Offensive Comments: Obama and Islam

Yesterday, the Daily Gazette published columns laying out the reasons to support different Democrats in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. The columns received a lot of outside traffic, and rapidly racked up comments from across the country.

One commentator, “TruAmerican” from (according to their IP address) Beaverton, Oregon, wrote a poorly spelled, badly edited and factually troublesome comment:

I totally agree with what you say in this article. I think Hillary will change America for the good. And Obama will lead to bad changes! Obama is an extremist. He favors hatred in racial relations and believes in Islamic! Obama is only an empty suite and plain lier! If you compare his speeches and his actions, he is a total lier!

The line that caught our attention in particular was “…and believes in Islamic!” Totally apart from the fact that Obama is not a Muslim [one source], the comment suggests that being a Muslim is a bad thing and brings to mind the darker side of America: terrorist watch lists, increasing verbal and physical hostility to American Muslims, and even extraordinary rendition.

We are very divided on how to respond to this kind of comment — and we have a sense they will only become more prevalent as the Gazette covers move of the Pennsylvania primary and continues to draw outside readers.

We want to establish a single policy to guide us in future decisions, and we want Swarthmore’s input.

Option One: The Gazette will publish all relevant comments unless they are direct personal attacks.

This policy would have us approve TruAmerican’s comment, and would probably mean other similar comments will be posted on the Gazette in the future. It would also give the Swarthmore (and world) community an opportunity to confront these points of view and to try to correct them. Indeed, the comments would occur in a forum that is hostile to hate, and the Swarthmore community could present eloquent arguments rebutting the view point.

Option Two: The Gazette will publish all relevant comments, unless they are hateful towards any individual or group.

This policy would have us delete TruAmerican’s comment, and would, in the long term, lead to significantly more oversight of the Gazette’s comments. Our comments would be friendlier, and while debate might become impassioned, most of the vitriol would be deleted. It would also mean that the Gazette’s comments would more closely reflect, generally, the viewpoint of the Swarthmore student body.

So, what do you think? While this issue is under discussion, TruAmerican’s comment will remain moderated and hidden from view.


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22 comments

  1. 0
    Trickster G., II says:

    “First of all, if we think that factual inaccuracies and poor spelling inherently mean that the comment is a joke, we Swatties are indeed too isolated from outside opinion.”

    I suspected this not because of isolation, but because of extensive prior experience on the internet, in which I have observed many very similar comments, all of which were sarcasm (which I often missed and was berated for). Nonetheless, if the comment was serious, I can’t imagine that it was a student here, and I was not aware that this paper got any sort of national readership, so my assessment could have been an error.

    But why shouldn’t we dismiss bigots as jokers? Don’t we take away their power that way? By confronting them, we make them think they have some sort of power. Instead, we could act as if their views are so silly and invalid that we can’t take them remotely seriously, and perhaps they’ll realize how silly they’re being. Or maybe they’ll just lash out because of it. Clearly, nothing works!

    In any case, though, if people who are truly bigoted come here and see such comments, and, before they agree with them, see the population here interpret it as a joke, I think they’d be a bit more reticent to do anything about it.

  2. 0
    Lucas Sanders says:

    Debating whether the example comment is a joke is not very productive. I don’t think it is, but that’s not the real issue here. If it’s treated as a joke, the comment is left unchallenged — and given the Gazette’s apparent national readership on political articles, someone who actually agrees with the literal sense of the comment will think it validates their worldview. If it’s treated as a serious comment, it diverts attention from the broader issues actually being discussed. In any case, we’ll never really know for sure what TruAmerican meant, though I still believe the comment was in earnest.

    Regardless of such issues, it is very telling that so many people think TruAmerican’s comment was a joke. First of all, if we think that factual inaccuracies and poor spelling inherently mean that the comment is a joke, we Swatties are indeed too isolated from outside opinion. But our belief in jokes proves that such comments aren’t really appropriate for publication here: regardless of what TruAmerican’s intentions were, we will eventually get a commenter who actually does expound bigoted views while not using the spellchecker and mangling their grammar, and it seems that many of us will just dismiss their words as a mere joke.

    Publishing comments like this in the Gazette won’t really get Swatties to recognize and challenge bigoted opinions circulated in the outside world. Most Swatties see the Gazette as a Swarthmore-centric forum, and therefore read its comments with the expectation that the authors are highly educated. Since I don’t think our expectations will materially change, I think the Gazette’s comment moderation policy should account for our expectations. Indeed, “we should not be ignorant of ignorance,” but this goal is probably better served by an occasional Gazette article about the hateful comments being submitted by outside visitors, not by publishing such comments as an integral part of our conversations.

  3. 0
    Peter Liebenson ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    I completely agree with Chris’ sentiment: “Both censorship and complete freedom of choice have their dangers. I’d suggest the DG to relocate offensive posts to another list — that way folks who want to read all the comments still can, while the line of civil debate isn’t interfered with.”

