Guest blog post by All Digitocracy Founder Tracie Powell

I’ve made a lot of new friends since joining an online blogging group that includes a diverse  cadre of women bloggers. Tracie Powell is one of these very talented and highly dedicated blog-writing friends. Below is her bio, and a post from her blog,  All DigitocracyWhy news sites that focus on race & culture don’t ban comments. I like Tracie’s (and Gene Demby’s) notion of the value of “useful friction.” What do you think?

Tracie Powell’s bio:  Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, diversity, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She contributes regularly to the Columbia Journalism Review, but has also contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil. Tracie is founder of All Digitocracy, a blog about media and diversity, where this article first appeared. It is used here with permission from the author.


Moderating comments at websites that focus on the topics of race and culture can be time intensive and tough, but it’s not as bad as some might think, according to at least two high-profile bloggers who specialize in writing on these issues.

Latoya Peterson, owner of Racialicious, battled out-of-control commenters early on, but says the environment on the site is now more calm.
Latoya Peterson, owner of Racialicious, battled out-of-control commenters early on, but says the environment on the site is now more calm.

Latoya Peterson, owner and founder of Racialicious a blog that focuses exclusively on race and pop culture, said negative comments on her site are no worse than those that can be found on other websites, including Popular Science, which announced this week that it was killing its online comments sections because of “trolls” who prevent intelligent online debates from taking place.

“In the beginning we had to be really heavy-handed since a lot of people weren’t used to talking about race and racism with nuance,” Peterson told All Digitocracy in an email. Now people are too embarrassed to leave silly comments. But that’s more the community self-regulating than anything we do.”

Rethinking how to handle comments on news sites has been all the rage this summer. The same day Popular Science informed readers the magazine would ban comments, Google announced that it planned to clean up comments sections on Youtube, effective immediately. Starting on Tuesday the internet giant began rolling out enhanced moderation tools designed to help video owners “guide the conversation,” CNET reports. Fed up with trolls — people who post inflammatory or off-topic messages in an online community in order to provoke or sow discord – Huffington Post Media Group started banning anonymous accounts this month. “Huffington Post users won’t be able to create anonymous accounts to post on the site; going forward, their identities will have to be verified internally,” Managing Editor Jimmy Soni wrote in an online post explaining the decision. “HuffPost recognizes that many people are not in a professional or personal situation where attaching their name to a comment is feasible, and this change will not require users to identify themselves in connection with each comment. Rather, we will ask users to verify their identity when creating an account, which will reduce the number of drive-by or automated trolls.”

While HuffPost does not focus exclusively on race, ethnicity or culture, it had become notorious for playing host to some of the most virulent comment exchanges on the web, especially comments in response to stories about politics, race or crime. Interestingly, the nasty comments appeared to be less rampant on the company’s niche sites, including HuffPost Black Voices, HuffPost Latino Voices and HuffPost Gay Voices, perhaps because the so-called trolls didn’t bother seeking out the niche pages. (Inflammatory comments would appear if a story — thanks to Huffington Post’s much praised algorithms — became so popular that it got bumped from the niche page to one of the company’s main news or entertainment pages.)

Banning comments on websites dedicated to encouraging conversation and understanding around the often volatile topics of race and culture appears to go against their core missions.

One angry commenter created a Facebook page calling for NPR to fire Code Switch blogger, Gene Demby.
One angry commenter created a Facebook page calling for NPR to fire Code Switch blogger, Gene Demby.

Gene Demby, a blogger for National Public Radio’s newest blog about race, ethnicity and culture, Code Switch said on Twitter that if his site didn’t heavily moderate “literally every conversation would turn into a bunch of ranting about… immigrants and ghettos.”

Posted directly on the Code Swith blog is a list of comments moderators find objectionable. It states that there are four types of comments Code Switch automatically deletes:

  • Comments questioning why the blog exists (i.e. ‘Why is this dreck on NPR at all?’ or ‘Why are there so many stories about gays?’)
  • Comments that reflect a racial or cultural superiority over the racial or cultural experiences of others. (i.e. “Glad to learn some people like this (c)rap. I’m with the ones who don’t. First, it’s not MUSIC. At best it’s spoken word with monotonous background noise. Second, there are plenty of outlets for this kind of story where it won’t be boring and exasperating everyone else because people who like this stuff are their listeners…”)
  • Comments that portend not to be racist, but really are (i.e. ‘Group X is objectively terrible and I have proof.’ Or ‘It’s not racist, it’s just the truth.). This is the biggest class of offender at Code Switch, according to the blog post.
  • And finally, comments that claim a prior comment was removed due to political bias or philosophy, not because it violated a specific rule.

It’s been called the dirtiest job on the internet: comment moderators have to navigate endless streams of messages, douse flame wars and still ensure healthy discussion takes place daily on news sites.

The manner in which NPR’s Demby and other Code Switch team members moderate has become such a thorn in some commenters’ sides that they’ve “popped up on other NPR blogs complaining about it,” said. One commenter even created a Facebook Fan page as a result, calling for Demby to be fired. (The profile image on the Facebook page is an upside-down picture of Demby and it had 37 LIKES when I last viewed it. As one can imagine the comments are interesting to say the least)

“The internet is a big place. (Commenters) can say whatever they want, but they can’t say it at @NPRCodeSwitch,” Demby said.

While allowing negativity to flourish in his blog’s comments section can be counterproductive, Demby also recognized that those who disagree with him and others on the site can produce “useful friction.”

“There are productive conversations that can happen in comments sections, but those sections need to be moderated,” he said.

Peterson over at Racialicious agrees. “Trolls are trolls, they live everywhere,” she said, adding that she has never considered an outright ban. “Comment moderation is a pain, but the community we cultivated at Racialicious teaches us as much as they comment, so it all works out in the end. And a lot of our readers/commenters become writers/tipsters so it all works out.”


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