I'm buffaloed by the news media at this moment, genuinely buffaloed. One of the bedrocks of democracy, built on a bedrock myth of carefully sourced, objective reporting, has nonetheless turned over a massive amount of its publishing real estate to propaganda and bullying.
I speak, of course, of comments sections, and especially the comments found on social media platforms, most especially Facebook.
For some reason, our news sources have collectively refused to take responsibility for moderating these spaces, and they became what unmoderated spaces on the web always become: cesspools.
The media always had standards about what went out under their imprimatur. Sources had to be credible. Information from interviews had to be independently verifiable. Not just any yahoo could get on the air and say anything they wanted. Letters to publications were selected for publishing, fact checked, and edited, rather than simply published without any oversight.
I suspect there are two facts that discouraged these same organizations to provide the same sort of oversight on their comments and social media pages. The first is that it is expensive: You must pay someone to babysit the page and make use of the limited moderation tools available, which is mostly deleting and banning. Secondly, a company's web presence will, in general, not be under the direct control of the editorial department, but instead in the hands of IT, or PR, or some other department, who have a tendency to treat any activity at all as "engagement" and somehow desirable.
However it happened, the result were the same. Without moderation, online spaces have a long history of turning into aggressive free-for-alls where brawlers drive away everyone else. They also are irresistible to spammers and propagandists, paid and volunteer, all of whom will seize any opportunity to plant lies that benefit whatever cause they serve.
The result is the largest mechanism for propagating abusive behavior and fake news ever created, with the bullies and the liars hitchhiking on the backs of a massive audience developed by legitimate news.
I have run the social media for news organizations, I know how disengaged most so-called "engagement" actually is. Most people who see stories in their Facebook feed, as an example, don't click through. So they never actually access the original vetted, sourced news, but only see the unvetted, unsourced responses.
The stuff that shows up in comments and on social media is frequently beyond awful. There is an awful lot of unabashed racism and sexism and the like, and if news sources are counting on, say, Facebook to address it via users flagging the comments, they have quite a shock coming to them. I once spent three months flagging every racist comment I saw on Facebook; perhaps 5 percent of it was actually deleted as being in violation of Facebook's terms of service. I'm not talking about edge cases either. I'm talking about naked, unmistakable racist commentary. I documented it, if you're curious, but be warned: it's really, genuinely, hair-raisingly racist.
The media has created this unsupervised playground for abuse and propaganda and then just washed their hands of it, despite the fact that it undeniably influenced the last election. Apparently the media just thinks these are stories people share with each other on their personal pages. Well, I've been to your Facebook pages, media, and these stories are being spread to your audience on your pages under your nose, either as links or just by having commenters parrot the content.
It's a problem with the media in general, but I am a member of the Jewish press, and so that is what I will address specifically. It's high time we took responsibility for the content that reaches our readers, as we do in every other instance where content is published under our banner.
So here are a few things I regularly see as comments on the Jewish press that should be addressed, immediately and permanently. I will follow this with suggestions for people who are not members of the media, but read it and want to know how to respond:
1. IslamophobiaI'll address this more in a later post, as Islamophobia and the Jewish community is a larger problem, but to the Jewish press I say this: Develop some standards.
Far too often, people in your comments section are allowed to say whatever the want about Muslims, without contradiction or moderation. You don't have to let people say whatever they want to about Islam, no matter how awful or (with disappointing frequency) genocidal. You are entitled to set standards for your comments section. What standards? Well, I have a simple rule: If you would not publish it as a letter to the editor, why on earth would you allow it anywhere else?
I know there are Jews out there that just hate Muslims. But you are not obligated to host their commentary on the subject, and shouldn't. It furthers a narrative that Jews and Muslims are somehow natural enemies, a narrative that both Jewish and Muslim extremists have literally made murderous.
2. AntisemitismI'm bewildered by the fact that I even need to address this, but there are Jewish sites that leave antisemitic comments untouched. I saw one editor explain on Twitter that he felt people needed to know this sort of viewpoint is out there, which seems naive.
Firstly, we know there are people that hate Jews, we don't need to be reminded of it by being harassed in the comments section while trying to read a Jewish news article on a Jewish news site. If you really must make these comments public, compile them into a story, where they can be addressed and contextualized as news, rather than leave them as Facebook comments, where the context is that someone has popped in to tell Jewish readers how much he hates them.
I sometimes wonder if the people at these publications are capable of recognizing antisemitism. If whoever is in charge of your social media doesn't know that the Kuzari story is used by antisemities to delegitimize the Jewish experience, as an example, you need to put someone else in charge of your social media.
