Commentary on The Gazette’s Comments Policy

The Gazette has recently received a number of reader questions about our comments policy. We hope this brief editorial will remind readers of our policy’s details and of our justifications for maintaining the current policy. If you have questions about our policy that are not addressed in this editorial, please ask them in the comments section below. An editor will respond shortly.

Why don’t you require people to post their real names? Wouldn’t that make people less likely to post irrelevant and offensive things?

The Gazette takes its role as a vehicle for student expression very seriously, and we want to make sure that all students feel comfortable posting on the site. Many students only feel comfortable voicing their views about administration policy, Gazette editorial policy, and other potentially sensitive issues under a pseudonym. At a school this small, and in an age where anything that is attached to a person’s name can be searched and retrieved with a few key strokes, we think it is important to respect the wishes of students who do not want to put their names next to their posts. Although some posters take advantage of this policy and write offensive comments, many more feel liberated to comment passionately and knowledgeably about school policy and other important issues.

The Gazette requires that commenters submit their e-mail address along with posts. Can’t you use this information to make it more difficult for people to leave offensive posts?

At the risk of alerting Gazette readers to an easy way of avoiding any sort of accountability, a person who comments can list basically any e-mail address as their contact address before posting. We do not ask for an e-mail address as a way of ascertaining that you are actually associated with the college or as a way of identifying you, but simply so that we can e-mail you if we need to. (In the past we have used e-mail addresses to e-mail posters who seem to have a scoop for a story, as well as posters who have written offensive material to ask them to refrain from making similarly styled comments in the future.) When posters list their e-mail address as “anon@gmail.com” then we have no way of e-mailing them, and no way of banning the user who used the anon@gmail address from making future comments, as they could just as easily invent a new address on a different computer. However, any time we wish to amend a comment—which is a very rare occurrence—we will e-mail the user at their specified e-mail address to give them an opportunity to amend their comment themselves. If they have given us a fake address, they will not have that opportunity.

What information do you have about each commenter and who gets to see it?

We have the e-mail address the commenter gives to us, the name they give to us, and their IP address. Writers and readers only see the name; editors have access to the IP address and e-mail. At the beginning of this semester, writers also had access to commenter information linked to their own articles, but they no longer have this access. Please note that editors do not attempt to identify commenters based on their IP addresses.

So far this year commenters have written ad-hominem, vulgar, and bigoted comments. Why don’t you just delete those comments from the site, or request that the author re-write them? Sites like The New York Times and The Washington Post have strict limits on the language and views that they will allow in a post.

The Gazette is very wary of deleting comments. This is in part because, as editors and journalists, we are generally opposed to all types of censorship. When a reader or editor flags a comment as offensive (you can e-mail us directly at editors@daily.swarthmore.edu to do so), we debate whether or not the comment should be allowed to stand. We have very few hard-and-fast rules that we use to evaluate offensive comments, because each comment is different, but some general rules do apply.

We rarely delete a comment on the basis of vulgarity—here defined as otherwise appropriate comments that contain curse words (e.g. “Fuck this political candidate, I still like fried chicken”)—because we think the Swarthmore community can deal with vulgarity. Ad-hominem comments are trickier because attacks (e.g. “This political candidate is a self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking, prima donna”) are seen by some as spiteful and without insight, and by others as necessary and insightful comments on a person’s character. We almost always let ad-hominem attacks on public figures stand but are more sensitive to comments that criticize the character of administrators and faculty, and we are even more sensitive to comments that criticize the character of individual students. We have very little sympathy for comments that criticize Swarthmore community members without making specific criticisms of the actions taken by the people in question. However, readers should note that editors err on the side of leaving posts as they are, and no comments of this kind have been deleted yet this year.

Bigoted comments are difficult to evaluate because certain types of bigotry, for whatever reason, are considered reasonably acceptable in discourse. In general, we ask that you e-mail us if you find something particularly offensive. This way, even if we do ultimately allow it, you can be assured that you will receive a considered response about our decision, and you will have the opportunity to persuade us to act differently in the future.

Can you make it easier for readers to flag comments that may be triggering or harmful to the community?

We implemented a new system on Thursday, October 27th that allows readers to rate comments. Comments that are consistently voted down by the community will need to be expanded by the reader before they can be read.

What do you do if a comment contains a threat?

