The Blogger Shares His Struggles To Moderate This Site

Moderating a blog is a tricky business.  Let me review why I write this blog and how I determine what comments can be published.

I have several goals in publishing this blog.

To begin with it is meant to provide readers information about local politics.  With the decline of newspapers, the resources that newspapers have to cover local government have atrophied.  Even when reporters cover local events, they rarely have the time to dig below the surface.

I do not presume to comprehensively investigate all that goes on in our city.  What I can do is focus on certain events that interest me and dig into them.  I can also alert readers to newspaper articles and television reports that I think are informative.

Moderating Comments

The purpose of “commenting” on my site is to engage people to create a public dialogue.  In an age in which people shout past each other, I try to create an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing their views.  They should be able to post a comment without fear of being personally attacked, humiliated, or berated.

Tolerance vs Censorship

This means that I allow opinions even though I may personally condemn them. 

Simply not airing opinions with which one disagrees doesn’t mean these opinions disappear.  In my mind it is better to air them publicly so that they can be examined and addressed.

I am not naive enough to believe that just engaging in civil dialog will mean that one’s preferred position prevails or that open dialog alone will be sufficient to protect us from the perniciousness of racism or movements like fascism.

I do, however, believe that a culture that is dominated by censorship and the suppression of ideas, even those one finds offensive, will lead to the domination by those with the most power, not necessarily those with the best ideas.

Moderating for Accuracy

Probably most of the readers of this blog are not fully aware of the time maintaining this blog requires.

I am very rigorous regarding the accuracy of my own posts.  As those who follow my blog know, when I become aware of an error in one of my posts I acknowledge and correct it.

Moderating comments is a different matter.  To begin with, time and priorities limit my ability to insure that everything other people write is accurate.  I do, however, exercise my right to block or edit comments when I recognize inaccuracies.  I make a special effort to remove false claims against public figures. 

Is there a comment that expresses something so abhorrent it should not be published?

On the other hand, I have been reticent to edit opinions expressed in comments on my blog even when I find them troubling. 

This is a problematic area with which I continually struggle.  What kind of comment is sufficiently abhorrent that it needs to be censored?

A case in point was a comment from a follower who uses the name Justin Chase.  In response to the Mayor’s call for Juneteenth to become a holiday he wrote:

You stated:
“The symbolism surrounding a Juneteenth holiday is an important acknowledgment of the debt owed to the people who were enslaved in America.”

If they weren’t…where would they be today?
Just wondering.

In a subsequent post, in response to searing criticism, Justin Chase offered that he was simply trying to be provocative to spur conversation.

I believe that I should have removed the above fragment before the full comment was published.  I have subsequently done so.

Justin Chase has been a regular participant on this blog almost since it began.  Considering his previous posts and his subsequent defense it appears that he thought he was being both provocative and amusing when he wrote the above. 

To joke about the idea that black people today should be grateful that their ancestors were captured in Africa and transported under the most horrific conditions to the United States and then treated in the most barbaric ways as chattel is abhorrent.

This incident has caused me to rethink my policy on commenting.  I do not believe that writing simply to be provocative is helpful.  It invites unnecessary conflict.  The substance of what happens in our city along with the thoughtful and earnest observations of the people who follow this blog  generates enough interesting and useful dialogue.

With that in mind, I have written to Justin asking that in the future he limit his comments to what he actually thinks and believes although this will not be the only standard used in deciding what comments to publish. Comments that I believe are meant only to be provocative and trolling will not be posted.

The Need for Civility

I have on quite a few occasions censored comments that I considered to be outside the bounds of civility.  Usually this is simple.  Anyone who follows social media is familiar with ugly attacks that are simply personal and meant to hurt and/or anger.  They commonly include profanity.  They prompt me to quickly click on the trash icon.

More nuanced is the problem of tone.  My standard is based on a question I ask myself.  Is the tone of this comment so belligerent that the only possible response is either silence or an angry reply?

For my blog to be successful in my mind, persons willing to comment should feel confident that they will not be the victim of a response that they experience as humiliating.

