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Proposed alternative title: “This post is not about climate change”

Yes, we've all been there....

Yes, we've all been there....

A couple of weeks ago, an article was published in Science about online science communication (nothing new there, really, that we have not known for a decade, but academia is slow to catch up). But what was interesting in it, and what everyone else jumped on, was a brief mention of a conference presentation that will be published soon in a journal. It is about the effect of the tone of comments on the response of other readers to the article on which the comments appear.

I have contacted the authors and have received and read a draft of that paper. Since it is not published yet, I will not break all sorts of embargoes by going into details, but can re-state what is already out there. An article about nanotechnology, a topic most people know very little about and usually have no a priori biases for or against, was presented to the test subjects. Half the people saw the article with (invented) polite, civil and constructive comments. The other half was given the same article but with uncivil comments – essentially a flame-war in the fake commenting thread. The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The assumption is that on hot topics, like climate change, readers already come to the article with pre-concieved notions, and thus the civility of the comments would have no effect on them – they are already polarized. Choosing nanotechnology as a topic was a way to see how comments affect “virgin minds”, i.e., how the tone of comments starts the process of polarization in new readers.

They specifically chose a topic about which most people know very little and do not already have any opinion. Neither the article nor the comments contain sufficient information to turn the readers into experts on the subject. So they have to use mental heuristics – shortcuts – to decide what to think about this new subject. Uncivil, aggressive comments resulted in quick polarization. Readers, although still not well informed about the topic, quickly adopted strong opinions about it.

1-9-90 rule

As many of you may already know, there is this thing called a 1-9-90 rule of online participation. In any given online community, about 1% of the participants produce most of the content, another 9% participate regularly by editing (e.g., on a wiki), commenting (on blogs and articles), occasionally producing new content (in forums, etc), and the remaining 90% are ‘lurkers’ who do not publicly participate but only read (though these days, many of them participate a little more publicly, if not creatively, by “Liking”, tweeting, and otherwise sharing the content in ways that are visible to others, but without adding any thoughts of their own). The exact proportions vary from site to site, but are usually close enough to 1-9-90 for the general rule to hold.

For sites like this one – a media organization and a blog network – the 1% are pre-ordained: our editors, staff, freelancers, network bloggers and guest bloggers. In other word, they are selected, not self-selected, and many of them can do it only once or very rarely. The 9% are active commenters, and the 90% read and perhaps share, but never say anything on the site itself.

Where are the comments?

Many people have noticed that the quantity of commenting, especially on blogs, has sharply decreased over the last couple of years. One reason is that discussion of the article or a post is now happening elsewhere – on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus…) or online communities (Reddit, Digg, Fark, Slashdot…), and are not physically attached to the original post. The trackback functionality is disabled on many sites due to enormous amount of spam.

Some new commenting systems are trying to re-attach such detached discussions back to the original post, but that is still not completely technically feasible – one can certainly not bring in a conversation happening on someone’s private Facebook wall. Some of those 9% of readers, instead of commenting on the post (at least a brief “Nice post, thank you”) are now sharing the link elsewhere and perhaps discussing it elsewhere, without the author of the original article ever being able to see that discussion.

Instead of “silent” participation leading gradually to more active participation as one becomes more comfortable with the site, it seems the opposite is happening: mildly active users are now becoming silent users as it is easier to click “Share on Facebook” than to post a brief comment.

But there is another problem here – most of the good, nice, constructive commenters may have gone silent and taken their discussions of your blog elsewhere, but the remaining few commenters are essentially trolls.

The question every blogger in this situation has to ask is – what to do next?

One option is to give up on comments entirely, and perhaps completely shut down the commenting functionality, trying, at the same time, to find and track discussions wherever they may be happening. A veteran blogger, Dan Conover just did that – go read his explanation why.

Commenting is not an essential element of blogging. Some of the most popular blogs never had comments, e.g., Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (though his site has plenty of other spaces for the community to be active), or John Hawks’ blog. They always got plenty of reader feedback via email, and now also get it via social media where all of them are quite active.

Another option is to do some serious and time-consuming work on building the commenting community and motivating readers to post comments. It is much harder now than is used to be. And the presence of those few remaining comments – most of them vile and nasty – does not motivate serious people to add constructive comments into a cesspool of primitive discourse. Which brings us to the topic of…

Comment moderation

What does it mean to moderate comments? Different people have different ideas about it, but many focus on technical fixes.

Spam filters – most spam filters already come pre-programmed to eliminate specific types of spam, e.g, those that contain words like Rollex, Vuiton, Viagra, Texas hold-em (unfortunately, sometimes just “Texas”) as well as various XXX words. Some spam filters allow the blogger to manually add or remove terms that trigger the spam filter. Other blogging software allows one to “teach” the spam filters over time, by sending comments to Spam, or by rescuing valid comments out of the spam folder.

Pre-comment moderation – in which the blogger sets up the software to send email notification each time there is an attempt at commenting. The blogger then goes to the dashboard, reads the comment and makes a decision: to set the comment live, to trash it, or to ‘teach’ the spam filter by sending the comment to Spam.

Post-comment moderation – in which all comments initially go live, but the blogger is generally online a lot, gets email notifications about each posted comment, and can quickly react and, if necessary, delete or spam the offensive comment. In some cases, the first time someone comments, their comment is held in moderation, but if the comment is approved, subsequent comments go through automatically.

Sophisticated graded moderation – some sites have been experimenting with more complex commenting systems which allow for, e.g., upgrading and downgrading comments (so upgraded comments get moved up to the top, while downgraded comments may become invisible); or letting valued commenters earn badges and special privileges over time, so their comments may show up on top, perhaps in different color, or with different types of signs or avatars; or allowing users to report inappropriate comments to the moderators. Other sites are starting to experiment with annotations in place of comments. Also see Dave Winer who separates main blog from comments – he requires an additional click or two to comment. I find this an interesting strategy, to make it harder to comment, thus filters in only who have something to say, and are motivated to do so, perhaps because they have been reading Dave for a decade and consider him a friend. Other bloggers may have the opposite problem – too few comments, so they want to make commenting easier in order to get comments, but then they are likely to get trolls first.

Modifying comments – leaving the inappropriate comments on site, but altering them in ways that makes them much harder to read, or making the commenter look silly, e.g, by inserting a picture of a bunny rabbit, or disemvoweling or using the Kitten Setting. The lightest ‘touch’ is to leave the comment as it is, but remove a link contained in the comment if it leads to a site you do not want to send traffic to. And yes, all of this is completely legal, and a very good strategy.

Engagement – the most important element of comment moderation is the presence of the author in the commenting thread. Responding to readers’ comments, thus showing that they are being read, observed and appreciated, is the most effective way to make sure that the discussions stay on topic and do not veer over the line of appropriateness. Sometimes a comment hurts, or makes you angry. Sleep over it. Then come up with a smart, witty, civil and firm response. Be in control of your own commenting threads:

So, why are so many comment threads so nasty?

Because they are not moderated! At all! In ALL of the senses listed just above. If commenters think your commenting thread is a public space where they can do whatever they want because nobody’s watching, they will do whatever they want. And that is not pretty. And then the potentially constructive comments never get posted, because normal people do not want to waste their time thinking and writing comments that will just get flamed.

If you don’t delete or disemvowel inappropriate comments, people will think you are not even reading the comment threads. If you don’t show up in person, nobody will know you are even interested in their thoughts. If you don’t delete the trolls, the trolls will take over and the nice people will go somewhere else.

Early online discussion spaces, e.g., newsgroups, were largely unmoderated affairs (with some exceptions). It was a Wild, Wild West. When first blogs appeared, the spirit of free speech permeated the early online discussions – bloggers felt they should let everyone have their say, because their blogs were rare spaces where people could do that.

Then traditional media got into the game and started allowing comments on their articles. And that is where everything broke down. Due to a grave misunderstanding of an old court case by the legal departments (I really, really hate to use nasty words like “idiotic”, but my Thesaurus has come up empty with suggestions for apt synonyms) at some media organizations – which then spread to all of them – newspapers decided not to moderate their comments at all! Not using any of the methods listed above. Actively preventing authors and editors from deleting, editing or responding to comments! Really! What did they expect to happen – intellectual treatises occurring on their own in each comment? Perhaps they thought the comments would be just like Letters to the Editor, but already edited, chosen and filtered automatically before they even arrive?

Yes, all methods of comment moderation are perfectly legal and don’t let any media lawyer tell you otherwise – they keep getting it wrong.

Free Speech is a very American concept. Most of the other 200 nations on the planet do not provide constitutional protection of free speech. And Internet is global.

And even within the USA, the concept of free speech does not mean everyone has the right to say everything everywhere. It does not mean you have the right to say your stuff on my blog. It means you have the right to start your own blog. Just because I have commenting functionality on my site, does not mean you have the right to post whatever you want on it. Every host of every site has the right to delete, edit, or modify any comment in any way, to ban users, and to implement whatever moderation norms and techniques one wants.

Commenting is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn it.

While early bloggers were generous, giving their rare online spaces up to public discussion, there is no need to feel so generous any more. Starting one’s own blog is easy these days, and ranting on social media is even easier. There is plenty of space for people to discuss stuff, and that does not have to happen on your site – the era of such generosity is mostly over, and most veteran bloggers have severely tightened their commenting rules over the years.

And yes, some blogs are still rich with vibrant commenting communities – e.g., Atrios, Pharyngula, etc. They have people there who talk to each other every day, often ignoring the topic of the actual post. And then mega-blogs, like DailyKos, are a completely different animal, where community provides most of the content, in form of diaries (as well as lots of comments).

My blog is my living room in my home. I set the rules. I determine the tone. I determine the topic of conversation. When you post a comment on my site, you agree to abide by my rules, you stick to the topics I determined, and you keep the tone I deem OK to be used in my home (imagine reading out loud your comment in front of my wife, mother and kids). I have the right to warn you and to kick you out of my home – it’s my party, after all. You have no right to be here, no right to say anything – it is up to me to welcome you here, and up to you to ensure you are welcomed.

Another way to think of your blog (which I heard from Anton Zuiker) might be as a classroom where you are the teacher. It is important to keep control if you want to facilitate a constructive discussion. Unless you are willing to use your time and energy to keep control and engage in the discussion yourself, you may be better off not having comments at all.

If I delete your comment, it is not censorship (and if you cry “censorship” I will laugh out loud). You are free to start your own blog and start working on increasing its Google Rank so it becomes visible in searches. It takes time and effort, but I will not lend my Google Rank to you to use for your blatherings. Do the work yourself.

And if you are a blogger, and your comment threads are nasty, you have only yourself to blame.