If the threat is specific, especially if the target of the threat is a person or organization associated with Swarthmore, then we will notify the relevant authorities. The authorities—deans or otherwise—have, as far as we know, not been notified of a Gazette related threat in the history of The Gazette.

What if somebody who isn’t me attributes a comment to my name?

E-mail us immediately and we will delete their comment. We will give you the opportunity to explain that you do not hold the views that were ascribed to you. Readers should feel free to comment as Genghis Khan, Bob Dole, Barack Obama, etc. We just ask that you never sign off as anyone who might actually comment on The Daily Gazette or who is associated with the school in any way.

We hope this gives students a better idea of the philosophy we take toward the comments policy. If anyone has any comments, criticisms, or questions, please write to us below or at editors@daily.swarthmore.edu.


Hello, did you like this article? Write for The Gazette! Open staff meetings are every Monday at 7:30 p.m. in The Daily Gazette office on Parrish 4th; You can also email us at editors@daily.swarthmore.edu.

26 comments

  1. 0
    Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    At the time this editorial was published, the number of “thumbs down” a comment received enabled that comment to be hidden. We hoped that readers would vote down comments they felt were insensitive, offensive, or otherwise destructive to the community, and we were concerned when reinstating the “hidden comments” system that inoffensive comments would also be hidden (simply because the commenter or their views were wildly unpopular). After about a week of discussion, the editors of The Gazette have decided to disable comments from being hidden but retain the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons. In their new function, they are simply an expression of comments readers like or dislike.

    Comments with a large number of dislikes will not be hidden. In lieu of the “hidden comments” system, we have added a link to each comment whereby readers may email the staff directly and report comments they feel are particularly destructive. The editors of The Gazette maintain the right to remove comments, including those perceived as personal attacks on community members. Please keep in mind that, as detailed in the above editorial, commenters who use their real e-mail addresses will be contacted if their comments are removed or altered in any way. Those who do not include valid e-mail addresses will not have this opportunity.

    We plan to continue to keep our policies as transparent as possible.

  2. 0
    Sam Zhang says:

    I’d like to hear the Gazette’s stance on the role of the thumbs down. Should it be used to expressed dissent, or only to bury inappropriate/irrelevant content?

  3. 0
    old thinker says:

    Response to AM comments:

    “It’s censorship by the community.”

    Exactly. (And in this case your “community” consists of just 7 souls.)

    Why is it OK for any community to kill any alternative viewpoint? Do you think it’s good for any community to hear only their own ‘mainstream” thoughts? Have you gotten through 12+ years of schooling without seriously considering the arguments for the 1st amendment and without any understanding of why it is honored in the United States?

    “I’m not sure why everyone feels that their opinion is entitled to a shrine”

    Agree absolutely! But no one has asked for a shrine for divergent opinions. The system is hiding legitimate thoughtful content, not merely vulgar, racist, etc junk. This means that divergent opinion is NOT being given an equal opportunity for expression. The community censorship you advocate places MAINSTREAM viewpoint on a shrine.

    “The DG is not obligated to protect your first amendment rights. That’s just the government.”

    You are speaking of legal obligations, while I am speaking of ethical obligations. Do you contend the Gazette has no ethical obligations? The Gazette staff has been given a unique megaphone within the community – it has an obligation to use it properly for the benefit of the community.

    1. 0
      Alli S ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      “Why is it OK for any community to kill any alternative viewpoint? Do you think it’s good for any community to hear only their own ‘mainstream” thoughts?”

      I think you’re blowing this way out of proportion. There is no murdering of viewpoints taking place here. It’s ONE CLICK to see a comment, and honestly, the fact that a comment is hidden probably makes it more intriguing for readers.

      Just take a look at the comments section as a whole – it thrives on controversy and the varying perspectives and opinions of the readers. You’re worried about “mainstream?” Really?

      There isn’t universal love and support for the new comments format, and yet yours is the only comment hidden. You’re right, there was nothing overly offensive or vulgar about it – just an inappropriately disrespectful attitude towards a group of students who works incredibly hard to put out this paper every day. In my opinion, the new ratings system worked well here – if you had voiced your opinion with a little more integrity, your comment wouldn’t have been flagged.

      The very existence of a comments section indicates a dedication to “free speech.” Maybe we can lay off the melodrama and recognize the comment rating is in place to maintain a degree of free speech that may be sacrificed in alternative regulatory options.

  4. 0
    old thinker says:

    As stated previously (in a hidden comment) a ratings system is fine.