I recently published a comment by a follower who identifies himself as Andy Reeder.  He was addressing Justin Chase.  Here is an excerpt:

You’re saying your post was to “promote a rather entertaining exercise in creative banter”? Is that what you call saying black Americans should be grateful their ancestors were brought to this country as slaves?

Was it “creative banter” when you said “Sweden had it right?” After apologizing for their approach earlier this month due to the high death rate, they’ve admitted they have made less progress than expected in achieving immunity and have one of the worst mortality rates in the world. ( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-17/sweden-proves-surprisingly-slow-in-achieving-herd-immunity )

Was it creative banter when you said “everyone has the virus”, despite only 10-20% of the people tested in areas experiencing the worst of the the virus have the related antibodies?

This style does not invite dialogue.  It is meant to bludgeon.  It is meant to humiliate.  It ends any conversation.

Andy is one of the most thoughtful people who posts on this blog.  He brings a wealth of factual knowledge to it.  I have in the past asked him to tone down a comment which he has done. 

I debated with myself long and hard about putting up this most recent comment from him.  I finally decided that given the disturbing nature of Justin’s comment I would allow Andy’s strong response this time.

In Defense of Civility

President Donald Trump is not responsible for the decline of civility in our country, he is a symptom.  His attack on the late Senator John McCain’s imprisonment during the Vietnam War as some kind of proof that Senator McCain was a “loser” was only one of many degrading and gross insults he has made.  As the “leader” of our country his use of the bully pulpit in this manner has without question promoted more of this kind of hateful behavior.

There are no simple solutions to what we face.  What is irrefutable is that if we do not learn how to  discuss our problems and differences then the future is bleak indeed.

I see my blog as a tiny effort to address our malaise.  Civility is not an end in and of itself.  It is the prerequisite to finding answers to the problems that are at the root of incivility.

11 thoughts on “The Blogger Shares His Struggles To Moderate This Site”

  1. Well, Bravo!
    “Moderating a blog is a tricky business.”

    Yes sir. But the best in the world take that ‘trick’ on. Good for you, for trying.

    Pass go. Collect $200.
    And get up tomorrow, knowing that your effort is appreciated by those who wish to seriously DISCUSS the important issues we face.

    Not provoke – discuss.
    Happy Independence Day.
    AG

    Like

  2. Thanks John for all that you do with the blog. You put a lot of effort into it. You often research complex City and County issues beyond anything that is available in local media. You are providing an important service with your community forum.

    I find some of the points of view expressed by those who respond to your blog disturbing. It would be better if all respondents would sign their names and take responsibility for their comments. Outrageous or provocative statements under a pseudonym is a cowardly act. On the other hand, it’s helpful to hear even the most despicable thoughts of those who make up the underbelly of society. I hope that you are not too strict with your editing.

    Chris Mathiesen

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “I do, however, believe that a culture that is dominated by censorship and the suppression of ideas, even those one finds offensive, will lead to the domination by those with the most power, not necessarily those with the best ideas.”

    If I could “love” this part of your post I would.

    Thank you for addressing the need for decorum, respect, and civility for one another.

    The time that you take in serving our community in your own way with this blog is appreciated 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, to echo others, I think this blog is a tremendous resource for Saratogians, especially as local news struggles, and I recognize that overseeing commentators is a thankless and difficult task. I’ve happily read this blog for years and only recently started posting in response to other comments that I thought needed to be refuted. You’re largely correct on my prior comments intent, though the audience I aimed for was not the author of the original comment but instead other readers. Having others commend factually incorrect and dangerous comments is disheartening and I wanted to show that history of misinformation.

      In response to mlblogsmoishezinnia, I completely disagree that censorship is always dangerous and evil. To say nothing for the most obvious examples of violence, exploitation, and hate-speech, a variety of studies have shown how social media platforms, including blogs, can radicalize individuals and increase extremism. The real world consequences aren’t just more inflammatory posts, but mass shootings and other attacks. This is why most platforms have taken steps to limit content from Nazis, white nationalists, and other extremist figures who push hate, violence, and misinformation. Across the country we’ve seen the consequences of expecting readers to determine what is true and false themselves, and a certain degree of moderation has proven itself to be necessary.