    However, I think this can disrupt the flow of conversation to have a completely walled garden. I would do something along the lines of the Digg.com comment system, in which comments can be “buried” by users (in this case the DG staff could do this job, or open it up to users and simply moderate it) so that you can decide whether you want to see all comments or let the buried comments be closed up so that you can click on them to expand and read them if you’re so inclined. I know that when I’m on Digg I always tell it to show all comments, and without it I miss quite a lot so I would be disappointed if DG went with Option 2. This way we could essentially decide for ourselves if we want cleaned up comments or free discourse. I think right now DG does a good job of allowing discourse, but I would be concerned that future members of the staff might not be so enlightened, so a burying system would useful to add checks and balances.

  4. 0
    Vy Vo ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    It may or not be a joke. After all, if it was picked up by Google News, anyone could have found it. There are people who actually believe such things, and I think Swarthmore students need to be aware of what ignorance exists outside of the bubble (it may make you mildly uncomfortable now, but it will be a very unpleasant surprise if you wait until later). I watched a short documentary on the intersection of religion and politics where one woman’s sole knowledge (and criterion for judgment) of Obama was that he was Muslim. And it was true because she heard it from a friend at church.

    I’m for Option One. We should not be ignorant of ignorance.

  5. 0
    Jeremiah says:

    Trickster,

    Unfortunately, it probably wasn’t. This is exactly what I meant by seeing outside the “ivory tower”.

    One person’s sarcasm is another’s core belief. I have made incredibly over-the-top sarcastic statements in online forums only to have people agree with me. This is why /sarcasm tags are necessary.

    Think about showing “A Modest Proposal” to a cannibalistic society. They would see it a truly modest proposal, with no trace of inherent sarcasm.

  6. 0
    Mattie says:

    I’m from Beaverton, Oregon as well, and I found the Obama comment surprising. Beaverton is pretty diverse, and for the most part is pretty tolerant. I find the comments made to be totally inconsistent with the general atmosphere of my hometown, and with all the obvious errors I have to think that the comment is just a stupid joke.

  7. 0
    Kate Goertzen says:

    This is not something that I’ve noticed the Gazette having a big problem with before, but it is true that political debates, which are heated at the moment and are only going to get more heated, will bring commenters of all kinds. I’d go with option 1 with the knowledge that option 2 can be resorted to if things get out of hand. While relocating “offensive” posts to another list might make the Swarthmore-only list more “civil,” I think the discussion might actually lose a great deal.

    It’s highly likely the post by TruAmerican was a joke. We should keep that in mind when starting to propose division of comments. Is there a larger precedent for that kind of decision? I honestly do not know, but if there is then this discussion begins to become more relevant.

  8. 0
    Chris Green says:

    Both censorship and complete freedom of choice have their dangers. I’d suggest the DG to relocate offensive posts to another list — that way folks who want to read all the comments still can, while the line of civil debate isn’t interfered with.

  9. 0
    Trickster G., II says:

    Option 1. Reason being, I think most of you haven’t spent enough time on the internet to see the sarcasm in that comment. Between the silly username, obviously intentional spelling errors, and ridiculous content, the comment was clearly meant as a joke aimed at people who take life too seriously.

  10. 0
    Lucas Sanders says:

    Like one or two of the first commenters on this post, I also favor using a dual-tiered system: Option 1 for members of the Swarthmore community who choose to publish their real name, and the Option 2 for everything else. That seems like a reasonable compromise — we avoid the clutter of bigoted comments from outside our community, which would certainly turn me away from the Gazette’s comments, and we clearly invite Swatties who write questionable comments to revise their statements or to accept personal accountability for their words. Shutting things off at Option 1 for internal Swarthmore debate, however, seems premature, given that Swatties have been through several heated debates here already without excessive hatred, and since the stronger standard could make it more difficult for us to hear and respond to certain viewpoints on charged issues on campus. This policy might ask for a styling difference so we can see at a glance whether any comment is coming from a Swarthmore community member, perhaps based on the provided e-mail address.

    Even so, I actually believe that TruAmerican’s comment violates the Option 1 standard. The comment says that “Obama is an extremist” and that he “favors hatred in racial relations,” but its only direct support for those claims is an obvious lie: he “believes in Islamic” [sic]. I wholeheartedly condemn the last statement’s implication that all Muslims are dangerous extremists, but that broader import does not change the level of justification given for the attacks on Obama’s character. If the Gazette’s interpretation of Option 1 is going to let this comment through, using that standard for anonymous comments will just invite strategists to derail a serious discussion they don’t agree with. Don’t explicitly enable trolls.

    Also, TL is not confusing the Gazette with the Jolt — the Phoenix editorial named both, and (I believe that) only the Gazette’s are actively moderated to avoid hatred. Instead, TL has mistaken the editors’ point: they’re trying to say that Swatties value the ability to discuss issues in a civil manner, not that it is bigoted to articulate one’s disagreement with Swarthmore campus norms.