In this comment on a recent post of mine, I was commended for having a good, vigorous, constructive discussion. How did I manage to do it? By swiftly deleting about a dozen trolling comments as soon as they were posted. If I did not do that, half of the good comments would not have been posted as their authors would not have bothered. The discussion would have veered off-topic onto some silly tangent, and trolls would have taken over.

And it is not about blocking every opinion that is different from mine. Obviously, some of the commenters disagreed with me on the content and conclusions of my post. And there are a couple of comments there by obvious climate dieniers that I left standing because they were on-topic and civil in tone, despite me not agreeing with them one bit. It is not about censorship, it is about tending the garden of one’s commenting threads, by nurturing the good flowers and removing the weeds.

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Different websites and blogs have different goals. This one, see the banner above, has the word “Scientific” in it. This means something. This means that the discussions are about science and about the way science and society interact. This also means that the content of our site tries to present factual information about the world, as best discerned from scientific data.

This magazine is 167 years old. The magazine and its website and blogs often cover the latest studies that add just a new twist to an old, established body of work. Some articles summarize larger, established bodies of work.

Early in the magazine’s history, during its first couple of decades of existence, it was established that biological evolution is a fact. Since then, we cover, daily, new twists and turns in details of exact mechanisms of how evolution works, or about its results, e.g., discoveries of new fossils or new living species. But the fact of evolution is long established. Thus, almost none of our articles discuss this fact. Thus, a constructive comment thread on any of those news articles would involve discussions of those fine points of mechanism, or details of the new finding. A comment thread that debates the fact of evolution is off-topic. It is not “vigorous debate”, it is a comment thread hijacked by creationist trolls. They are entitled to their beliefs and opinions, but they are not entitled to their facts. Evolution is a fact. Questioning the fact of evolution is not a part of discussion of a particular new finding or mechanism. There are other online forums that discuss that – this is not one of them. Thus, such comments are trolling, and need to be deleted so people who do have a scientific mindset have a free and welcoming forum to discuss the details of the study described in the article.

The same goes for climate change. It is a fact that global warming is true. And it is also a well established fact that humans played a big role in it. And the notion that if we broke it we should fix it is what responsible humans do. Thus, an article about a new study about climate or weather or energy or infrastructure is not a proper forum for debating the well-established facts. There is no debate there. Thus, such comments need to be deleted.

Now let’s go back to the very beginning of this post and the forthcoming article about the effect the tone of comments affects readers. If we leave the creationist or denialist troll comments up, what does it do to the rest of the readers? It polarizes them, it makes them more certain about things than what their actual knowledge warrants, while at the same time repelling experts from wading into the mud-pool to correct, over and over again, the untrue statements and anti-facts posted by denialist trolls.

How do you decide what is a trolling comment?

The first definition of trolling is ‘posting comments in order to derail the discussion’, to take it away from the topic of the original article and onto a topic the commenter wants to discuss – his/her own pet peeve.

If you want your comment threads to remain clean and civil, and to stick to the topic in the article, you HAVE to delete off-topic comments.

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling. Any comment that contains the word “Monsanto” instantly flies into the spam folder.

If I write about a wonderful weekend mountain trek, and note I saw some flowers blooming earlier than they used to bloom years ago, then a comment denying climate change is trolling. I am a biologist, so I don’t write specifically about climate science as I do not feel I am expert enough for that. So, I am gradually teaching my spam filter to automatically send to spam any and every comment that contains the words “warmist”, “alarmist”, “Al Gore” or a link to Watts. A comment that contains any of those is, by definition, not posted in good faith. By definition, it does not provide additional information relevant to the post. By definition, it is off-topic. By definition, it contains erroneous information. By definition, it is ideologically motivated, thus not scientific. By definition, it is polarizing to the silent audience. It will go to spam as fast I can make it happen.

For a science site, every comment that insert non-scientific, anti-scientific, nonsensical, ideologically or religiously motivated anti-facts, is by definition not just trolling, but spam. Like online Viagra sales. Literally! There is more and more evidence that a small subset of trolling posts (e.g., those aggressively promoting climate denialism) may be paid for by astroturf organizations funded by some vested interest groups. By peppering every article and post that can remotely have anything to do with their topic of choice, they provide an illusion that their pet movement is bigger than it really is, or that support for their position is more widespread than it really is (which then, if it works, results in the actual rise in the support for their anti-science positions). This then encourages the others (after they got persuaded quickly, without having their own sufficient knowledge, as the nanotechnology paper showed) to keep posting additional comments for free. The first troll comments are supposed to be seeds for more trolling. Which is why it is essential to cut them at the root. You do not want to provide a free platform for a paid political operation.

I am certainly not using cowardly, mealy-mouthed He-Said-She-Said mode of writing my own posts, so I will also not allow for a He-Said-She-Said pseudo-debate to develop in my comment threads. You don’t like it? Deal with it. Go and complain in the comments on Watts’ posts, or on your Facebook wall.

And the idea that deleting inappropriate comments reinforces the formation of “echo-chambers” is a complete myth. Plenty of different opinions are out there, many more of them much more easily available than before the Web. The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

My own moderation rules

You are reading this on my own, personal blog. I know, the distinction is fuzzy. The blog is hosted on Scientific American, and I am an editor at Scientific American, thus this blog is in some way a public face of the organization. But writing this blog (or even hosting it on this site) is specifically not included in my contract and in my job description. This remains my own, personal blog. I host it here because it makes sense to me – it is easy (I am here all the time anyway), it feels natural, and it provides me a greater visibility than if I self-hosted it elsewhere.

Now, I am aware I represent the organization in public. Thus, I am very careful that everything that goes up on this blog is following the range of topics and the discourse standards of SciAm. If I think something I have to say does not really fit here, I post it on my Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Tumblr. And even there I am aware that I am still seen as a public face of SciAm so I am careful what kind of language I use, how I behave, etc. Deleting trolls, and not providing a platform for anti-science ideas, is good behavior for a scientist, a science writer, and an editor at Scientific American. It demonstrates I care for the truth.

If I want to say something that does not fit my public role as an editor, and if we cannot meet in person or chat on the phone, I will send you an email. I treat email as the last remaining channel for private, confidential communication, so if I tell you something in an email, it is between you and me, and not to be shared with others.

So here, on my personal blog, I like NOT to have pre-written Moderation Rules. Sure, I can be capricious, which keeps commenters on edge. But, really, I am putting a lot of thought into comment moderation, and I think carefully about each comment. I make decisions on a case-by-case basis. What is my post about? The same comment may be appropriate on one post and not on another.

Blasting in here with “Al Gore!” makes it easy for me to decide – you are not coming here to do anything but start a flame war and perhaps get a rise out of me. Perhaps you are paid-per-comment (or you were duped into doing it for free). Your comment is going straight to spam. A few more times, and I’ll ban you (and as there is no way to ban a commenter from just one blog, I’ll ban you site-wide, after consulting with colleagues, something I did only a couple of times in the last two years – I am careful, and do not ban easily, though there are dozens of other regulars who are under my careful watch and coming dangerously close to getting banned, which is fine, as that opens the field for better commenters to take their place).

But if you come in with strong language, or ideas that are not constructive, but I detect that you are just uninformed about my commenting standards (perhaps you just arrived from YouTube or DailyMail or 4chan), I will welcome you in a comment, explain that my kids are watching (so mind your language), and explain my “three strikes and you’re out” rule I sometimes employ on commenters like that. The commenters who get greeted that way either disappear forever, or they make the three strikes so get banned, or they tone it down and become regular, productive members of my commenting community (even though some of the same people may have been banned from many other science blogs).

I also have moderation powers on several other spots on the site, e.g., on Guest Blog, Expeditions, The SA Incubator, The Network Central and if I post myself on some of the other spots (Observations, @Scientific American, or on the main site). I employ pretty much the same rules there, though I am even more careful, and put even more thought into each comment. I especially want to protect our guest bloggers – some of whom are academics and not used to rowdy online behavior – from at least the worst core of our regular trolls.

The rest of the bloggers on the network employ their own rules, use their own judgement. Some pre-moderate, some post-moderate, some are very strict, some are very lenient. And we do not (yet) have more sophisticated commenting tools here. Especially female bloggers often have little choice but to be strict in their moderation, as the Web seems to bring out the nastiest mysogynists in droves.

I do not moderate the rest of the site – articles or posts written or edited by other SciAm staff are moderated by them.

Now, I know that I used the example of Global Warming Denialism here the most – mainly because it is currently the most acute problem on our site – but the same goes for people harboring other anti-scientific ideas: creationists, anti-vaxxers, knee-jerk anti-GMO activists, and others.

This post is not about climate denial, it is about commenting and comment moderation. It is about the fact that eliminating trolls opens the commenting threads to more reasonable people who can actually provide constructive comments, thus starting the build-up of your own vigorous commenting community.

There are seven billion people on the planet, many of them potentially useful commenters on your site. Don’t scare them away by keeping a dozen trolls around – you can live without those, they are replaceable.

Thus, on this post, comments about climate will be deleted.

Image Source.

Comments 126 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. greg_t_laden 9:52 am 01/28/2013

    This is one of those posts I’ll keep handy, in pre-formed HTML format, to toss into various conversations about commenting. Thanks for writing it. Meanwhile, I have a number of responses … which will take the form of a blog post on my own site, with which I will then spam your site. With luck, we can get a big fight going and increase traffic at the expense of sanity!

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  2. 2. scicurious 10:09 am 01/28/2013

    Great post, Bora. I have also noticed that commenting on blogs is going down (unless I post something about academia, that still goes strong), and also that a lot of the formerly positive and constructive comments (“this post is cool!”, etc) have been replaced only by facebook shares and RTs, many of which I don’t even see and which are not always “endorsements”). This is partially a problem because I can’t see things happening, and so I can’t engage with them, but it’s also a problem because…well I feel unloved!! :) Really, if I wanted to write regardless of anyone reading it, I’d keep a diary.

    But I think the next question is: how to find and participate in the discussions that are happening elsewhere. Are there tools for this (aside from google searches)?

    And finally….Al Gore. >:)

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  3. 3. bobfishell 10:23 am 01/28/2013

    I am in the camp who contend that comment sections, particularly on news articles, serve no useful purpose, and I am leaving a comment to say so.

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  4. 4. pmarduengo 11:09 am 01/28/2013

    Great post Bora. I just shared it with all of our bloggers. Thanks.

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  5. 5. drafter 11:14 am 01/28/2013

    I like the comment sections. I learn what other people think right or wrong, I sometimes learn more than the actual article presents and often commenters will have links to other article that help prove points and that is often useful too, it’s sort of a open source portion of the article. And when I read Huffington Post I realize many people on the left could care less about facts or are just blind to them, when it’s given to them so I don’t even bother anymore.