      John has mostly done a good job doing that, though I’m confused why this recent attack on BLM was posted without someone associated with BLM being asked to refute the nonsense spouted by “Eddie Lehman”. To say he’s “not alone in his concerns and he deserved to have his position published” but then take a hands off approach and hope others respond seems like a poor practice. My advice would be that if a topic warrants debate, then foster that debate between relevant parties. I’ll likely respond, but I’m just one person with no other skin in the the game other than living in Saratoga Springs.

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      1. Andy—I don’t understand your comment that the blogger took a “hands off approach and hope[d] others [would] respond” to the remarks Eddie Lehman made concerning the BLM presence in Saratoga Springs. Mr. Kaufmann quite clearly in this blog refutes EL’s erroneous claims and characterization of BLM as some kind of radical Marxist group and provides a link to the biographies of the founders. He has required that EL tone down his remarks and edited them for accuracy. Hardly “hands off”. He also did not say he “hoped others would respond” to this but committed to publishing the comments of those who would like to respond to EL.

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      2. 2dognight – I don’t understand why a hateful comment that isn’t based on facts and ignores readily accessible information warrants it’s own post, let alone gets prefaced with a qualified statement like “He is, however, not alone in his concerns and he deserved to have his position published on this site”. Plenty of uninformed people believe vaccines are a government plot, that Obama lied about his faith and birthplace, and that George Soros is behind just about everything. Should their commentary be elevated as well?

        John does point out the lack of violence locally and notes Mr. Lehman’s exaggerations/falsehoods. But again, why post it at all? By “hands off”, I meant that John is posting a problematic comment, notes some issues but rationalizes it by saying the author is not alone in his concerns (who else, and what are their specific issues?), and then signs off by basically saying “I’ve let this person dance around racism, and will allow others refute it.” Perhaps I diminished the effort he made to directly respond, but for me it all comes back to asking what the value of this post is for anyone, other than to signal to other racists in the community that they are not alone? This is obviously not John’s intent, but to readers this post will either expose how weak Mr. Lehman’s argument is, or validate their own similar beliefs. Advancing the latter is objectively a detriment to the entire community.

        I very much value the work John does on this blog, I just personally wish there was a harder filter against misinformation and racism. John has his own view, which I respect. For now I’ll gently refute the most egregious in the comments when I can.

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  4. John, you did an excellent job at describing an issue with social media that many others cannot. I think Mark Zuckerman could use you.

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  5. Andy—you posed the question “…what the value of this post is for anyone…”, and I think that in part you gave a very good answer to your own question. You first, though, suggested it would “signal to other racists in the community that they are not alone.” I have to say, unfortunately, I think they probably already know that. But next you say “to readers this post will either expose how weak Mr. Lehman’s argument is, or validate their own similar beliefs.” I couldn’t agree with you more. For those for whom this post validates what they already believe, they are as you indicate already on the same page with Mr. Lehman and will not unfortunately be moved by any refutation of his arguments. The value of publishing this on this blog, however, lies in the other group you mention i.e. those readers who may have been entertaining or at least open to some of Mr. Lehman’s assertions but who consider the additional information offered here and see the weakness in his arguments.

    Like

    1. While others may hold similar misinformed and/or racist beliefs, I do believe that allowing posts that affirm those views is a bad thing for the community. There is power in thinking you are part of a larger group. Social media platforms have succeeded in de-platforming racist extremists who peddle misinformation like Alex Jones, and I believe that is the the best way to handle posts and comments that are obviously vile.

      As to the value gleaned by others, I don’t know how much others get from the commentary of a stranger. Perhaps I’m being naive but I would say that readers of this blog may have been better served if Mr. Lehman’s post had a formal counterpoint from someone involved with BLM. What I added was easily found on the BLM site, or reading on a given topic from a non-hyper partisan news outlet. I’ll continue to respond to comments or questions as best as I can, but I think the idea of letting people hash it out in the comments with limited oversight is a recipe for disaster. I’ve generally been impressed by the quality of comments here, but we as a country have unfortunately seen how social media platforms can be abused by bad actors, and I’m perhaps overly worried that my favorite local blog will experience the same.

      Like

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