Trolls on Auto-Pilot

By Tom Prezelski

Re-blogged from Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

Online comment sections are generally regarded as a miasma of ignorance, malice, and outright lies
which makes one wonder why so many publications think it necessary to
have them. They may have started as a noble experiment, but the forums
quickly degenerated into a platform for socially inept malcontents whose
rantings are too poorly sourced or too badly articulated to meet
editorial standards. In some cases, publications like the Arizona Daily Star have made too-little-too-late
moves to rein in the excesses, but editors generally seem reluctant to
take responsibility for providing a respectable platform for hate speech
and personal attacks.

The Tucson Weekly actually does a pretty respectable job of
policing its online comment section (In the interests of full
disclosure, it should be mentioned that I am a paid occasional contributor to the Weekly).
In some cases the editorial staff takes the time to respond to the
posts, particularly when the comments become personal. The exchanges
between editor Dan Gibson and a local cosplayer who calls himself “Colt Cassidy,” for example, are sometimes interesting.

A recent article by Linda Ray generated an interesting post from the cryptically named “Ronsonit” which illustrates another problem with online comments:

Only those who comply with Immigration Law should be
given consideration when the discussion on Immigration Reform takes
place. Anyone knowingly commiting a crime in the process of attempting
to “Immigrate” will select and choose the laws they will obey as
Permanent Residents and make Lousy Citizens. Get in the back of the Line
of people scrambling to join US. You have no “Birthright” other than to
contribute to earn your position in this Society.

All right, so this guy definitely needs to go back to grade school
and revisit his lessons about capitalization, and his post is basically
boilerplate anti-immigration reform rhetoric, but at least he is clear
and articulate, and he never makes vaguely racist remarks about local
elected officials, which is more than can be said for too much of what
we see online. The real problem is that the comment is not in response
to an article about immigration reform, but to a review of the Polyphonic Spree’s recent show at Club Congress.
As near as can be figured, the writer saw the word “immigration” in the
article (and perhaps the word “dreamer,” even though this term did not
even refer to the DREAM Act
in this context) and his anti-immigrant gland started producing the
hormone that made him write this generic response before he even read
the piece.

A more likely, and somewhat disturbing, possibility is that such comments are the result of so-called “sock puppets
who mindlessly post canned rhetoric in response to web alerts about
certain keywords appearing somewhere or another. These may even be
generated by software rather than actual human beings.

Defenders of online comment sections say that they provide an
important forum for discussion, but as the response to Linda’s article
shows, there is a real possibility that they can become dominated by
automated bots, cynical political operatives or trolling cranks rather
than concerned citizens with a real stake in the community, which makes
their value in this regard questionable.

One response to “Trolls on Auto-Pilot

  1. Your comments reflect my experience in commenting on certain hot-button issues in AZ Daily Star articles last year, before they went to their new set-up. Now, I rarely try (in that venue) to wedge something in between long re-posting of right-wing rants that stray from the subject matter, or counter what appears to be canned opinions, as you describe.