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  6. 6. ChrisSciAm 11:26 am 01/28/2013

    Great article. I for one would love to see the SciAm comments heavily moderated, but I know there’s a lot of work involved in that.

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  7. 7. helenavargas 11:28 am 01/28/2013

    Greatly appreciate this article! As a member of a very large blog community experiencing far too much ad hominem commenting (‘flaming’?) since 12/14, I’ve lurked on discussions of the moderating of non-troll but otherwise truly awful activity.
    You also reinforce another of my own prejudices, which is comforting: trolls by definition do not enhance the educational or other positive goals of a blog. A couple of serious posters have argued that trolls’ arguments (not exactly what I’d call troll posts) keep our own argumentation skills intact. My response is to recall that my Ph.D. orals were held before 6 tenured professors, not 6 2nd-graders.
    I think I’ll try to direct some eyes over here.

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  8. 8. sandragon 11:34 am 01/28/2013

    Thank you. Informative and well-reasoned.
    I am so tired of wasting time looking for the good comments in a sea of drivel.

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  9. 9. L i s a 11:39 am 01/28/2013

    Thank you for this informative post. The trolls have always deterred me from commenting on blogs in the past. I hope that other bloggers take your advice and begin actively moderating; I, in turn, will try to rise above “lurking.” Now, to share on facebook…

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  10. 10. nicholasjh1 11:58 am 01/28/2013

    Nice, I did notice that on many science blogs there are quite a few civil commentors.

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  11. 11. dubay.denis 12:16 pm 01/28/2013

    Thanks, great discussion of the issue! The trolls are depressing. And I think they do scare away constructive discussions that might otherwise enhance the value of a story. And I’d like to see authors more involved in their comment threads. If you are fortunate enough to get comments to your blog, it seems only reasonable to expect you to respond to them (not to the trolls, but to the rationale comments).

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  12. 12. greg_t_laden 12:32 pm 01/28/2013

    OK, here you go:

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  13. 13. Mark656515 12:59 pm 01/28/2013

    Fascinating as the technical approach taken here is, the fact is that the Internet was once about democracy and enabling public discussion. I’m not so into blogs, but the Comments discussions in mainstream sites (NYT, SA) are a relevant part of the public debate on hot issues.

    In SA’s case, I often read readers remark how the comments are occasionally more enlightening (and often more colorful) than the article itself. Considering most topics are on science, imprecisions are also peer (or reader-) reviewed, for instance, such as when an article promised 1.7 Tw/h of low-altitude wind power, when this is correct for the Jet Streams way up 10 km yonder in the tropopause.

    The distinction between a trolling remark and a hard-felt rebuke is a fine line. Perhaps the very simple rule of excluding or denouncing palpable rudeness is the best. Of the article’s tactics I agree most, for SA Comments forum purposes, with Engagement – editors or authors occasionally participating to indicate what they like and don’t like in the discussion.

    Quality commenting is an asset in any website and SA’s have historically been highly valued. Keeping this alive would be well worth the effort.

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  14. 14. mkonnikova 1:13 pm 01/28/2013

    Wonderful, thorough post, Bora. Also, that kitten technique? A lot of work, but just may be worth it on some occasions…

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  15. 15. Mark656515 1:28 pm 01/28/2013

    Professional oil apologists are giving ecologists and scientists a hard time, to be sure, but they don’t scare me at all. I have never felt it hard to debate – solely using rational argument and solid data – with the best of them. You shouldn’t feel daunted, either. As to low level skeptic trolling, rude or foolish or blind-denial remarks denounce themselves and require no qualified rebuke, average readers denounce them at once. The high-level debate should be allowed no matter how ill-intentioned; have you never taken part in a debate club? We have facts and reason on our side…

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  16. 16. David Ropeik 1:58 pm 01/28/2013

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece.
    As I mentioned more briefly via other media, I second the suggestion that authors engage in discussion with the commenters on their blogs. Not all, of course. But as an active blogger in a number of high profile venues including guest posts on Sci Am, I have found that reasonable author response to commenters (I usually only respond to the reasonable commenters) tends both to challenge commenters to offer more thoughtful (and a tad more polite) input, and over time it builds community and a sense of engagement with my ongoing conversation via my blogging with the wider world. To fair,this takes time, which not all bloggers have the luxury to devote. But to the extent possible, if we who opine and inform via blogs want more thoughtful response (and MORE readers), thinking about blogging a bit more as dialogue and bit less as monologue has a lot of merit.

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  17. 17. willfree 2:10 pm 01/28/2013

    When I first subscribed to Scientific American I was impressed by the high quality of the letters to the editor, and to this day I read those letters in each issue. When I first came to the Scientific American website I was appalled by the comparatively low quality of the comments. One factor you have not addressed here is sheer volume. When I see two or three comments on an article, I at least skim them. When I see twenty or thirty, I am reminded that I have other things to do. Thoughtful moderation, treating the webpage as if it had a length limit, would be beneficial. Or perhaps having the author bring the most relevant comments to the top?

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  18. 18. AMB 2:20 pm 01/28/2013

    A very interesting and constructive article. I wanted to warn people, however, to use common sense. I am an Amazon Vine voice and a regular reviewer there, and I reviewed a book that was extremely graphic and unpleasant, with little or no redeeming features. I said so and gave what I considered an apt quote. Amazon refused to publish my review because of the offensive language. Since this was exactly the kind of thing I was trying to warn readers about, I wrote to Amazon to tell them so. They replied that it would be OK to substitute stars, in this case, to say “f****** n*****”. I am sure everyone reading this knows what I meant as much as if I used the actual words. What was the point of deleting the words, given the context in which I used them? The incident was amusing but annoying!

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  19. 19. Paul Turnbull 2:42 pm 01/28/2013

    Interesting piece and in line with what I’ve observed in online forums, BBS’s, UseNet, comments, etc. over the last 23 years or so. Trolls can easily become the loudest voices in the room and derail good threads. The best forums are intelligently moderated ones with an active host.

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  20. 20. wldrylie 3:11 pm 01/28/2013

    You are correct in assuming people with something relevant to post to a discussion due so elsewhere or not at all. I am now considered in the latter. I once corrected an author on an article discussing the derivation of the “Fine Structure Constant” in Niels Bohr’s investigation of frequency differences in spectral lines. He was mixing units,(cgs with mks) and had an incorrect term in his equation. When I pointed this out and wrote the correct derivation, I got shouted out of the discussion, and my post was deleted by someone. Three days later, there was an apology posted by the author with the relevant post restored…turns out, I was correct. I had not flamed the author or made spurious comments, only pointed out his mistake, and wrote the correct equation, apparently I was the only reader who actually did the math. Accepting Scientific fact in concept is one thing, checking the facts that are written is another, critical thinking needs to be applied, and opinions are not acceptable when not solicited by the author. In this case deleting a post only proved to be a detriment to the article, and detracted from the authors credibility, in short I felt badly about what happened and have not posted to a comment in well over a year. This article however, is worth the post because it addresses some boundaries needed when posting to comments and I applaud you for taking the stance “not in my house”!

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  21. 21. julianpenrod 3:28 pm 01/28/2013

    Among other things, an article some months back, said that simply pointing while discussing something can make children pay attention and even accept the statements willingly. Apparently, opinion is very, very malleable among many.
    This may cause this not to be printed or to be removed because it will include vicious and confrontational language directed at those who hold unconventional ideas, and which language still didn’t keep posts attacking those who hold unconventional ideas from being printed, but do terms like “tin foil hat”, “asylum”, “crazy”, “maniac”, “lunatic”, “looney”, “jerk”, “moron” count as “uncivil” language that can create artificial, and illegitimate, support for points the opposite of what the original comment claimed? Those who are willing to accept unconcentional ideas, those who don’t dismiss them out of hand becuase they don’t fit the template from New World Order Thought Control High Command, have experienced this for years. It was always snickered at by the “status quo” promoters and malingeringly filed under “freedom of speech”.
    And, all the while, certain leprous organizations maintained a solid policy of pretending to be interested in the truth, yet consistently removing items that both disagreed with what they said and palpably proved they were lying! To be sure, these places could keep “pet” individuals who placed obligatorily poorly written and especially baseless retorts to approved comments on the site to pretend they are legit and that the opposite opinion is only held by fools, but any valid comments that demonsrated the site was run by swindlers were never printed.
    Doubtful News, for example, has a policy of treating all news of the unconventional with mockery and dismissiveness, while also engaging in such unethicality as declaring “Mystery booms exlained!”, while, in the body of the article, they would admit that sources like earthquakes “may be” the source of the sounds. Part of their methodology, though, is to brand any comment that proves they are wrong, lying or acting unethically as conforming to the unwritten portion of their self serving “definition” of “impolite” and, therefore, not print it. This has happened to me a number of times. Doubtful News rather resembles the inmates of Bellevue who used to pass notes back and forth between each other claiming it was really the doctors and nurses there who were insane.
    In much the same vein, for example, Collide-a-Scape on Discover Magazine had an article recently opined about messages received smugly and smarmily obersving, “It’s cold here. So much for global warming!” I pointed out that these kind of false conclusions, selectively taking only isolated points of involved situations that appear contradictory and pretending they are all that needs to be known and that the contradiction “proves” the general opinion is wrong. I tried to place a comment that had no links, no vulgarity, no personal attacks, stating that that’s exactly what those who don’t dismiss unconventional ideas out of hand have been putting up with for years. I mentioned things like unethical individuals pointing out Muslim anger over calculatedly vicious mocking depicitons of Mohammed coupled with statements like “Religion of peace?” This comment was not printed.
    Add that as another technique for controlling opinion, simply not printing a statement that is cogent, compelling even proof of an opposite point of view!
    I’ve mentioned similar machinations among the unscrupulous connivers and moles seeking to derail legitimate discussion on matters on forums and such across the net. When those new to a topic announce they are coming onto the forum, the disingenuous greet them with, frankly, obviously overdone effusiveness “Greetings! Welcome aboard! I can’t tell you how much we appreciated new blood here! I hope we will have many, many years of instructive and amicable conversations here!” If the person takes the side the moles are paid to contradict, they begin accommodatingly with, “I can see where you can be misled, but here is the truth!” If the person contradicts the lies and pursues the truth, they say, “Now, you’re going down the wrong path! Let me set you straight!” Refusal to back down is met with, “Now, look, if you’re going to persist on believing drivel, then we, who know absolutely everything about everything, will have to respond appropriately!” And, if the person won’t be pushed around, the replies become, “Look out! They left the door open at the insane asylum again! Tin foil hat alert! Tin foil hat alert!”
    At a time when “science” bemoans the fact that the people are becoming ever more unwilling to be bullied by “science” into believing what will make the corporations rich, like the “safety” of vaccines and genetically modified foods, thought control is becoming a growth industry.