    The fact that the SYSTEM will automatically hide comments IS NOT OK.

    Using a computer system is an abrogation of the Gazette’s responsibility to actively moderate comments. TIP: there is no computer formula you can dream up that can substitute for human review because, as the Gazette noted, every comment is unique.

    It almost sounds as if the Gazette staff is looking for a way to drop all (pretense of?) moderation of comments and substitute a computer program – just because it saves staff time. This is not the proper solution.

    The SOLUTION is to have HUMANS review comments that receive 5 more dislikes than likes (or whatever formula you chose).

    If you need more staff to do this, go out and recruit more students to join. Don’t take shortcuts.

    1. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      old thinker,

      The Gazette does actively moderate comments. If we did not do our job, the comments section would be filled with spam (which we receive on a daily basis and delete). We read the comments people submit and approve them. However, as outlined in our editorial, we agree that almost all the comments we receive are worth publishing.

      As we have stated several times now, the comment ratings system was put in place to hide comments that might be triggering or harmful to the community and to highlight comments that are a “hot debate” or that are highly recommended by readers. The “hidden comments” system was in place for several years before we removed it and then reinstated it this semester. That system does not delete comments. It hides them. They may be expanded with the click of a mouse. We do not agree that the system is inherently “NOT OK,” but we appreciate your feedback.

      We understand that you personally do not like the “hidden comments” system.

      In general, the editorial staff does not like that harmless, unpopular comments are hidden along with offensive comments (although this is the way The Gazette’s comments functioned for the past few years, prior to this year). We have been discussing alternative ways to address triggering comments.

      We understand your passion for this issue but respectfully ask that you refrain from accusing us of laziness, as your comments are beginning to feel like a personal attack on six students. If we had any intention of “taking shortcuts,” we would not have applied to be editors of a daily paper, and we certainly would not have applied to Swarthmore College.

      Thank you again for your feedback.

    2. 0
      AM says:

      Um, Old Reader, the DG staff has never moderated comments. It sounds like you thought they did? A comment awaiting moderation simply gets pushed through.

      Also, what formula would you use to moderate comments? I’m genuinely curious. How would you determine what should be a hidden comment? Is it less (or more) arbitrary than the community’s judgment?

      1. 0
        Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        AM,

        The current DG editors do moderate comments, although we cannot speak for previous editors. We read and approve the comments to make sure they do not include spam or threats. However, you are correct in that we do not make it a practice to delete or modify legitimate comments.

  5. 0
    AM says:

    Thank you for putting together this piece on comment policy. I appreciate the outline of the changes, the old stuff that’s been brought back and what’s been discarded.

    I think the return of the ratings system is great. I realize that some thoughtful, if unpopular, comments will get hidden. I’m not sure why everyone feels that their opinion is entitled to a shrine. It’s unfortunate when someone has taken the time to craft an argument that no one likes ergo it gets voted down, but it’s not the end of the world.

    The ratings system will allow folks to mark triggering comments or really offensive ones (Jean Valjean, where you at?), and I think that’s great. It’s also just kinda fun to see what Swatties think about a given train of thought.

    I appreciate you all laying out that we CAN email about comments we think go beyond the pale. I didn’t know that was a viable option before.

    Do I still wish we had slightly clearer policy around appropriate v. gross language? Sure. Do I wish people were somehow magically forced to sign their real name or identifying feature? Yeah. I can see, with the latter concern, there’s nothing y’all can do within reason. With the first one, maybe continued conversations or thinking about the problems will show a solution (either a compromise or one way or the other).

    I’m also strongly anti-deletion, so I’m glad to see comments will not be deleted in any way, shape or form.

    If only other parts of this college were so transparent … 😉

    (PS: I really appreciate being able to use HTML now. So many zingers just stung a little more.)

    (PPS: It’ll be really awkward if I messed up the HTML up there.)

  6. 0
    old thinker says:

    “Calm Down”

    The Gazette’s strong, concise rebuttal argument to an assertion of censorship?

    No response to the question of whether the Gazette staff itself will “vote” on Comments.

    No disclosure of how many “dislike votes” will kill a comment – even one that is NOT “ad-hominem, vulgar, or bigoted”.

    However, we now know it is as few as 7!

    So the “many” of 7 can squash comments with no objectionable qualities – other than they are not “appealing” to the SWAT mainstream (or, actually, 7). This is not censorship? Really?