3. The use of the word "kapo"As you likely know, kapos were Jewish prisoners in Concentration Camps who were assigned supervisory or administrative tasks, and so are widely seen as being collaborators in Jewish death. The word has also turned into a popular epithet, with Jews declaring each other kapos as the drop of a hat.
Anyone who does so on any site I moderate is immediately banned. That accusation is disrespectful to both history and to contemporary Jews -- momentously so. I cannot believe it is allowed to stand on any Jewish site, and yet there it is, day after day, again and again, unmoderated and uncommented on.
4. Declaring other branches of Judaism to be inauthenticIf your a site that serves the entire Jewish community, you probably shouldn't have a comments section where Jews accuse Jews from other denominations of not actually being Jewish.
It's one thing if, say, you're an Orthodox Jew and you're looking for a tenth for your minyan. If you would not accept somebody who was converted in a Reform synagogue, that's your prerogative. It's your minyan.
But in the comments section of a general interest Jewish magazine? Arguing about who is or isn't authentically Jewish is not needed, and -- take heed publishers -- needlessly alienates Jewish readers who are not looking to be part of an Orthodox minyan, but instead just want to read a Jewish news story. You don't want a minority of your readers to pointlessly alienate the remainder of your readers.
I suppose if it is a story about, say, the various denominations and how they determine who is a Jew, such a discussion would logically take place in the comments sections. But if you're writing about Ben Stiller, as an example, who had a Jewish father and Irish-American mother, we really don't need some religious prig popping in to declare that he's not actually Jewish.
Similarly, declaring someone to be a "self-hating Jew" because you do not agree with them is odious.
5. Fake newsYes, the Jewish press is also a carrier of this garbage. If you mention Hillary Clinton, someone will pop in to insist that she was planning such and such, or she committed such and such crime. If you mention Keith Ellison, someone will show up to insist he is a follower of Louis Farrakhan, even though he isn't. This is as much a chronic problem in the Jewish press as it is elsewhere.
What is the point of being a news company? It's to make certain your public is given an accurate look at the news that affects them and the world, right? Ben Franklin considered it a bedrock of democracy, which could not happen without an informed populace.
So why would you allow any element you control to be used to deliberately spread fabricated stories that are meant to subvert that goal? You work so hard to write stories that are accurate and true, and yet the moment they are posted to social media the comment section fills with lies?
How any of us stomach the fact that this happens, I don't know. You know what helps? Moderation helps. Deleting lies and banning users who want to use your site to spread lies helps.
6. AbuseNobody who types the word "libtard" or "rethuglican" in a comments section has anything of substance to add. At this moment, there are too many commenters who act more like schoolyard bullies or domestic abusers.
These people will drive away a significant portion of your online readership. There is no reason to allow it and every reason to delete it and ban people who engage in it.
What do do if you're a readerNow, I do not expect that Jewish publications are going to heed my advice and I have every reason to think they will ignore it. In my experience, people don't do things because I make a good argument. The don't do things because it's the right thing to do. There is, just now, a greater cost to doing something than doing nothing, and so nothing will be done.
But that doesn't mean that readers of their sites need simply put up with it.
I have a few simple suggestions for you:
Firstly, at this moment there is no reason to give anyone in comments or social media the benefit of the doubt. The moment they become abusive, Islamophobic, antisemitic, otherwise hateful, or lie about the news, you are justified in blocking them.
I do a few things as well, which you may do if you like or not do if that's your preference. Firstly, if they are spreading fake news, I link out to a credible news story that contradicts it with the facts. This will not convince them, especially if they are there to propagandize, as they don't actually care about the truth, but it will help other readers who might mistake what they say for the truth.
If they violate Facebook's community standards in any way, I report them. I know it doesn't generally do anything, but sometimes it does, and maybe Facebook will actually take this seriously one day, so it is a good habit to be in.
I also communicate my dissatisfaction with the publication. I will leave a note saying, in essence, I really wish you would moderate this sort of thing. I have a feeling that if enough readers voiced this, the publication might start to take it seriously. It starts raising the cost of doing nothing.
Finally, I always let the person know I am blocking them and why. This serves two functions: It reminds other people on the site that they also have to block someone; if enough people do that, the abusers and liars will only have each other to talk to.
Secondly, it irritates the person I blocked, which may seem passive aggressive, but I am a Minnesotan so that's right in my wheelhouse.