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Whitney and the trolls

Once in a while, it’s worth calling attention to an old but persistent story: Trolls in the comments on online news sites, and the staggering failure of the media to do anything about them.

Following the sad and untimely death of Whitney Houston Saturday night, some of the more popular news sites on the web—such as Yahoo! News and FoxNews.com—were quickly overrun with racist comments. The comments pictured above come from these two stories: “Singer Whitney Houston dies at 48” on FoxNews.com and “Whitney Houston Found Submerged in Bathtub” on Yahoo News — but you can find similarly hateful comments at the bottom of nearly any popular story on either of those news sites.

I single out Yahoo! and Fox because they have the scale and budget to do something about this problem. But racist trolls also plague smaller news sites.

Trolls on obscure special-interest sites are one thing. But it’s a bigger problem when comments like these show up on mass media sites that reach all sorts of readers, including children who are still developing the skills to discern a legitimate opinion from hateful garbage.

Are there vast swarms of racists out there who feel the need to declare to the world that Whitney Houston deserved to die? Eh, maybe. But much of this stuff is by trolls, people who, for fun, try to provoke reactions by behaving outrageously online. (Recommended reading: “The Trolls Among Us,” By Mattathias Schwartz, New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2008.)

The technology in place to prevent trolling is either broken or isn’t being used effectively. FoxNews.com uses Disqus, which is obviously a waste of whatever money they’re paying for it. Yahoo uses its own system of upvoting and downvoting, which also doesn’t work. The Facebook Comments Box (which you can see at the bottom of this post) is one of the more reliable ways to keep comment quality high, since comments appear with people’s Facebook names. But as Facebook becomes more open, and trolling gets more sophisticated, it seems like Facebook comments are no guarantee people will behave.

What can Yahoo and Fox do about this? One solution is to hire someone to perform the thankless job of swiftly deleting offensive comments. Like the Broken Windows Theory of crime prevention, trolls make less trouble in a place that appears civil and orderly. Another idea (tried on some sites) is to split comments into two channels: A channel of hand-selected, high-quality comments (like a letters-to-the-editor page) and a noise channel nobody reads. A more dramatic solution is to disable comments entirely, acknowledging that an unfiltered appendix of consumer-generated babble actually makes for a poor reader experience, and damages the brands that host it. Any fix they choose, sites like Yahoo! and FoxNews.com would probably incur greater costs and suffer a traffic hit. It would be worth the trade-off, for the sake of discourse and decency.

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The BBC program Panorama recently found and interviewed a Facebook troll. A clip is below, or watch a longer segment here.

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Hat tips to Little Green Footballs for calling attention to the out-of-control comments on FoxNews.com, and CNet and The Next Web for spotting that BBC segment.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism


  1. Fatcow says:

    This is just so dirty. The legend died! All that news websites need to prevent trolling as soon as possible. Hire some people that are going to filer all that offensive comments.

  2. yvonne says:

    There is no respect even for the dead.

    I feel sorry for people who have so much hate. Obviously, it consumes them and they are living very unhappy lives.

  3. T. Shepard says:

    This man’s life must really be unhappy. He’s a sad hateful little spec of a person trying to fit in somewhere. Kids in school probably didn’t like him (I see why), now an adult, he does dumb things (still)for attention. Since love didn’t let him in, he turned to hate. He is to be pitied, because he doesn’t have enough sense to know how stupid he really is. Poor fella, get a life.

  4. Rafiah Karam says:

    On Youtube you will “sometimes” encounter channels that have a notice that comments will be with held pending approval of the channel moderator. The only problem with this is very few people withhold comments to determine whether they are suitable for posting, there are so many racists comments put on display it is a disgrace and it causes online racial battles between whites and blacks.As for the death of Whitney Houston there is a channel on youtube that made very thoughtless and racist comments about her, after her death.The only way I see this being solved is that youtube will have to decide a new policy on posting. The channel moderators after reading all the negative comments do have the power to disable the posts at some point, but they just won’t do it.Perhaps in some morbid way they maybe enjoying all the friction.I and countless others are very tired of trolls and other cyber trouble makers and hope the men and women who manage these websites will wake up and make changes.

  5. Diana says:

    The solution is to require a $1 credit card authorization in order to create a forum account. Then you mark the CC# in your database as “used” and moderate vigorously. People will behave or find it prohibitively difficult to troll continuously. I’ve been suggesting this for FOX News because it would cut down on the paid trolling operations. We’d get a better metric of public opinion too.

  6. rudy steiner says:

    if you wanna see trolling at it’s worse the comments on any article pertaining to the trayyon martin case are infested with racist hatful comments its enough to make your head explode!

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