Cleaning Up the Cesspool of Online Comments

On December 28, The Washington Post ran a topical story, Web sites try to clean up cesspool of online comments. Just read the lead to make sense of the cesspool comment:

Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: A recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet.

It struck a nerve that has been bugging many of us in school PR as we find ourselves in the middle of being open and transparent in a time of waning cyber civility.

The article pointed out how newspapers, their respective websites, and other online publishers are modifying their policies about comment sections. They are monitoring them more and requiring people to use their real names. Anonymous commenters or those by let’s say, Mr. Everything Is Wrong in Our Schools, will no longer have a public platform to bellow their thoughts — unless they sign their real names.

Even before the Internet, this type of anonymous self-expression created problems. Formerly, newspapers with a Letter to the Editor section which allowed anonymous comments served as the precursor of this vitriolic approach. While working with a school district in North Carolina more than 15 years ago, I learned of a weekly newspaper that offered a voice mail line where anyone could take verbal shots at the Board president, the superintendent, or the principal. People could freely accuse these figures of some juicy impropriety, and then this paper would print the allegations. Obviously, no one at the paper held the position or role of “Fact Checker.”

Making Transparency a Two-Way Street

Another element to consider is that the comment forum is often a popular go-to section for many readers who want to see what the “public” is thinking about local issues. Some of our colleagues often read the comment section to see what “it” says so that they can better prepare their approaches on key issues that matter to the success of their schools. Some just read it for the entertainment and sometimes shock value it provides them — as in, “Did you see what Slingshot Harry said about our Board last night?” No one really knows that “Slingshot Harry” is a female charter member and chief editor of the local anti-tax coalition in their community.

We are all for transparency but we need to remember that transparency is a two-way street. We respect the need for openness so that community members can say whatever they want and so that they can tell us how to get better. But those who post their opinions should also authentically identify themselves and be responsible for their comments.

Here are a few tips for how to deal with this problem in your district:

  • Follow the lead of the major publishers and begin requiring authentic names attached to the comments. Some publishers now accept comments only after they verify their writers’ identity by connecting to their email accounts. For instance, The Huffington Post now asks commenters to log in using a verified Facebook account.
  • Most NSPRA districts now publish a Rules of Engagement or a Netiquette Policy, listing the dos and don’ts about comment sections. These rules also give the district the right to remove offensive postings according to the guidelines the district sets.
  • If you do not yet have an engagement policy, a good collaborative way to build one is to involve leaders in your system, parent and teacher groups, high school journalism classes, and others in constructing one. Once completed, make sure you communicate the new policy to all audiences who are involved with the process.
  • Monitoring your own district’s comment section on Facebook, your website, e-newsletters, and other outlets can become overwhelming if you live in a proactive and politically charged community. Superintendents and Board members must understand that it takes time to monitor your comment sections, so if you clock the time spent, you can demonstrate what this new, extra “duty” costs your system. As The Washington Post article notes, AOL employs 40 staff members to monitor its comment sections.
  • Make sure that you treat comment sections with transparency, openness, and credibility. Even though some comments may be difficult to accept, you will eventually earn respect by receiving and publishing all comments on your various platforms. An interesting practice we’ve noticed now is that some schools districts have parent groups post “set-the-record straight” comments when they read falsehoods raised about their schools.

Adding the requirement to have people authentically identify themselves is a step to make our comment sections a bit more civil. We still will receive our share of critical and negative comments — as is always the case in our democratic society. Our cable TV and radio talk show hosts prove that every day — but we know who they are and what they stand for. We can put a name to their comments.

Authentic identification of comment sections won’t solve the problem, but it should diminish the anonymous sling-shot and often untrue attacks that feed the negativity that bubbles up in some of our school communities.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director 

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