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  22. 22. mipakeli 3:39 pm 01/28/2013

    Good article.

    I sure wish media would make all comment boards editable which it’s sickening to hit the return key AFTER you noticed typo’s, bad grammar, etc. To often sites don’t allow editing which is really dumb (retarded but most don’t like that word as derogatory–at least in some contexts!).

    And they should allow links but most don’t do that either–too afraid of spam.

    What’s so hard of having software check for BAD links and leaving the good ones? Is that so hard?

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  23. 23. HowardB 3:44 pm 01/28/2013

    A couple of things I have to say about this article. Firstly there is little or no science involved in either it or the ‘study’ it seems to be heralding. I suggest that it is a fallacy to suggest that every time someone studies a phenomena is NOT necessarily science. Unfortunately in recent years SciAm has drifted enormously away from Science.

    I like the Comments section. I take part in online discussions/comments on a number of different sites around the web on science, ePublishing, Technology and other things. I encounter a LOT of discussion threads that get heated and not heated.

    Despite what others say above – I suggest that MANY of the assertions made by Mr Zivkovic about threads and their characteristics are not indeed true at all. They simply subjective analysis based on individual biases. There is a LOT of nonsense talked about when it comes to comment threads and forum discussions. Such discussions are far more sophisticated that is reflected by amateur analysts who try to extrapolate rules and deductions and conclusions. For example discussions that include bouts of flaming in reality often splinter into sub threads where the people interested in the topic will simply bypass the flame sub thread. Also the fact is that a LOT of so called flaming and ‘trolling’ (this must be THE most abused word on the net these days) is deeply subjective and biased.

    In my experience one person’s troll is another persons champion. Personally I believe hugely in the value of looking at a discussion ‘as a whole’ and not just simply jumping to a dismissive position of saying that because there is flaming … therefore the discussion has ‘been reduced to a flame war’. More often than not a worthwhile discussion is still taking place between those NOT involved in the flame. AND I also suggest that that part of the discussion that has gone off topic does not necessarily ruin the valuable part. It often depends on the way the software presents the discussion. If it is threaded, where responses to individual comments get grouped – then other commenters find it a LOT easier to ignore the rubbish and continue the valuable discussion. If the comments are NOT threaded, but are listed in strict order of posting and not grouped together – then the discussion is far more disrupted.

    In my view the article, and the study referred to within, does not contribute much to the debate without tackling the much more subtle aspects of blogs/debates that I have referred to here.

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  24. 24. HowardB 3:46 pm 01/28/2013

    I also forgot to say that one reason I have reduced my commenting on SciAm articles is because for about 6 months I have found it constantly troublesome to log in. I use Chrome and I am on a Mac, and again and again the login is not working correctly, and the notify me of follow ups is broken, as it is today again.

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  25. 25. DaRaco 3:57 pm 01/28/2013

    Comment deleted for mentioning the word “Monsanto”.

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  26. 26. Zexks 3:58 pm 01/28/2013

    I think this was abundantly clear in the recent election on the fox news site. About mid year through, they simply disabled all commenting. I don’t know exactly why, but if one followed the comments on any of the political articles it was apparent their comment sections were giving their viewer base a bad reputation. Good article.

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  27. 27. Bora Zivkovic 5:45 pm 01/28/2013

    Thank you all for a great commenting thread – how appropriate to see that on this post ;-)

    1. greg_t_laden – Thank you. Writing a post that people save and bookmark for later repeated use is what every blogger hopes for – it means it is a post with some lasting value.

    2. scicurious – Thank you. It is hard to find other conversations happening elsewhere. New Facebook search may make it easier to find stuff there (wait and see) but if on private walls, you’ll never see them. G+ is easier as it has Google search embedded in it. Twitter – a variety of searches (for URL, for your handle, for title, keywords, etc) may provide most or all tweets, but it is time-consuming. Some sophisaticated commenting systems find and attach some of those related conversations to the original article.

    Oh, and obviously my spam filter needs more training – the Gore reference still went through ;-)

    3. bobfishell – Thank you. If media organizations hired full-time moderators, and spent some time cleaning-up the comment sections, and other readers realized over time that the threads are now “safe”, then it could work. And it does work in places who do careful moderation, where local readers often contribute important information to the reporters in the comments of their articles. But you are right – most media organizations do not do it right.

    4. pmarduengo – Thank you.

    5. drafter – Thank you. Often one learns a lot from commenters. I certainly do, all the time. Which is why it is essential to motivate smart, informed people to comment. The first requisite for such motivation is to remove trolling comments. The second part of your comment is inappropriate here – do NOT inject your own personal politics into a post that is not about politics. That is off-topic and deserves to be deleted.

    6. ChrisSciAm – Thank you. Yes, it is a lot of work. And no dedicated staff for comment moderation. We do our best ourselves, and bloggers moderate their own comments on their blogs.

    7. helenavargas – Thank you, you are right. There are places on the Web designed for honing one’s argumentation skills. This is not one of them. This is primarily an educational site, designed to inform, educate and occasionally entertain (while educating at the same time). Each site owner needs to deside what is the purpose and goal of the site, thus what kind of commenting will best enhance that goal.

    8. sandragon, and 9. Lisa – Thank you. Many people feel like you, which is why they don’t bother reading comments or commenting. We can make it better.

    10. nicholasjh1 – Thank you. Science requires some expertise. It is to be expected that articles and blog posts on topics people think they know more about – like politics and religion and internet – will garner more comments and also less intelligent commentary. But when it comes to science articles, anything that hints of climate also gets its fair share of trolls these days (it used to be like that about evolution, up to the Dover trial, not much since then).

    11. dubay.denis – Thank you. I agree – the presence of the author in the commenting thread is the most important aspect of moderation. No technology can replace it.

    12. greg_t_laden – Fantastic post! If my memory is not playing tricks with me, I was mostly on the other side of the “carpet” debate a few years ago (the visual imagery provided by John Wilkins), but my thoughts have evolved…and the Web has evolved since then.

    And I agree, some sites are more like classrooms, and some sites are more like taking students out to a cafe for discussion after class. One has to decide which type one’s site is. And either way, drunk brutes at the next table are disruptive and do not add anything to the intellectual stimulation and learning.

    I especially like your suggestion at the end of the post. After all, trolls are kinda cute dolls, or funny under-the-bridge characters in fairy tales, targeting young goats. So the word Troll probably does not carry enough weight. We should, I agree, call them what the really are: bullies. Yes, demanding that their rules are legitimate, and that rules that prevent their bullying are not, is bullying, by definition.

    13. Mark656515 – Thank you very much for your comment. This is why I wrote that I moderate very carefully, and put some thought into each act of moderating a comment. At their best, comments add new information, or correct the incorrect information in the main article. This happens even more on well-moderated blogs than on media sites, but as I remarked above, there are good and bad (as commenting goes) sites both in MSM and on blogs. Which is why it is so important to remove comments that poison the well – people who know the site does not moderate comments tend not to wade into comments, so will not find that additional information there, and will not waste their time providing information themselves.

    14. mkonnikova – Thank you. Yes, Kitten method is time-consuming, and should be reserved only for very special commenters ;-)

    15. Mark656515 – Thank you. This works on sites where there are plenty of readers – enough so that the 9% is a substantial number. If you have plenty of experts who are not bored to explain, over an over again, the facts, then sure, go ahead, leave the troll comments up and delight in the way your community destroys the bad arguments while providing the facts for the silent 90% to see. But most sites and blogs are happy to get a comment or two per post, and if those are by trolls, and there is no time, manpower and expertise to counter it swiftly, then it is better to remove the comments. Your site does not need to be a platform for non-factual assertions by people who are not commenting in good faith.

    16. David Ropeik – Thank you, David. That is exactly the case – the moment the article author shows up, the tone changes and becomes civil. It shows the readers that the commenting section is not a bathroom wall, but a properly moderated discussion.

    17. willfree – Thank you for being a long-term reader. Of course, Letters To The Editor that end up being printed on paper, in the magazine, are just a few carefully chosen out of hundreds or thousands that arrive, and then they are edited before publication. Of course they sound civil and of course they are fact-checked and of course they add something constructive to the discussion. As for length-limit to the comments themselves – different sites (and different commenting software) deal with it differently. The longest comments tend not to be read much. Pushing best comments to the top is something that some software can do, but it is done algorithmically, not by a human moderator, in most cases.

    18. AMB – Thank you. Correct – some sites have clear rules about the use of particular words. The reason is – school and library filters will block their sites if such words appear. Thus replacing with symbols or synonyms is alaways a good idea. Even on individuals’ blogs, as spam filters tend to filter out NSFW words.

    19. Paul Turnbull – Thank you. We obviously agree.

    20. wldrylie – Yup, that kind of stuff sometimes happens. That’s life online…

    21. julianpenrod – Oh my! I asked you before, why do you start every comment on our site with something along the lines of “…This may cause this not to be printed or to be removed…”?

    At least on blogs I moderate, I have not deleted your comments. Thus, you could have seen, numerous times, that your fear of deletion if unsubtantiated. So, once you learned this, why do you keep repeating it?

    I’d like to hear your answer, because I have mine. This is “prevention” tactic. Most trolls use aggressive techniques to challenge moderation rules (“Don’t you dare delete my comment! Censorship!!!!”). You use a passive-aggressive tactic with that intro for every single comment you make on this site. But the motivation is the same – to impose your rules on me, which, by definition, is bullying.

    Why do your comments do not tend to get deleted? Because you don’t usually attack a particular person, and do not use f-bombs and other nasty words. It is hard to say that your comments are uncivil. But they are. Your comments, every single one of them, are:

    - incredibly paranoid. I am really worried for you. I cannot diagnose online, but I wish you’d seek help from a professional.
    - incredibly dour, negtive and curmudgeonly in tone
    - possessing of rarely seen intensity of hostility to science as an endeavor
    - full of sincere beliefs in most outrageous conspiracy theories
    - chockful of errors about the way the world actually works, e.g., on climate
    - demonstrating inability or unwillingness to learn from other commenters who have corrected your errors in the past

    So, in many ways, your comments are trolling and bullying, but are mostly not deleted because they do not “sound” like typical trolling comments. Passive-aggesssive instead of just aggressive. But you know I am watching you, and you know, now that you’ve read this post, roughly where my lines are. Try not to cross them.

    22. mipakeli – Thank you. Those are all technical issues, rather than moderation issues. Different sites use different software. And it is HARD for machines to do what you suggest. It requires humans, still….