  11. 0
    AG says:

    I’d have to go with option 1. Sadly, sentiments like those expressed by TruAmerican are pervasive in the real world. What’s the point of having an intellectual debate if it outright ignores the views of a significant chunk of the population? I think in general, Swat tends to be very isolated intellectually. I mean it’s easy to close ourselves off and only interact with those that are equally educated and willing to give our views a fair shot, but that’s not reality. Exposing ourselves to views like those of TruAmerican, however ignorant they may be, will only better prepare us to be more productive members of society.

  12. 0
    Urooj Khan ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Actually, The Phoenix editorial was attacking both the Daily Gazette’s comments and The Jolt’s. Miles had written an extensive editorial about the issue in response.

  13. 0
    AV says:

    I agree with most of the comments so far, stating that unless the user is connected to Swarthmore (student, faculty, staff), a bigoted comment will probably not spur discussion but will rather just expose us to the ignorance, racism, bigotry still rampant in this nation. Jeremiah’s right: we’ll just sharpen our debate against tired rhetoric and myths without true debate for the issues that actually exist and are relevant to the campaigns.

  14. 0
    Alex says:

    I would have to say option 2. There can be debate with facts to back up what you have to say without being hateful and mean (sounds like the Swarthmore way to me actually). In addition to the “mean” factor, TruAmerican’s comments can only lead to followup comments where people complain or say more mean things in the same thread, and this can clutter up a message board that has the potential for actual intellectual debate. One of the original purposes of the Gazette was to avoid clutter and to be a source for everything relevant to Swat that the Swarthmore community could read through quickly, and comments like these and their followup comments seem to just take up space without adding much.

    On a side note, I would also emphasize that comments should be relevant, which is usually but not always true for the comments that are posted to Gazette articles. And of course, you have the right (as you say here on your website) to remove any comment you want. I don’t think that every comment coming from a Swat e-mail address should be approved without question. Even Swatties, who are usually smart and willing to engage in intellectual discussion, can sometimes be mean and say things that are not relevant, so this should be taken into account.

    Finally, I’m just curious why there is a required box for name if you don’t actually have to put your real name or initials (e.g. TruAmerican, anonymous) when posting comments. If you still want to allow anonymous comments, I think actually saying that name is optional makes more sense.

  15. 0
    DJ says:

    The above commenter is confusing the DG, which stands for the Daily Gazette, with the DJ, which stands for the Daily Jolt.

    Option 1’s good.

  16. 0
    TL says:

    It would also mean that the Gazette’s comments would more closely reflect, generally, the viewpoint of the Swarthmore student body.

    Wait– why would that necessarily be true? Are you saying there is no way to provide an opinion that disagrees with the general Swat conventional wisdom without being offensive or hateful?

    And wasn’t the fact that the DG comments that contain “vitrol” or “hatred” are deleted the defense against the Phoenix editorial attacking DG’s anonymous comments?

    As for the question, if misspelled, uninformed, and offensive rants the only “sort of discussion we’d be missing”, I’m okay with that.

  17. 0
    Jeremiah says:

    I am one of those who came here because Google News picked up & promoted the Clinton/Obama set of articles. I’m not from Pennsylvania, much less Swarthmore, but I would recommend option two if there are people willing to invest the time in moderating.

    Those who are vitriolic with their ignorance will rarely even listen to attempts, no matter how elegant, to enlighten them. It allows those who respond the chance to sharpen their debate against the tired rhetoric, but don’t expect the rhetoric to decrease.

    The only benefit to option one, other than decreased moderation effort, is that the Swarthmore community can see outside the “ivory tower” on how much (not-so-) latent bigotry still exists, and sharpen their debate against the trite myths & canards that will be repeated ad infinitum.

  18. 0
    David German '08 says:

    The Gazette is unusual among newspapers in allowing anonymous opinion pieces as “comments”. I would suggest Option 1 so long as only signed comments are allowed. Here’s one implementation suggestion: Anyone with an @swarthmore.edu or @alum.swarthmore.edu address could authenticate automatically. After submitting a post, the author would receive a confirmation e-mail with a click-through link. A script would get the address owner’s full name and role (class year for students/alums, position for faculty/staff) from the directory and plug it into the comment. Anyone else wishing to post could contact the Gazette editorial board for case-by-case handling.

    Of course, developing and maintaining that process is extra work for someone. It would probably cut down on comments, and thus on Gazette traffic. Finally, some might find the idea unpalatable on principle. I think, though, that anyone who wants to publish opinions in a well-reputed newspaper should have the courage to stand behind them publicly – that responsibility is the price of a prominent soapbox. There are many open, anonymous, and, yes, less creditable outlets with wide reach on campus. If the Gazette chooses not to be one of them, it will be no great loss. To be clear, such a policy as I envision it would not affect anonymity granted to sources or contributors for specific cause.

  19. 0
    Stephan '08 says:

    Let me suggest option two, with an exemption for individuals who identify themselves and are from the Swarthmore community (as indicated by their email address).

    Just out of curiosity, does the Gazette knows where all this traffic is coming from?

  20. 0
    colin says:

    I would choose option one. For one thing, we can always implement option two in the future. For another, we won’t know what sort of discussion we are missing (in this new public sphere) if we choose option two right off the bat.

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