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01.06.10

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Phaedra

SUCH SHOCKING LANGUAGE: A new study confirms what is perhaps obvious: the anonymity afforded by the Internet allows people to behave badly online.

Mediating the Message

Officials call for better monitoring of Sentinel online forums

By Curtis Cartier


SIT THROUGH the "public comment" portion of any Santa Cruz City Council meeting—or, for a quick laugh, YouTube search "Santa Cruz" and click the first result—and one thing becomes very clear: there is no shortage of strong opinions among the locals. But when does healthy public discourse become offensive and harmful hate speech? It's a question that Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Don Miller and his staff try to answer every day on the online forums connected to their newspaper. Hundreds of readers post hundreds of comments online each day in response to articles published by the Sentinel, and while the majority pen civil and insightful remarks, many others post homophobic, racist or otherwise offensive rants and insults. And many, including two public officials, are now calling for better monitoring by newspaper staff.

"There's a group of people who post on these boards and their negativity and craziness permeates everything," says Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty, who says he met with Miller in November to discuss the issue. "I think the newspaper has a lot of responsibility because they are creating the forum and profiting from it. If you are going to create a public forum for speech, then you have a responsibility to keep these kinds of hateful comments out of it. Otherwise, you shouldn't run it at all."

Offensive posts in a newspaper's online forum are hardly unique to the Sentinel. Publications and blogs around the country struggle to keep hate speech out of their online discussions. Many, including Santa Cruz Weekly, require that comments be approved by newspaper staff before they go live. The Sentinel, which uses the website Topix.com to host its reader forums, does not require comments to be reviewed prior to posting, and anonymous users can see their statements, no matter how brilliant or how foul, post instantly. Miller defends the paper's online policy, saying that attempts to pre-screen comments can amount to censorship, and that staff members who monitor the boards are doing the best job they can.

"We have several people on staff that do look at the boards, but we're always playing catch up," says Miller. "We delete well over 100 comments each day, we shut down stories, we ban users, we do everything we can, but people can always double back. And we do get a lot of complaints about both hate speech and racism. And we get probably an equal number of complaints about our practicing what people describe as 'censorship.'"

Even when Miller and his staff succeed in deleting posts or closing entire articles, the offensive remarks remain cached. Over the New Year's weekend, for example, the comments trailing an upbeat article by Alia Wilson marking the birth of the county's first baby of 2010 in Watsonville quickly degraded into three pages of racist tirades, all just a Google search away in spite of the fact that the topic was shut down.

Other times, board monitors simply miss the offensive posts. The inappropriate theme of choice is usually racism with a hint of homophobia. Some gems include a user posting under the name "GetReal," who, in response to a November story about a suspected Watsonville prostitute, writes: "Red, White and Blue the colors of a greatest country in the world ... the USA ... red, white and green the colors of the toilet that's south of us ... Mexico." And "FACTS," who criticized the recent toy drive sponsored by Latino activist group the Brown Berets, writing simply: "a spade is a spade." Topix automatically censors common swear words and racial slurs, but users find easy ways around the process by using odd spellings or extra spaces in their favorite cusses. A user named "Pathetic," for example, writes in response to an article about the alleged murder of 29-year-old Elias Sorokin in July that, "Sorokin is just a F aggot who is just a complete waste of life!!" Hundreds of examples of odious speech on these message boards exist, and in some cases, according to Santa Cruz Police spokesman Zach Friend, the posts can even affect active police investigations.

"The forums have sometimes provided hindrances to our cases, as victims and witnesses can misconstrue the comments as reflective of the police department's opinion on a case—which couldn't be further from the reality of the situation," says Friend.

Last month, market research giant Euro RSCG Worldwide published a study that, among other things, demonstrated what most already knew: that people are less inhibited online than they are in the face-to-face world. Coining the term "cyberdisinhibition," the study involved a large sample survey in which 43 percent of respondents said they feel fewer inhibitions online and 20 percent who said they've "lashed out ... thanks to the anonymity of online interaction." For Miller, "the online community is the online community," and solving a problem like anonymous people using offensive language online is something he can't stop but can only hope to contain.

"If I had my way, the world we live in wouldn't have people that hide behind screens and post nasty comments," says Miller. "Having a room full of people watching the comments would be great, but it's not gonna happen."


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