    23. HowardB – Thank you. Obviously, we disagree. You seem to mainly talk about forums with threaded comment sections in which most of the content is provided by the users. This is not such a site. We provide most of the content. Comments can go through if they ADD to that content. The comment threads here are not for flame-wars or debates. This is an educational site that is used in schools. There are plenty of places where vigorous debate, including trolling and flame-wars, are perfectly OK, but not on my blog.

    And this is my blog, yes, my personal blog. And just like every blog on our network, I am not required or expected to post just hard science in every post. I can write whatever I want. So the complaint “there is no science in this post” is a form of bullying on any of the blogs on our network – it is an attempt to distract, demean, and take the discussion off topic.

    24. HowardB – that is a technical issue we are aware of and are working toward solving.

    25. DaRaco – the comment was an example of trolling I perhaps should have kept there as “Exhibit A”, but decided that consistency and “show rather than tell” were more important in this case. The commenter did not click and read the link in my post to the “Argumentum ad Monsantium” article, thus provided a great example of exactly that fallacy.

    26. Zexks – correct, MSM is the worst offender. I hope they learn, or shut down the comments.

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  28. 28. tcantine 6:10 pm 01/28/2013

    Thank you for this post! It has helped me to resolve some of the inner conflict I’ve had over off-topic comments on my own blog. Mercifully I’ve been relatively free of obvious spam and hateful trolling, but I have had some rather wildly off-topic stuff.

    That said, my own policy for trolls remains a little different:

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  29. 29. jasondavison 6:25 pm 01/28/2013

    Nice article! Good work Bora Zivkovic, from now on I will try my best to duplicate my comments from google plus or facebook and place them on the original blog or article posting.

    Before reading this article I never thought about this problem. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  30. 30. marclevesque 6:28 pm 01/28/2013

    Just wow. Loved it. Thorough, fun, and interesting.

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  31. 31. Joshua B 6:45 pm 01/28/2013


    I loved the article and it was an amazing read. I strongly think that flaming and trolls go way beyond discussion boards and blogs. I have to idea if you’ve ever played a video game online, but it seems any type of impersonal public communication has a great deal of trolls. It even seems that sometimes kids are now bringing that to real life as well. It’s really sad, and in my opinion a new type of bullying, but it seems that using a different word to describe it changes the message.

    About half way through the article when you were talking about two facts, I felt as though you were putting to test the contents of the draft paper you read. It is however possible you are just that passionate about the subject and that’s why it came across with such a negative tone? This makes me extremely curious. I really want to know myself now if this was further experimentation or just a heart felt article.

    Either way I commend you for saying what so many people feel. To quantify the destruction that trolls cause could not be any better. I really appreciated the analogy of this blog being your living room.

    -Josh B

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  32. 32. dubina 7:12 pm 01/28/2013

    @ bobfishell, who wrote,

    “I am in the camp who contend that comment sections, particularly on news articles, serve no useful purpose, and I am leaving a comment to say so.”

    The purpose of Newsvine (NBCNews), I believe, is to seed pubic opinion of news events and generate distributions of opinion, to some related purpose or purposes. It has also been a freely admitted fact that some (or many) politicians datamine public opinion on a regular basis in order to make their public messaging more popular.

    Some would say that media/political datamining public opinion is a good thing; it is informative; it produces broad distributions of public opinion that might otherwise be narrow. It is supposed to instrumental in modern democracy.

    In my opinion, those strategies are symptomatic of what has gone wrong with news reporting and democracy.

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  33. 33. julianpenrod 7:29 pm 01/28/2013

    @julianpenrod has finally crossed the line. B.Z.

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  34. 34. geojellyroll 7:44 pm 01/28/2013

    Great blog.

    However, there isn’t much ‘science’ outside of accepted publications in respective disciplines. Just about 100%all articles, blogs, programs, etc. the public is exposed to are filted ‘whatever’ and educated speculation…not actual science.

    There is no commenting on actual ‘science’…and if there was, it’s irrelevent. What’s the number of postings for most articles….a dozen? That matters in a world of 7 billion people? It’s zip and the weight it carries is zip.

    Trying to control comments just sends readers elsewhere. There’s a hundred alternative sites to any one on the web…click…another reader gone and less advertising revenue. I like Scientific American but at a societal level it’s gone from a powerhouse 35 years ago to more or less obsucurity in 2013. My university student nephews are both in the sciences and I doubt they know what Scientific American is.

    These sites have no cards left to play.

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  35. 35. davidwogan 8:13 pm 01/28/2013

    Fantastic article, Bora! And it’s even better that the comments are constructive ;)

    Nasty/aggressive/misleading comments are something I’ve been struggling with on ‘Plugged In’. I have been writing a lot about climate change lately, which tends to fire people up. I like when people get excited about a topic, but there is usually little to no substance in the comments besides conspiracy theories and personal attacks (denier! warmer!).

    I tend to stay out of the comments section, but it has gotten to the point where I dread seeing an email from the comment server because a majority of the comments aren’t constructive. I will now be moderating more and popping in to steer the comments back on track ;) The thing is, moderating comments takes a lot of work.

    We’ll see how our resident bullies like it :P

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  36. 36. Tractorthoughts 8:20 pm 01/28/2013

    Thanks for your thoughtful discussion on the problem of poorly advised comments. I am one of those who gave up commenting because of the problems you raise. For me it is depressing to see comments that are at best poorly informed and at worst deliberately trying to spread falsehoods. I would hope that a science news site helps to educate the public regarding scientific issues. Comments that try to do the opposite go contrary to your mission. So I for one am fully supportive of a policy of moderating the comment section. I might even get back to commenting when I have something constructive or instructive to say.

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  37. 37. 0ShinAkuma0 10:20 pm 01/28/2013

    Thank you for this article, it sums up perfectly what I feel already about this issue. I have a popular YouTube channel with around twenty-four thousand subscribers, I have had to ban numerous people (seeing how it’s YouTube, it’s not surprising). Many times, I was called a censor by those people who I banned (under the guise of a new username of course, the true trolls are nearly impossible to get rid of).
    Once again, thank you so much for this well thought out article. This is, as you wrote about, something that really needed to be addressed in light of the climate change articles and ensuing troll comments.

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  38. 38. geojellyroll 11:23 pm 01/28/2013

    One mans’ troll is another man’s Galileo or Darwin. Many here would have been eagerly clapping their hands at a public drawing mocking Darwin with monkey-like features.

    Sci-am focuses on science but it isn’t science. Just about every article strays over to speculation, unfounded statements ‘of fact’, the lack of qualifying adjectives,agenda, often sensationalism. etc.

    Thank goodness for the ‘trolls’ who point out their skepticism at the new miracle battery-of-the-month or ‘another’ fantasy discount manned mission to Mars.

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  39. 39. DaveMcRae 12:44 am 01/29/2013

    Top article, thanks.

    I see it way too often. Great articles by experts with comments derailed by denier spam. This happens with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s science and environment articles when comments are allowed.

    Also that is an online articles from the university and research sector – great articles by qualified people but comments flooded by denier spam that will not permit sane interactions with the authors. No author is going near the crazy permitted by the moderators. I too, rarely read beyond the first denier spam, that’s often top or if not close to it.

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  40. 40. nuriajar 8:36 am 01/29/2013

    I felt like a lurker while I was reading your post. I’ve just register myself in SciAm to comment on it before I twit it. So interesting and smart post, thanks. I promise I will comment more, although it could only be with a “Nice post, thank you”. Regards form Barcelona.

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  41. 41. Bora Zivkovic 10:07 am 01/29/2013

    28. tcantine – Thank you. Everyone has their own goals for their site, and problems arising at their sites (too few or too many comments, bad comments are common or rare, etc). This your Policy is something that fits your situation well, and if situation changes you can always adjust your policy.

    29. jasondavison – Thank you. It is nice to get comments on the blog itself, as it likely they’d be missed if posted elsewhere. So the effort at duplicating the comment (both on the blog and on social media) is greatly appreacited by bloggers.

    30. marclevesque – Thank you!

    31. Joshua B – Thank you. The jury is still out on the effect of video games (I am not a gamer myself). But worth noting that anonymity has nothing to do with quality of blogging or commenting. Some of the most productive members of the online science community write under pen-names (a.k.a. pseudonyms), while some of the vilest stuff is written by people who proudly use their real names.

    As for the two Truths – I don’t think I stated those very strongly, just very matter-of-factly. As far as science goes (and this is a science blog), those are well established truths. Any ‘debate’ that may still exist about them is outside of science in the realm of ideology, politics and religion, where one side is clearly correct and the other one clearly not. There should be no false “balance” in reporting about those, or imagining some fake “middle ground” as such does not exist.

    32. dubina – Thank you. Oh yeah – mass commenting as Big Data, something to mine, for good or bad. I doubt my site gets enough comments to be interesting for data-mining so I can safely ignore this aspect of it and focus on what works for me on my blog.

    33. julianpenrod – yup, that was a vile, angry, nasty comment. Finally Julian let his vocabulary shine. Yet, each of the insults was, passive-aggressively, placed in quotation marks.

    34. geojellyroll – Thanks for the comment, but know that this is your second chance. People are free to go to other sites where they will feel welcome, and will, by leaving, leave our site to people who actually enjoy it. Also, this is a so-called “downhill comment” which we have been getting almost daily for about 160+ years – how much more downhill can SciAm go? You don’t own SciAm, so you do not have a say in how it’s run and what it publishes, sorry.

    35a – was deleted, as it was just a very typical angry, misinformed, ideological denialist rant.

    35. davidwogan – Thank you – you are right: engagement is important. Your blog is probably one of the prime targets on the site, due to its topic. Which is why there are four of you there, so you can act as a team, help each other moderating comment threads.

    36. Tractorthoughts – Thank you. I hope you keep watching our site for improvements – both in commenting technology, and moderation – and soon deicde it is now “safe” enough to rejoin the healthy comment threads.

    37. 0ShinAkuma0 – Thank you. You bring up an important point. YouTube has a reputation for bad comments, but it really can be and sometimes is well moderated. It is up to the owner of the channel, and I think proper moderation can be and should be done everywhere – YouTube, G+, Facebok, etc.

    38. geojellyroll – This is your third chance. Next one in this tone or similar content will be deleted. Sorry, but you do not get to decide what is and what isn’t science – scientists do.

    39. DaveMcRae – Thank you. As mentioned in a few comments above (and in my post, with a reason why), the traditional media is the worst. And nobody sane wants to jump into a cesspool.

    40. nuriajar – Thank you so much for registering and commenting. I hope you continue to add your thoughts to our conversations around the site.

