who cares to submit (advertiser or not).

  10. New West is an interesting place to live and comment on. Politics around here are a blood sport whether people like it or not. And we do get passionate about issues that affect not only ourselves but the community at large. As Brianna and others will attest, I am no saint. People in New West have a wide variety of interests, and I think that this blog is evolving to show that. Personally, my big ones are politics and NIMBYism. Over the years (7 plus) I've lived in New West, I've posted numerously on blogs of all types. Even Paul Forseth's. Of course he moderates his so bad that if you don't agree with his view of the world, your comments are never published. But I digress. Moderations of blogs that invite debate and discussion is needed because frankly there are morons out there that go absolutely over the top with what they say.

    I try my best to self censor. I push it alot of the time, but that's my nature as anyone who knows me can attest. Sometimes you can really get at someone with sarcasm, wit and humour. Sometimes, you butt heads directly. Everyone's different. This is one of the better blogs to watch though. Keep up the good work.

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