Keeping sockpuppets at bay

Linda, the secretary at the New Bedford church, read the recent article in the New Bedford Standard-Times that reported on how both the Fairhaven (Mass.) and New Bedford Unitarian Universalist churches recently each asked a certain Level 3 sex offender to not attend worship services at our churches. Linda has a child, so she is entirely sympathetic with churches who consider carefully before deciding whether a given sex offender should be part of their community.

We agreed that the article didn’t say much, but that it wasn’t terrible.

“But,” she said, “did you see what people are saying in the comments?” The Standard-Times allows anyone to comment on any article, with absolutely no moderation or editing in place, except that you can flag a comment if you feel it is “inappropriate.”

“Yeah, I did,” I said. “Do you know what sockpuppets are?” She did not, so I explained that unscrupulous Web surfers will create fake online identities for themselves, so-called sockpuppets, so they can promote a certain point of view without admitting their real identities. “Near as I can tell,” I went on, “most of those comments are made by sockpuppets of one or two people who just want to promote their point of view.”

Are they really sockpuppets? You can judge for yourself: here’s the article, and the comments.

The real point is that allowing unmoderated comments degrades a newspaper’s Web site. The Standard-Times would not allow unmoderated letters to appear on their editorial pages; it doesn’t make sense for them to allow unmoderated comments on their Web site. It looks to me as though the Standard-Times doesn’t understand the Web, and doesn’t really care about the quality of their Web site. They should try to remember that newspapers provide us with two things: decent writing, and good editing. When it comes to the Web, the editing should be most important, for while there is plenty of good writing out there on the Web, there isn’t much in the way of good editing.

Newspaper editors need to realize that their Web sites need to have the same careful editing they devote to their dead tree editions. They also have to realize that Web sites require different kinds of editing, such as comment moderation; and that comment moderators need to have a different skill set than traditional newspaper editors — comment moderators have to be able to promote online community, keep the conversation moving, not let people feed the trolls, identify and remove sockpuppets, etc. This is why I think most newspapers will fail to make the transition to the Web — they will not be willing or able to figure out how the Web works.

5 thoughts on “Keeping sockpuppets at bay

  1. Dan

    Chalicechick @ 1 — Huh, it works for me. Did you scroll all the way to the bottom of the article? On the other hand, the Standard-Times Web site is so poorly done, perhaps the link works for some people some of the time but not for other people, for no discernable reason.

  2. Molly B.

    The comments on that story are fairly coherent, compared to the ones on the newspaper’s web site in my town ( Before we moved back here, I used to read the news stories, and then the comments, and I could practically feel my heart sink. I couldn’t believe I was voluntarily moving to a place where there are apparently so many people with limited viewpoints (and education). I did notice that in a recent story on same-sex marriage the comments were disabled, which is almost worse; it means the newspaper’s management KNOWS the comments are mostly stupid, bigoted claptrap, and chooses which stories to let the crazies loose on.

    I love your points about editing. The failure to edit or moderate reader feedback doesn’t just make the newspaper look bad; it makes the entire community look bad. If I didn’t know from having grown up here that people like the ones who comment on the World’s web site are really just a vocal minority (or maybe even just a chorus of sockpuppets) I would have been scared off by those comments, and would never have encouraged my husband to apply for the job that brought us back. Newspapers should be aware of how visible they are to the rest of the world when their content is online–and how ridiculous they look when they fail to present that content in a professional manner.

    All of that said, I didn’t quite get why the reporter only talked to UU churches–was the man a UU before he went to jail? I tried to go back and read the story again to see if I missed something, but now the link is timing out when I try to go there.

  3. Dan

    Molly B. @ 3 — You write: “I didn’t quite get why the reporter only talked to UU churches…”

    Yeah, that really is a good question, isn’t it? This is one article that’s not going to win the Pulitzer Prize….

Comments are closed.