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  42. 42. kat6999 10:13 am 01/29/2013

    I’m one of the 90% — I love reading the blogs,& I will often repost on facebook etc, occasionally with comments.
    But I seldom respond directly to a blog, because so often I see what appear to be rants, or non-civil comments, I will be taking your article to heart, and will post at least a “good job!” or “made me think” comment in the future, to show my appreciation for the information and effort expended in getting the info/analysis/opinion out there. Thank you!

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  43. 43. Bora Zivkovic 10:21 am 01/29/2013

    42. kat6999 – Thank you. One could argue that “good job!” does not add much to the discussion. But it does. It introduces or reinforces the positive tone.

    Because I sent the link of this post to Twitter, Facebook and G+ as soon as it went up, and DMd a few key people in the community, most of the early comments were positive. Then this post got linked (and links from blogs are even stronger than twees) from several good, positive bloggers:

    Greg Laden:

    PZ Myers:

    Paul Raeburn:

    and John Scalzi:

    All of these posts sent positive readers here. Thus the tone of the thread was set early. By the time denialists cottoned on to it, it was too late. Most of them did not find this thread a good one to join in, as it appears too difficult to disrupt – too many supportive commenters, and too visible moderation. A few hours later, Tom Watson linked to it and…nothing! Barely a trickle of any traffic, and no commenters obviously coming from there. By having good comments early, even those “good job” ones that do not add much new information, the thread becomes unmotivating for trolls to join in, or they join too late.

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  44. 44. Bora Zivkovic 11:02 am 01/29/2013

    And a couple of more good links just came in:

    And this is a classic:

    Link to this
  45. 45. Joshua B 11:24 am 01/29/2013


    I guess the point I was trying to make about the anonymity was that people have a tendency to say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. I completely agree that some people who use an alias by all means can contribute in a very real way. There are others that use it also as a ploy to say things that they always want to say but only do it within the safety of their PC. If you call someone a very derogatory term, or say something that is completely wrong there is sense that there is no repercussions to what it is said. I believe that some people save what they intend on saying for the web because there is no social anxiety or less in my opinion, as well as less unintentional or intentional physical intimidation. I think this also has to do with there is no prejudice before even writing or speaking because you have no idea what that person’s physical appearance is.

    Thank you for responding to my first comment and about how you felt it was more a matter of fact. I completely understand that now that you’ve responded. Myself, I was just taken a little by surprise reading it. Perhaps, even knowing I believe what you said, it was just that I don’t very often see very strongly worded blogs like that. I don’t read blogs often either, this is about the only ones I read because I like to read science and technology news. So perhaps my experience is limited and I don’t understand the nature of blogs.

    I did forget to mention earlier thank you for the moderating you do. It’s nice to see someone active in their own discussion boards, as well as a mission to keep them on point.

    -Joshua B

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  46. 46. Bora Zivkovic 11:38 am 01/29/2013

    45. Joshua B – Thank you. I hope you stick around, check out other science blogs on this network as well as other places (you can find them on

    Also see related blog posts on our network:

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  47. 47. Geologon 12:00 pm 01/29/2013

    Comment deleted for being a long rant promoting denialism, and insinuating bad faith on my part. B.Z. (Yes, if I needed it, I could look up your real name and email – I will not bother, and I will not mis-use it. Unlike what you wrote, I do have ethics and morals).

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  48. 48. Mark656515 12:56 pm 01/29/2013

    Mr Zivkovic, thank you for replying to our comments. It seems you have hit an important point, not in Earth Sciences, but in Social Communication and Media Studies, so this is science too.

    There is a larger issue at stake here.

    Comments are not just about collectively proofreading an article. How can we manage trollhood without imposing conformism? Rational free debate is essential for democracy. As often remarked above – frequently by my usual opponents – one man’s troll is another’s sane skeptic, or minority-position activist.

    For instance, when CBS started geoblocking abroad New York’s K-Rock internet radio, I used their Facebook page to inform the vast international fan community about VPNs and proxies, a perfectly legal way of circumventing the penny-pinching, goodwill-undermining, abusive geoblocking. I assume I was then acting as a troll, because the first thing they did was ban me. Eventually other fans stared to echo the message. But it was trolling, even if legitimate in the opinion of the several in-house DJs who supported the message spreading (the radio subsequently fired every single DJ. It used to be the best station in the world. It still is the best, but it was so much better).

    The root issue in quality commenting is education, and the place it holds in the priorities and values of a society. When it is fashionable to be folksy and anti-intellectual, you get hordes of earnest creationists and other rednecks. Americans are fond of being compared to Romans, but the Romans were far more rational and cosmopolitan. Media with educated readers receive better comments and that is why SA’s are better than most.

    I assume (perhaps incorrectly) the comments’ point is promoting quality debate, and for that one must have opponents.

    True, avoiding the troll cesspool is a necessity. Perhaps moderation should openly and clearly ban all non-civil remarks (the Kitten thing seems merely cruel fun-making) and denounce, perhaps by color-marking, polite but ill-intentioned debaters, and personal-attack comments the blogger agrees with. Stigmatization is not the ideal solution, yet the only quick one I can think of. I don’t know, use standardized rebukes against repetitive misinformation – how many times have I reposted links to NASA, NOAA and the MIT. Perhaps green bloggers could unite and comment on each others’ blogs, when required to balance professional oil apologists. I, for one, will accept invitations to comment on blogs, on the side of ecology, to debate good oil apologists.

    The troll problem is serious, but we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a conservative mood rising across so many areas. There must be a place for polite and educated, even when clearly ill-intentioned, comment. Democracy needs quality debating, or it will cease to be democracy. Or tomorrow, if we go down that road, there will be no room for dissent and conformity will be the rule. I would not like to see this, even if to impose everything I happen to believe in.

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  49. 49. VelocitySquared 3:40 pm 01/29/2013

    I must admit you lost me 75% of the way through, rather wordy but interesting none the less.

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  50. 50. berfel 10:22 pm 01/29/2013

    Bora Zivkovic: “Free Speech is a very American concept.”

    Grossly incorrect. Even though most nations don’t have constitutional protection of the freedom of expression, they have in-practice common law and older, formal laws that have the same effect. There have been struggles and granting of free speech dating back to ancient times. The paradigms of free speech have been in western civilization for over 1000 years.

    Enumerating “rights” in a constitution is perhaps more dangerous than not doing so because there are things that people expect to be their “rights” which have been historically treated as such, but not stated specifically in the constitution; perhaps because putting words to those rights is very difficult.

    This is quite clear from the fact that some/many people think because the constitution guarantees them “free speech”; that they can say anything without bearing consequences. Rights cannot exist without corresponding responsibilities.

    Rights without responsibilities are succulent pastures for the feckless, indolent and cowardly; fertilised by those wish to exploit the grazers.

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  51. 51. berfel 10:53 pm 01/29/2013

    BTW Bora,

    Your suggestion that altering comments is “legal” may not be correct in all jurisdictions in which the blog is visible. The original commenter’s view may be MISrepresented by the edits and they may claim that they have “suffered” as a result if they are identifiable. If the result is considered defamatory; then it may violate criminal law in some jurisdictions.

    Any edits that alter comments attributed to others must clearly indicate THAT the comment has been edited; what has changed and WHY. Such is especially the case when those making comments clearly identify themselves. It is extremely unwise to be seen to be putting words into the mouths of others.

    For blog (and forum) owners/operators, the easiest option is not to allow any comments. If one does moderate, then the next-easiest option is to only allow “appropriate” comments.

    Remember; free speech doesn’t extend to having a right to have a say in any place, by any means. You can no more walk into the offices of a newspaper publisher and demand column inches than insist that your comments be published on a blog. One is at best a guest when visiting a blog; and one’s behaviour must be acceptable to the host.

    Should one feel compelled to express one’s opinion, there are plenty of fora available, including free blog facilities available to all comers. But one must then usually take some ownership and write things that are worth reading on their own; not “borrowing attention” from other bloggers.

    Bernd Felsche

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  52. 52. Bora Zivkovic 11:00 pm 01/29/2013

    I agree that subtle editing, without a note, is at least bad etiquette (and may be illegal in some countries). But disemvoweling is pretty obvious, and complete deletion leaves nothing to leave an editor’s comment on. See above some cases when I did delete comments and replaced with my own notes.

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  53. 53. parobinson 11:55 pm 01/29/2013

    I’m coming rather late to this excellent article, and there’s very little I can add that hasn’t been said above in support of your stance.

    Regarding Moderation Rules, or lack thereof, I still believe an overall site policy can be of value, if only as a caution to (some) would-be trolls and a catch-all reason to point to when their comments are removed. I don’t believe it would restrict your ‘capriciousness’, as you put it. Furthermore, it would provide some clarity to those contemplating using the Report Abuse button (as has happened to me once or twice), but are not sure whether the comment really is unacceptable (to SciAm).

    A question: Do you know if comparable websites that are stricter receive fewer trolling attempts? I was thinking of New York City’s success in adopting the ‘fix broken windows’ approach in cleaning up the city.

    Finally, I wish you every success. I am really glad to see that someone is willing to play hardball with those who detract from the usefulness and enjoyment of this site.

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  54. 54. Bora Zivkovic 1:00 am 01/30/2013

    Yes, we do have official, site-wide Terms of Use:
    but individual bloggers can moderate stricter than that if needed.

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  55. 55. bigterguy 6:16 am 01/30/2013

    I subscribed to SciAm for 30 years, but decided about 20 years ago it had turned into a nearly worthless rag. This post confirms my choice.

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  56. 56. astridmn 6:19 am 01/30/2013

    Great piece. I worked for a news organisation, that had comments on almost all sections and did post-moderation. I never understood why – the discussions were always derailled and the journalists never showed their presence in the comments. It seemed like the comments were only there to drive traffic to the site.

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  57. 57. bugéenot 9:51 am 01/30/2013

    I just went through the inane process of scientific american registration for the sole purpose of writing this.

    It’s a shame that this otherwise nice article has to rely on the use of the terms “troll” and “trolling” as those words have lost meaning and nowadays loosely mean “somebody doing something I don’t like”.

    IMHO it would have provided for a clearer reading experience to have used more explicit language instead, to the point that some part could use a rewrite to remove what appears to be troll bashing (hint: read the article but replace every instance of “troll” by “black” and “trolling” by “terrorism” to get a sense of the issue).

    From what I gather, it’s more about managing reader provided content to keep the quality up and on topic.

    So I think “How do you decide what is a trolling comment?” could have easily been said “How do you decide what to remove ?” or “Removing content which doesn’t meet your minimal standard.”

    Why does this matter ? Because trolls bear value both in community and in discussion and this should be taken into account on a case by case basis as exposed on consumerium [1] and anarchopedia [2].

    disclosure: I’ve been an internet troll for 15 years, and this very post is a troll as it may derails the discussion from comment towards trolls but it is *not* *intended* to for I’m not following up or checking for any eventual answer. It’s written with the hope to instill thinking and offer an opportunity to widen perspective and self-educate to the reader who find it relevant.


