What do you do with trolls – those seething anonymous online commenters who post useless rantings in the comment section of blogs, news websites, anywhere they can. What is to be done? Newspapers have a long history of selecting which members of the public have their opinions made public. The job title was “Letters Editor,” and that person literally went through hundreds of letters from readers and selected a wide range to publish. They confirmed the writer’s identity and intent to publish and made agreed-upon changes with the guidelines of the paper.

Well, that was quaint. Now it’s every troll for him/herself out there, spewing whatever bile they want. Heated discussions ensued about how to balance community standards and free speech. Does having access to a computer give you the right to free speech anywhere you want to spit? If your local college newspaper allows cursewords does that have an impact on what comments the larger newspaper should allow? Do racists have a ‘right’ to rant? What about grammatically disasterous comments? Do people have a ‘right’ to embarrass themselves? 

All great questions forced upon us by the medium transforming the message — and the masses. Media are responding to commenters in different ways. Some have stopped comments entirely. Others try (often in vain) to monitor and make decisions case-by-case. The Portland Press Herald dropped reader comments. Period. See what you think:

  Portland Press Herald Drops Reader Comments in Response to ‘Vicious Postings’
Posted by Damon Kiesow at 10:48 AM on Oct. 20, 2010
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald has shut down its reader comments section in response to what its publisher describes as “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings.”

Damon Kiesow reports in his excellent Poynter column today the ravages of trolls. New Media means we can’t silence hateful letters (and thus their hateful authors) by tossing them into the circular file. With all that hate, who has time to go through hundreds, if you’re lucky, thousands of comments to weed out the toxic ones. And who decides what crosses the line? Kiesow’s piece explores this and lists the policies of a variety of publications, exposing our field’s emerging efforts to manage this particular Pandora’s Box.

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