Trolls, sock puppets and other hazards of our new website

By May 25, 2011

Troll: One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.

— from urbandictionary.com

I am seriously in a funk about The Davis Enterprise’s website commenters. I’m also an idiot for expecting it to be any different than other newspaper’s sites, but I honestly thought we Davisites were better than this. I didn’t think people would comment on stories in a snotty, snarky, inflammatory, troll-like way. But do they ever!

I also — foolishly! — thought we would get heaps of positive feedback on stories via our website. I thought this because we get so many nice comments from people to our faces all the time. (“To our faces” is the key point here.)

Hanging out at the Davis Little League fields or at my sons’ schools, people regularly tell me how much they enjoy Bruce Gallaudet’s youth sports stories, or Anne Ternus-Bellamy’s feature stories about kids doing amazing things.

So I assumed we would see these same people take a minute to say something nice about the stories we posted on our site, maybe adding a little extra information or backstory. Tell us how you’ve made and maybe altered one of Dan Kennedy’s yummy recipes or what you thought of a play Bev Sykes recommended.

Hardly. That’s not what our website is proving to be about. It’s about jabs and barbs at each other, just like every other place where people can anonymously participate in verbal smackdowns.

Something I never expected — call me naïve — are “sock puppets,” false Internet identities created for deceptive purposes. This seems to be the M.O. of most of the negative nellies out there.

Because Enterprise editors can see the email IDs of those commenting, we see that one of the more prolific posters commented under at least 10 different names (I stopped counting after 10), pretending to be a different person each time. So readers get a very false sense of the kind of support or opposition for an issue if they believe they are seeing 10 different viewpoints but are seeing only one person with multiple personalities.

We also can see that some of these sock puppets are actually talking to themselves. One identity will make a comment about a topic, such as whether Picnic Day needs a revamping, and the same person will create another post, with another name, and praise the logic of his earlier post.

Seriously! Because no one agrees with your first post, you create another persona to agree with yourself?!

It’s also not cool to put someone else’s name as the author of your obnoxious posts. School board and City Council members’ names have been used by people with email IDs that don’t even remotely resemble the supposed author. Shame on you, too.

The general meanness with which people comment anonymously is probably my biggest shock and disappointment. Here are some of the super snarky comments (and this could go on for pages, but I’ll just sample a few):

Responding to someone saying he/she voted no on Measure A: “Right, so the kids can grow up to be white trash and poorly educated like you.”

Responding to an entry on the business page (in this person’s defense, he put a first name and last initial, that may or may not be his real name): “Holy crap!! Lyon hires two new realtors and it makes the newpaper (sic) as “news”? Certainly there is a better use for the trees used to print the paper, or for the bandwidth and server space needed to publish the website online.”

Regarding Scott Heinig’s death: “Davis is such a great college town! Go Ags!”

Would you commenters ever say these things directly to someone’s face? Of course not. In fact, only one person of five or so who criticized Debra DeAngelo’s light-hearted story about cat barf actually used his name. What would you say to Debra if you saw her? None of the crap you actually wrote, you wussies.

Enterprise editors and reporters regularly discuss this problem and are trying to develop a logical policy. We require letters to the editor to be signed by the writers, and we ourselves write our names on our stories and columns.

On the flip side, it has been awesome seeing people enlighten each other about missing details that might have been left out of a story, comforting each other when an obituary publishes, or patting a Davis High School athlete on the back when she’s had a great game.

I even respect the debates regarding issues and controversial topics. There are many smart people in town who have a lot to add to the conversation.

Greater minds and more prestigious newspapers have been working on this issue for years, so I’m not expecting we’ll solve the problem perfectly.

But I am expecting people to stop acting like jerks to each other. Pretty please?

— Tanya Perez is an associate editor at The Enterprise. Her column runs every other Thursday. Reach her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/enterprisetanya

Tanya Perez

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