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  58. 58. AdrianaH 10:33 am 01/30/2013

    Thanks, Bora. This is simply the best article on comments and moderation I have ever read. I know I will keep coming back to it!

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  59. 59. Malater 11:24 am 01/30/2013

    To be honest, I made an account on here to comment on this solely because of the content of the blog. Normally, I would have stuck to G+, which is where I originally saw it. But, in the saying that, I would like to think this will encourage my involvement in the original sites. All-in-all, I think this was a great post, and put a very interesting issue in the spotlight. I will definitely have to keep this article on hand to refer others to.

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  60. 60. G. Karst 11:31 am 01/30/2013

    Anyone who puts forward their opinion at a public forum (the internet) is quite rightly subject to the critique, of others.

    Information given as facts, without proper critique, is propaganda, pure and simple and should ALWAYS be regarded as such. To proclaim dissent and criticism is disruptive, aligns the author, with such company as the Kims, of North Korea.

    Such ideology is exposed by commentary, and it provides a valuable social function against tyranny, whether it is political or scientific.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we all agreed and there was no dissent. All commentary consisted of “Nice Job”, “good story”, “brilliant”, “so clever”. And all forums became an unending echo chamber.

    Those journalists who cannot deal with their opinion being rejected should not depend on Sci-Am for delivery of readers. They should have their own blog address and depend on their own ability to attract readers.

    You claim this is your own private blog, however, the address I used to get here was:

    There is an old saying “If you can’t stand the heat… get out of the kitchen.”

    Of course “bad language”, threats, and bullying, should be moderated out, but if you are not willing to do the effort, the blog should be closed. Opinions should always be respected for what they are. It takes courage to speak up and I only wished more citizens would do so. GK

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  61. 61. Jennifer Frazer 12:43 pm 01/30/2013

    Bora — Thanks for this. I feel like I have some much clearer guidelines to use in moderating my own blog. The most important things I take home from this are
    1) Don’t hesitate to delete comments that are anti-science. This is “Scientific American”, after all.
    2) Don’t hesitate to delete comments that are off-topic.
    2) Don’t hesitate to delete comments that are uncivil or rude. We don’t have to tolerate nastiness.

    Incredibly helpful.

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  62. 62. Jennifer Frazer 12:44 pm 01/30/2013

    Um, that would be 1), 2), and 3), not 1), 2), and 2). I second the call for the ability to edit comments.

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  63. 63. bucketofsquid 2:08 pm 01/30/2013

    Just a couple of thoughts;
    I have read all of the comments that have not been removed. I noticed that most, but not all, of the posters that strongly disagree with your perspective are people that I have reported abuse on articles or wished I could on blog posts. I thus conclude that I support your take on comments and commenting rules and enforcement.

    I’ve also noticed that comments attacking the author tend to make me defend the author even if I strongly disagree with them.

    I have strong opinions on everything. Sometimes I even have some clue of what I’m talking about but not very often.

    I used to moderate a discussion forum where people had to read and digitally sign a user agreement before they could post. I still deleted or edited a lot of posts. I even posted a “mandatory read” post entitled “Respect is Required”. A lot of people claimed to like it but few understood it. Eventually the forum owners decided that since I enforced the rules evenly and didn’t show favoritism toward their friends I had to go so that ended. It was amazing the relief I felt when it ended.

    Thanks for everything you do,
    Bucketofsquid (Worlds smelliest Bora fanboy)

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  64. 64. HowardB 2:19 pm 01/30/2013

    geojellyroll – Very well said. It is sadly true, and one of the reasons why none of my colleagues buy the magazine any more. I am also deeply sceptical of the veracity of the some of the excessively praising comments on this thread.

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  65. 65. HowardB 2:30 pm 01/30/2013

    48. Mark656515:

    “The troll problem is serious, but we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a conservative mood rising across so many areas. There must be a place for polite and educated, even when clearly ill-intentioned, comment. Democracy needs quality debating, or it will cease to be democracy. Or tomorrow, if we go down that road, there will be no room for dissent and conformity will be the rule. I would not like to see this, even if to impose everything I happen to believe in.”

    I suggest that the problem is real, and not serious. Otherwise I agree fully with your comment.

    There is a coordinated effort these days that is trashing all dissenting voices and all energetic debate – by labelling huge swathes of commenters as Trolls. This is a deeply objectionable and damaging effort.

    There is, regrettably, a certain kind of person who can only bear to read like minded commentary and coverage. FOXNews is an example in cable News. The result is nothing more than a love in between like minded people who are CLOSED minded and don’t want their preconceived ideas and pet theories challenged or exposed.

    There are many trolls out there – I agree fully. I have 20 years of experience, ever since the heady early days of dial in bulletin boards :)

    But in my experience the number of actual trolls is a fraction of the number accused.

    Silly, abusive, accusatory comments are easily ignored. Arguing for enormous clampdowns on comments is a damaging and odious one in my view. Moderating should be light handed, and comments software should incorporate threading, which isolates trolling and flaming and helps users to avoid them and get on to the worthwhile comments.

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  66. 66. Mark656515 12:36 am 01/31/2013

    “Arguing for enormous clampdowns on comments is a damaging and odious one in my view.” – I’m sure that’s not what the author wants to do.

    I’m sure he is bringing to attention the delicate art of comment moderation and its importance in enabling amateur reader participation to be of professional communicative value – a very relevant Media Studies topic.

    The point where I do not quite disagree with the author, but highly qualify my agreement, regards the need, in my opinion not sufficiently developed in the article, of the point of the moderation exercise being to promote quality debating, thus enhancing the information/entertainment value of the publication, and how may this best be done.

    If at times the author seems to get a real kick out of counter-bullying the bullies, perhaps he’s seeing too much Tarantino, but I suspect that from now on, comment moderation and management will become an established topic of study in Media Studies.

    I would still keep the rules as transparent, simple and objective as possible, and merely ban rudeness. We may run, “so-and-so’s comment deleted for rudeness”. Against deliberate misinformation I would use standardized replies, which perhaps SA editors may dislike for their repetition, very brief ones linking to a high-credibility source.

    Of course freedom and variety are paramount, and only the most boorish of bloggers or site editors will distort comment moderation to stifling freedom of dissent – but, as Bucketofsquid alerted us, the risk should not remain unheeded, particulaly in conservative climes.

    Often vested-interest or anti-science contentions stimulate the best pro-science or ecological arguments.

    Perhaps the solution, Media Studies-wise, is simply to consider the comment section as part of the vehicle, and dedicate the talent time to properly moderate (yes, light-handedly) and reply to it – as has been showcased here.

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  67. 67. queensowntalia 12:51 am 01/31/2013

    “Silly, abusive, accusatory comments are easily ignored.” Yes, and no. Depending on what’s said, it can still affect the tone of the conversation, and for me personally, as a reader and fellow commenter, it certainly affects my mood.
    I’d rather these comments be removed, or disemvoweled, than linger there making everything uglier.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I’ve read every comment here (skimmed a couple of the longer ones, admittedly), and did not see any that seemed “excessively praising.” I’m no shill – this is my first time visiting this blog/site in general, someone posted a link to the article on Facebook and as a frequent “lurker”/sometime commenter it caught my attention. And I do agree with what praise (and a few of the criticisms) I’ve read. Don’t let your dislike of the publication skew your perception of the commenters, that’s not fair. :)

    Regarding moderation, no matter what approach one takes you can’t please everyone I suppose. As a long-time commenter over on BoingBoing, I sat back and watched as people freaked out a couple years ago when they stepped up their moderation and introduced disemvoweling. There were cries of “censorship!” and whatnot from some. In many cases these sorts aren’t traditional trolls (and yeah, the term has come to be overused somewhat – I think it’s become a bit of a catchall for troublemakers. I use it that way myself), just people who have this weird sense of entitlement coupled with self-righteousness and a moral standpoint they consider superior. Probably a good thing I don’t have my own blog – I just don’t have the patience for that. :)

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  68. 68. HowardB 9:24 am 01/31/2013

    67. queensowntalia: I don’t disagree with most of what you say.

    ” it certainly affects my mood.” I agree. But I don’t feel it merits some of the hyperbole that too often surrounds the topic.

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  69. 69. hb 11:57 pm 01/31/2013

    Re: trolls.

    I never understood why serious readers and commenters bother to argue with these people; their nonsense isn’t worth a comment. Address the author(s) of the article in question and writers making sensible contributions, and ignore the nonsense.

    It is surely a waste of time to reason with people whose minds are closed or who may be paid to post their drivel. If the trolls see that nobody pays attention to them, they might just fade away.

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  70. 70. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:35 am 02/1/2013

    Interesting article, but I can’t agree with its general conclusions.

    When people claim that they feel a problem or otherwise observe a phenomena, my spine reaction is that I like to see statistics that there is a phenomena.

    But since this article is about society, never mind that, let us have a discussion on behavior.
    I see the web society as a city, and its populations as (mostly) social beings with behaviors.
    You can indeed choose to see your blog as a private property, and I would say that a blog in a specific field (science) needs that. But a city has a surplus of streets, there people can meet casually. The web lacks that, and squirelling away all blogs, especially magazine blogs, as private makes the city non-functional.

    In non-web cities, people behave socially on streets. Where I come from, they even behave such in constrained situations (queues). So this can’t be a generic problem.

    What to do with sociopaths, trolls? Derision, ousting, et cetera is certainly allowed, even in streets.

    Mind, in non-web cities you tend to let people go from small one-on-one situations, because you can’t make be sure if it’s a sociopath or a person having a bad day, misinterpreting the situation, et cetera. The analogous situation would be to look at reader count, is the one time offender a local one-on-one analog, or is he delighting in, and disturbing, the general readership?

    I don’t think the problem (and in non-web cities this exists to a smaller degree) is sociopaths, the problem is how to make the city functional. More streets!

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  71. 71. rhetoricat 6:01 pm 02/1/2013

    Thank you for this much needed post. Like several of the other commenters, I subscribed for the express purpose of replying here. Normally I would have simply tweeted this article, shared it on Facebook, and/or posted it on my blog. While I still intend to share your post, I felt it worthwhile to respond here. I find your post to be quite timely. Bad behavior on the internet is certainly not a new phenomena and in my field of rhetoric and composition I’ve presented conference papers and conducted research on the specific targeting of women on the internet. However, recently I’ve been truly disturbed by my attempts to respond to articles on gun violence and other “hot button” issues. My fact-based arguments have been met with vitriolic, ad-hominem attacks and on the rare occasion that someone responds with their own facts, they’ve been easily debunked as political propaganda. Ultimately, I give up trying to comment on these sites because the comments sections are almost exclusively name-calling. Thank you for taking the time to do what so many others do not.

