The Pros and Cons of Political Web Commentary

Posted by Mike Merritt in Election 2008 on

It seems that this day in age, simple commentary on a worldly issue is not the personal opinion of the person who wrote it. No! It must be a larger window into the mindset of where the comment was made. In this case, the places are website.

It’s irked me for some time that Bill O’Reilly has gone after the Huffington Post for vitriol posted by some commenters there. According to him, these comments show the larger picture of the Post’s owner, Ariana Huffington. He says these comments show the contempt that she has for this country.

News flash, O’Reilly: There’s this thing called the Internet, and a subset of that technology called commenting systems. You know that; by your own admission, you have some on your own website.

Yet, having a commenting system means responsible moderation of what is posted. O’Reilly has also claimed that many of the comments remain up there. I don’t doubt that, but he must understand that different websites have different commenting policies. Some allow pretty much anything, no matter who it’s from, or what it says. Others are quite draconian in the policies, and delete anything that’ll fan flames. I’ve had experience with both sets of policies.

I’ve been part of websites where I’ve had to keep track of commentary and posting, and make sure it didn’t break the rules. During my time doing that, my moderation style has been called both too lax and too trigger happy. I try to keep a balance in my moderation, as with all things in my life, but it’s difficult. Implement one policy, and you make one set of people mad. Implement another, and a different group is angry. It seems you can never please anybody! If you’re not restricting free speech, you’re letting people abuse it. It turns out to be a never ending cycle.

So, that’s why I can appreciate the difficulty the moderators at BarackObama.com and JohnMcCain.com must have in their blogs. The two websites are set up a little differently in how they let their members interact. Both websites have a blog where pre-approved posters can make entries. I’m not entirely sure, but I think these are people on the payrolls of the campaigns or are at least loyal to them. Both blogs allow people to comment on the entries. The difference comes with Obama’s site. He actually allows people to go further than just mere commenting, and open up their own blogs and have their own commenters. The arguably web-savvier candidate calls this my.BarackObama.com.

Both McCain’s blog and My.Barack have had their share of commenter/poster troubles over the last couple weeks/months. As Michelle Malkin points out and comments on, My.Barack has had some recent anti-semitic entries posted by a blogger. On the McCain side, TMV’s Michael Stickings has linked to a report and provided his own commentary on equally stupid postings going on at the blog there.

Now, it’s obvious that moderators on both sites need to delete all the bad posts and ban all the bad apples, but here is what these two don’t seem to understand: moderators are not around 24/7, 365. This is America, and we have certain timezones in America that preclude many people from being awake at, oh, I don’t know, the nighttime!? On most websites, anyway, this is how the game would go. However, I think that for Obama and McCain, they should have someone around 24/7.

There’s another problem that both bloggers talk about: the continuing availability of some of these entries or comments, weeks or months after they were made. Now that I would agree is a major oversight on the part of their moderators, and yet, there may be some reason why these things stay up: free speech.

Now, I think calling Obama the anti-christ is sick and twisted, but people have a right to say it. Other people also have a right to call the namecaller out on it. I haven’t seen the full thread of discussion on the McCain comment section for that particular entry, but if the debate was keeping civil, I could very well see why a moderator might choose to keep it up. I’ve been in the same situation myself when political or religious themed topics have appeared at the websites I’ve worked at. Most have ended up spiraling out of control, but some have kept civil. And while you may not agree with the majority view expressed in that topic, common sense says let the people duke it out, at least for a while. If the discussion is being relatively sane, and not de-generating into personal attacks, let it go on, I say. The same goes for comments and blogs over at Obama’s site.

There are obviously some moderation practices that are inadvisable to do, such as letting somebody continue posting anti-semitic remarks. Yet, from my own experience, moderators tend to be overworked and are not given a great deal of gratitude by the community they are moderating. The second one isn’t an excuse to overlook stuff, especially if you’re getting paid to do it, but the first one could be. If the moderating staff on My.Barack or McCain’s blog (both of which get a lot of traffic) is short-staffed, I can see where the problems come from. The fact is that moderators can and do miss things. They can’t do everything, which is why most community softwares include a report function that allow members to report a bad comment or entry to the moderating staff. Perhaps the communities of these sites simply are not utilizing it as they should, which is not the fault of a short-staffed moderating team.

What could be the fault of the leadership team of the campaigns is if the sites are short-staffed, as Malkin points out. Perhaps, if the campaigns don’t have the funds to hire any more moderators, they could put a limit on to how much interaction is allowed. For McCain’s site, this might be closing the comments at 200, and for Obama’s site, might mean limiting the registration on My.Barack to a set number of blogs, until such time more moderators can be gotten.

Yet, I would question the advisability of a nominee for President having an entire section devoted to allowing members to open up their own blogs. It effectively takes the main BarackObama.com blog, and multiplies the problem of moderating them by however many blogs My. Barack has. If M.B is short-staffed, that means there are things the moderators are missing, and the problem will only get worse once former Clinton supporters switch to Obama and also want to open up their own blogs.

So, while a comment made by a member of JohnMcCain.com or BarackObama.com certainly doesn’t reflect their views (as Dennis Sanders at TMV points out very well), or even how they’ll run their administrations, it certainly does create a lot of headaches for them.

Presidential campaigns, welcome to the 21st century.

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