    How many staff are on the Gazette, by the way?

    And to answer your query, yes, having to click on the comment is a big difference – a difference called censorship.

    P.S. to the writer of the Gazette response: your directive to “calm down” is arrogant and dismissive. The issue of “directed news” which reinforces, rather than expands, exposure to a variety of viewpoints has become an increasingly serious, and often mentioned, issue. Why do you brush aside the concept that a small change, easily implemented due to internet technology, cannot have a huge impact on Swarthmore community and its ability to express its views? Just because something is easy or seems small, does not preclude far-reaching implications. My equally arrogant, dismissive response is “Wake up”.

    1. 0
      AM says:

      For someone who seems incredibly knowledgeable re: the DG, I’m sort of confused. The ratings system was in place as long as I’ve been here … its absence this year is new.

      Here are the benefits of a rating system:

      1. Triggering comments can be hidden. This is a huge problem on the threads, and I’m glad we have the option to hide statements that could send someone into a bad place.

      2. Offensive comments can be hidden. Note: HIDDEN. Not deleted. They are ONE click away. Not everyone wants to pop open an interesting article on, say, the election and get hit in the face with cryptoracist mumblings.

      3. Nothing is deleted.

      4. Just hidden.

      5. Which you seem to have a problem with understanding.

      It’s not censorship by the DG editors. It’s censorship by the community, if you can even call it that. It’s more like dismissal, honestly. Maybe that chaps your delicate cheeks, and maybe it should — but it’s as democratic as it gets: anyone can vote up or down.

      Also, in case you’re worried about your glorious magnum opus being ~obscured~ the comments under it (a serious improvement in this system is that we can directly reply to folks) should help people determine whether what’s hidden is triggering, offensive or just melodramatic fear-mongering. So, for example, if you determine it’s triggering, you would not click to expand. If you wanted to watch an anon stamp their feet about some old policy being returned, you could expand!

      Also, lol @ our first amendment rights being stripped from us. The DG is not obligated to protect your first amendment rights. That’s just the government. O SNAPSIKLES

      I eagerly await the day we can have a discourse about discourse and someone DOESN’T go running to ALL SPEECH SHOULD BE FREE NO MATTER WHAT IT SAYS. You can say whatever you want, just don’t expect everyone to read it, take it seriously, engage with it or agree with it.

    2. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      The “calm down” comment by “still readable” that you are referring to was not written by a Gazette editor, so we won’t respond to those points.

      The editors are responding to the comments as we get a chance to discuss them as a group.

      The current comment ratings setting collapses comments when they have 5 more “dislikes” than they have “likes.” As stated above, the comment ratings system is in a trial period and this may change in the future. We felt 5 “dislikes minus likes” was an appropriate number given the amount of people we perceive as reading and commenting on The Gazette. This is not a conspiracy.

      There are six editors of The Daily Gazette–all currently enrolled students at Swarthmore–and that information has always been readily available on our masthead:
      http://daily.swarthmore.edu/masthead/

      1. 0
        AM says:

        Wow, I did not take you seriously when you said folks would riot about any change to comment policies, and I truly apologize. You totally called that one.

  7. 0
    old thinker says:

    Interestingly, the “hiding” of the first comment proves my point.

    It has been hidden not for vulgarity, insensitivity racial remarks or any other issue the Gazette are trying to address, but solely because its content was not what some Swatties care to hear said.

    1. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      We discussed this ourselves yesterday and generally agreed. However, we still want readers to be able to quickly identify triggering or harmful comments for other readers. We will continue to review the comment ratings system and we appreciate the community’s ongoing feedback.

    1. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Anyone reading The Gazette can give one thumbs up or one thumbs down to a comment. Staff are readers too. So, yes, that could happen.

  8. 0

    I strongly suggest that the Daily Gazette does the right thing and reverts to the policy that was in place when I attended Swarthmore by requiring all people wishing to comment on articles to sign their names to correspondence. Signing your name and taking responsibility for the views you advocate and seek to advance are both personally liberating and essential parts of honest intellectual commerce. The policy the Gazette has adopted, which I recognize isn’t unique to your publication and has innumerable variants, leads straight to maintaining a typical “comment sewer.” I mean, you can do this, but why? Swarthmore, its students and alumni readers all deserve better. Curtis Roberts ’75

    1. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      The Gazette encourages commenters to post their real names because we believe that this practice promotes responsible discussion (as you point out). However, we cannot ensure that commenters post their real names unless we close the comments and provide each reader with an account that they must log into before posting. At this time, The Gazette does not view this as a viable option. If this were to happen in the future, The Daily Gazette community would likely be closed to students, and alumni such as yourself would not be able to post comments.