    Twitter and Facebook are also not immune to this lack of civility, though the remedy for Facebook is simply privacy controls and selecting “friends.” (Of course Facebook has become a great place for disseminating false and poorly researched information that is then rampantly “shared.”) Twitter, however, is another space altogether. I realize this isn’t completely within the purview of your article. You can’t have a sustained discussion in 140 characters or less, but the attacks are nonetheless vitriolic.

    One more item of note: A commenter mentioned the term troll and I agree that “bully” is certainly more reflective of their actions. However, when I think of a troll, I don’t think of a cute doll or anything cute for that matter. I think back to the mythological creature who lurks or paces below a bridge waiting for someone to attempt to cross and then demanding payment for safe passage. The troll of myth is hideous- lurking, watching and coming out of hiding to inflict pain. Nothing cute about that.

    Thanks again for the great material. It’s perfect for my own upcoming blog post. And I loved the McSweeney’s piece!

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  72. 72. Bora Zivkovic 6:40 pm 02/1/2013

    I am occupied at ScienceOnline2013 this week, but I promise I will come back to reply to all comments next week. In the meantime, you can hear a discussion on this topic on today’s NPR Science Friday (podcast):

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  73. 73. Mark656515 11:01 am 02/4/2013

    One last point, to make myself clear. Positive commenting (however defined) should be stimulated, if negative commenting is to be repressed, or the vehicle will deserve the ensuing lack of comment. If I take the time to comment seriously and in good faith, I like to feel like a guest, not like someone was doing me a favor. The approach in the article is almost entirely negative – as if commenting was a necessary evil and not a form of adding value.

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  74. 74. ahynes1 8:00 pm 02/5/2013

    David Weinberger wrote an interesting response to this post, “Are all good conversations echo chambers?” It stimulated my thinking and I wrote a response to both this post and David’s post

    Thinking About Conversations.

    It’s all getting more and more meta for me, but I think these are important conversations.

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  75. 75. Bora Zivkovic 11:54 am 02/6/2013

    A couple of more interesting links back here:


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  76. 76. Mark656515 4:56 pm 02/12/2013

    Hmm, also, allowing free debate (even with paid, or other stakeholder) oil-advocate climate skeptics, is far more convincing (for uniformed neutral bystanders) than banning the whole debate, even if it does means mobilizing an informed person to do the debating. Really, their misinformation arguments are the best opening for clarifying explanations. Just banning polite but misinforming persons is medieval. We just don’t do things this way in the modern world anymore: we prove via better argument (in this case, really a cinch, even more so in post-Sandy times).

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  77. 77. Cramer 2:50 pm 02/19/2013

    Bora Zivkovic,

    Do you have an opinion about the moderation tactic of deleting a comment, but the deleted comment remains undeleted to the person who posted the comment?

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  78. 78. a2kat 12:00 pm 02/20/2013

    Thank you for a thought-provoking and thorough article. I would like to add that comments can be very hurtful, as I discovered from a personal experience. When my father, a partly retired psychiatrist, was shot and killed by a patient who had begun to have paranoid delusions, the newspaper did a profile story posing the question of what went wrong. The patient killed herself, too, which meant we had little information. The paper–well respected and nationally known–had a headline that was too sensational for my taste and may have prompted random people to read the article. The net result was that there were very disturbing and outrageous comments speculating on affairs and professional incompetency. Thankfully, some former patients and colleagues spoke to my father’s true character. Eventually, at my request, comments were shut down. Even so, the experience was upsetting and still upsets me to this day. Now, when I read a news story about an untimely death, I think much more deeply about the families and friends who are still suffering the loss. I think that it is important to give readers a chance to speak up, but some discretion is also necessary.

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  79. 79. mo98 9:03 pm 02/23/2013

    I felt privileged when I opened my twitter account around 2007 and sciam followed me there for several months. I rarely commented in my own space, but have done so often more for science, even eliciting responses when I asserted possible alternatives for gravity versus cosmic dark matter/energy. I have done a lot more reading since. There remains however, good talk radio that can often help expose the flawed thinking of trolls. It can be experienced in real time when the hosting moderator simply disconnects a caller. It is a relief to most of us. We have come a long way towards understanding the ways of the elusive and seemingly shifty silent majority. I detect, however, a vacuum for written questions. New standard candles are being set alongside our knowledge of the record-obsessed world.

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  80. 80. jonjermey 1:10 am 03/6/2013

    How long, I wonder, before you have to tweak your computerised censor to block comments on commenting policy, in case your readers are accidentally made aware of the fact that many people happen to disagree with you? Or comments on the fact that you’ve been wrong about something, since admitting the possibility that you were wrong about something else might raise the suspicion that you were wrong about you-know-what?

    Some time ago I decided that there were only two classes of blogs on the Web; those with an open comment policy and those that were running scared. Thank you for confirming my belief.

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  81. 81. tuibguy 12:31 pm 03/9/2013

    This is a rather old problem, and I am pleased to see this article and the ensuing discussion. In the early 2000′s I had found the website, and its own history is rather interesting. TO originated because of the problems of thread derailment on newsgroups specifically created and enjoined by professional scientists in the fields of biology and evolution (and also to cosmology.) Working scientists felt like they were having to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to creationists who denied even the basic facts.

    The development of TO led to the building of a great resource for those of us non-scientists who really wanted to learn more about evolution, geological history, cosmology and all things related to origins. It led to great FAQ’s of responses to creationist claims, informed us of the various legal cases related to creationism and also held onto the value of great pun thread.

    So, while the usenet were held to strict moderation in order to keep the information shared within a manageable data-set, the process of strict moderation eventually turned into a very positive good that is an effective learning tool even today, nearly 25 years later.

    So, a blogger can choose to maintain commenting on his or her own site as an owner of the blog in the manner of choosing; the dissenters who disagree and believe that it is a matter of freedom and responsibility to leave commenting open to all comers must finally realize that there are a vast number of places on the internet to carry on the conversations. If it is not in *this* or *that* particular blog, that doesn’t mean that the conversation isn’t going to happen, that trolls or bullies will be completely shut down. If we have learned nothing in the 40 plus years of the internet, at least we have to learn that there are always new opportunities to be as rotten as we want to be (or feel like we are as entitled to be.)

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  82. 82. Bill Everett 9:24 am 03/10/2013

    I defend the lurker/Facebook sharer (myself). I don’t comment unless I believe that my comment might serve a useful purpose (which is rarely the case). I share to Facebook if I believe the material is likely to be interesting and/or useful to a reasonable subset of my small number of Facebook friends. I sometimes reply to a comment on a news website (e.g., New York Times) if I believe my comment might possibly help one or more of the 90 lurkers. Social platforms apps for sharing, liking, whatever, ought to provide the blog owner with something like a “FB liked/shared” log of date, time, and comment (if any) without account identifying information. I am not going to start giving a “thumbs up” comment to every blog post I like.

    Incidentally, Bora Zivkovic, I like your application of the “three strikes” rule, if I understand it properly. It seems essentially identical to my “three strikes” rule in business several decades ago, which I used with people who lied to me. For your further information, I have not “FB liked” this blog post, although I did seriously consider doing so. But I did put it in my favorites in my browser because I expect a reason to refer someone to within the foreseeable future may arise. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  83. 83. hadingrh 11:20 am 03/19/2013

    I recently remove all comments of my entire post. The comment system was using wordpress standard commenting, and it has option to make a thread on comments.
    But the problem is, my ranks went lower since I enabled it.
    It’s frutrating me.
    So, I change the system to facebook’s comment.
    The beauty is, my articles are more virals, and attracts more visitors.
    So, whether it nested (thread) or not, that’s not the big deal. Just focus to your own goal.

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  84. 84. Geneliawilliams 7:22 am 05/15/2013

    Great work!! very interesting and informative article.

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  85. 85. Lars Steves 1:27 am 06/17/2013

    Do you have an opinion about the moderation tactic of deleting a comment, but the deleted comment remains undeleted to the person who posted the comment?

    Link to this
  86. 86. Layla2013 11:38 pm 11/8/2013

    I am absolutely puzzled by what is happening to most of my posts and here I am asking for help, particularly from those who are themselves moderating comments on various websites. I hope someone helps me figure out what is going on and I will greatly appreciate your input. I would really like to find out what it is that I am doing wrong. The story goes like this: I post my comment and I am never rude, I never use a bad language and I comply with the website’s posting guidelines and regulations. I never post my own opinion but mostly facts, verifiable data or my own reaction to a certain event. I make sure that whatever I say will not hurt those who are too sensitive or anybody else who might read my comment. The problem is that other people begin answering my post and their posts actually comment my own, some of them are ridiculous (historically or scientifically inaccurate) and illogical and they tend to refer to my own comment and not to the video/article. If I answer back using arguments and explaining why the person who answered was wrong, my comment awaits moderation for a while and it is eventually never published. Why is this happening? Is the moderator considering my answer a troll? Am I trolling when I correct the mistake of the person who answered me? I am aware of the fact that this situation DOES lead to trolling because that person will answer back and post another ridiculous or inaccurate comment. The moderator most likely assumes that I will keep answering back and the conversation will never end and it will be off topic. I assume that’s the reason he/she cuts me off. But I might be wrong and this leads to my next question. What I don’t understand is why the moderator chooses to cut the conversation off at the wrong point. If he/she allows two comments, the initial one and the answer I receive, many or some readers will become confused not knowing what’s true or false and there will be no constructive conversation for that topic. Let me give you an example. Let’s say a video on a website shows someone talking about the cute penguins which are found only in Antarctica at the North Pole and I post a comment clarifying that Antarctica is not at the North Pole and penguins are also found in other parts of the world. This is a hypothetical conversation I make up right now but it actually reflects the kind of frustrating situation I tend to get into because I am inclined to correct mistakes when I notice them on various websites. If some other person responds to my comment and contradicts me claiming I am wrong, why would the moderator never approve my answer to this person when I bring up arguments or provide sources anybody can use in order to verify the accuracy of what I am saying? If I were the moderator I would cut off any comment from this point on, allowing the answer that clarifies the mistake of the person who answered so that those who read the comments can figure out what’s accurate. Do you think some moderators don’t even read some of these posts when they have the slightest feeling they can turn into trolls? What do you think? (thank you in advance for answering my questions)

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    Mostly Users will not see the whole Blog and just read the Title and give there Response in the form of Comment there should be proper understanding about the topic then the comment should be post.

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    Thanks, Bora. This is the best article and moderation I have ever read.

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