      In addition, the editorial staff maintains that it is important to respect the wishes of Swarthmore students who wish to remain anonymous online. As stated in the above editorial, “Many students only feel comfortable voicing their views about administration policy, Gazette editorial policy, and other potentially sensitive issues under a pseudonym. At a school this small, and in an age where anything that is attached to a person’s name can be searched and retrieved with a few key strokes, we think it is important to respect the wishes of students who do not want to put their names next to their posts. Although some posters take advantage of this policy and write offensive comments, many more feel liberated to comment passionately and knowledgeably about school policy and other important issues.”

    2. 0
      still readable says:

      “The Gazette takes its role as a vehicle for student expression very seriously, and we want to make sure that all students feel comfortable posting on the site. Many students only feel comfortable voicing their views about administration policy, Gazette editorial policy, and other potentially sensitive issues under a pseudonym. At a school this small, and in an age where anything that is attached to a person’s name can be searched and retrieved with a few key strokes, we think it is important to respect the wishes of students who do not want to put their names next to their posts. Although some posters take advantage of this policy and write offensive comments, many more feel liberated to comment passionately and knowledgeably about school policy and other important issues.”

  9. 0
    old thinker says:

    This comment is directed to the Gazette.

    “We implemented a new system on Thursday, October 27th that allows readers to rate comments. Comments that are consistently voted down by the community will need to be expanded by the reader before they can be read.”

    You say the Gazette does not believe in censorship? Your new policy makes this obviously untrue. You simply prefer others to do your dirty work – or censorship – for you.

    Your new policy – censorship by readers – is not only ill advised, it is an abdication of your responsibilities as the publishers of a newspaper for the Swathmore community.

    Censorship by the “many” is a poor substitute for an honest attempt by an editorial staff to discuss and moderate comments through application of thoughtful standards.

    Your new policy would seem to leave the Swarthmore Commenters without first amendment rights. Now, Comenters will only be able to speak, and the community will only be allowed to hear, what the “many” wish it to hear. You have just turned “Comments” into echo chamber for the views of the “many”*.

    The Gazette has a greater responsibility to its bell jar* community than this. It sounds like you just don’t want to moderate all the Comments. Fine.
    Limit your review to the comments which are “consistently voted down”, but don’t turn over the Gazette’s responsibilities to the amorphous “many”. We all need to be protected against the “many”! (Founding Fathers, yada, yada.)

    Please terminate this policy and fulfill your obligations to our community.

    *The view of the “many” is a “bell jar” view – a rather idealistic view of society often involving highly tortured theories on gender, race, and bias which are untempered by too much contact with the real world behavior that swirls outside Swatland, and therefore untempered by too much experience with the basic goodness or concerns of the average working man/woman – the 99% who are NOT self-driven over-achieving do-gooder inspired 1%ers (on the intelligence Bell curve) with unfulfilled dreams of starting their own NGO to change the world BEFORE they turn 25. Let’s face it, the community inside Swat is 2 standard deviations outside the mean. Yet Swatties delude themselves by thinking they live in something comparable to the real world and derive many of their views from their own experience. Extrapolating from a 1% experience yields what?
    .

    1. 0
      Gazette Editors ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      The comment rating system does not allow readers to eliminate or censor comments. The collapsible comments system (which was also used last year and in previous years, before we switched to WordPress) is meant to address the problem of triggering comments, or comments that are deemed harmful by the community. Readers will need to click on and expand poorly rated comments before reading them, but the comments will still be there unless (as outlined above) the editors deem them too offensive to stand. The same system is effectively in place on large online papers like The New York Times, since comments that are not highly recommended by readers’ votes may be hidden in the back pages.

      As outlined in our policy, we do review each comment. This editorial is meant to be a clarification of how that review process works.

      Please note that the WordPress comment ratings system is in a trial period. We are still debating its effectiveness. We appreciate feedback from readers about the pros and cons of the system.

      Thank you for your comment.

    2. 0
      still readable says:

      you haven’t been silenced by the new system, it just takes one click to see your comment. this protects people who are easily offended but is still easy enough to see for the curious. calm down.

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