Those following my blog posts over an extended period will know that one of their subthemes is blog security. By this I mean, allowing the blogger to have the greatest control possible over the discourse in their blog that still permits reasonably free exchange of ideas. If you blog about quilting or run a commercial blog this issue may not bother you much. But if you blog about free speech, human rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion, etc. you’re bound to find some people who don’t like what you say. In fact, you’ll find people who detest you, what you say and your blog. And they’ll let you know it in no uncertain terms; or I should say in the foulest terms.
So the question is: what approach to such comments should such a blogger have? There seems to be a strong strain running through the blog world saying that there must be absolute freedom both in blogging and in one’s approach to one’s comment section. In other words, if you say something someone finds offensive an abusive comment is the price you pay for your own free expression. Those who believe this, find it offensive that a blogger might set rules in their comments section and delete those which break those rules. They call it “censorship.”
I find this argument absolutely unconvincing. Who says that your blog is a free speech zone? My blog IS a free speech zone as long as a visitor can maintain civil discourse. That means you can’t insult my religion, my person, my family. It means you can’t call me pejorative names. It means you can’t wish for the destruction of my fellow Jews. It means you can’t accuse me of “sexually mutilating” my son because a mohel performed a Jewish ritual circumcision on him. Someone please give me one good reason why it is important to include every comment that’s ever been posted here including the types I mention above (these are the ones displayed in my blog–you can imagine what the deleted ones were like!)?
Again, in my approach there IS room for disagreement. Many have disagreed with my views on any number of posts I’ve published here. You can read their disagreements here in the plain light of day. They’re not hidden, not censored.
Those who adhere to the unfettered speech approach say that I wish to give the appearance of free speech but it is really a sham (“You would be practising censorship, but hidden”).
One of the reasons I moved to WordPress last May was the rich set of plugins that allow a blogger to customize and optimize their blog environment. I felt that Typepad (my previous provider) provided a limited set of defenses against comment abuse and the WP plugins promised a greater level of control. So at various times, I’ve posted to the WordPress forum asking if there are various means to combat comment abuse. It appears that a few members are getting tired of my posts finding them “whiny,” repetitive and annoying.
For example, here’s I began my lastest forum thread:
For those writing anti spam plugins (or any enterprising plugin author), I’d love to see one that will pick up the domain that refers a visitor to my site & blacklist the referral domain.
The reason for this is that every so often I get a flurry of abusive comments referred to my site from various online forums. Since I can’t know in advance the domain of the visitor who posts an abusive comment, banning the visitor’s domain will only work after the fact. But once one person from a referred domain posts an abusive comment I can determine which online forum is referring. If I could ban the referral domain then I could stop all the copycat abusive comments that would follow the first one (& I get plenty in this manner).
Here are some of the responses:
1. “Got a blog ? Get used to junk like this. It’s the way it is.”
2. “You have chosen to write about what many consider a controversial topic and invites just the type of behavior you dislike.
GET USED TO IT, and quit posting the same problem over and over and over.”
3. “You seem to want to have your cake and eat it to: you want to be able to have a forum for your [very controversial] blog content, you want it public [being an exhibitionist apparently], but you don’t want to deal with the fallout – you want someone to cover your ass for you by not allowing others’ opposing [sometimes VIOLENTLY opposing] views to be posted.”
I’ve got to stop here and comment on that last one. You’ll note that this person, who lives in “southern Utah” and is no doubt a Mormon considers my blog “very controversial” and “exhibitionist.” That’s almost funny. I’ve been called lots of things here, but never an exhibitionist. I think this comment reflects much more on the closed world view of this person than it does on the content of my blog. No doubt what she considers “very controversial” is my embrace of gay marriage, my aversion to aggressive evangelical Christianity, my support for compromise between Israelis and Palestinians for the sake of peace, and my opposition to the war in Iraq. I’ve got news for her, there are millions of us here in the blog world who find these views mainstream and I predict in 2o years she will too.
The same person continued:
…You have less need for comments than you do for setting out your own personal agenda through your posts, the one possibly viable suggestion I have for you is that you keep your blog publicly readable [since you seem to have that need to express your agenda], but allow no comments at all from the public.
Oooh, I have a “personal agenda.” That sounds really nefarious doesn’t it?
All this represents another misapprehension of the purpose of my blog. Comments are intrinsic to most blogs and mine as well. They are what creates a dialogue between blogger and the external world. I wouldn’t dream of turning off comments. In fact, others have suggested that I force registration on anyone who wishes to comment. I don’t even wish to choose this method as it is another draconian solution which I believe will seriously depress the dialogue.
Others have suggested that I use WordPress’ comment moderation settings to give me the control I seek. In truth, those people are right. WP’s comment settings are terrific. My problem is that I judge spam to be a worse problem than comment abuse; and SpamKarma2 is one of the best anti-spam plugins I know. One of SK2’s unfortunate side effects is that it disables WP’s comment settings. Westi has kindly offered to create an SK2 plugin modification which would allow all comments to go through WP comment settings BEFORE going through SK2’s anti-spam settings. When Westi is done, then I’ll have the best of both worlds. Until then, I have to ask for fixes as problems arise.
Returning to my original plugin request above, while I found mostly negativity in the WP forum (excluding this comment), I also posted to the HostDime.com forum. There a terrifically helpful member, Dawzz, did some research on my behalf and replied:
I ran across Referrer Karma and it seems that it is what you need. You can look at refferers at anytime and decide if you want to block them or not take a look and if it isn’t what you need let me know or if you need any help, I am pretty decent with’hacking’ together php scripts. I sitll intend to do a test install and figure out what is going on with the code I had posted but I thought you might want to take a look at this.
Just found Referrer Bouncer looks even easier to use no configuration needed or so it says.
Most commenters in the WP forum thread had something negative to say about my post. But Dawzz took my request seriously, did research and found not one plugin solution but two. If only someone replying in the WP forum thread could have been as responsive. Then it might’ve been a constructive and helpful thread.
Some WP forum members inexplicably take offense at ‘my “attitude”:
You have been given so much for free and you’re message is “it’s not enough.” That sense of entitlement is going to offend a lot of people, including me. You seem to want to live in some kind of protected bubble, where others are required to provide the protection, at their own cost. You want to say things that are considered offensive to others but not have anybody say anything you might consider offensive back. I think you need to try and imagine how that comes across to the “other side.”
Quite frankly, I’m not surprised you’re getting so much hostility when you consider all the logical implications of what you are asking for and how you’re asking for it, which really come across more as demanding.
This was my reply to him:
The message in my forum posts is NOT “it’s not enough.” My message is (& I think this is what most WP users feel) can I find the optimal WP environment to address all (or at least most) of my needs? If the current environment isn’t optimal, what’s wrong with seeking something more that would make it so? And if I offended you, I think you need to keep in mind that I’m not criticizing WP at all. I’m only seeking to find the optimal installation. Isn’t that considered innovation or entrepreneurship in other settings? Why should it be considered an attitude of “entitlement” or whining in this setting?
I don’t at all understand why you say I want to live in a ‘protected bubble.’ Why is wanting maximum control over your blog environment considered a bad thing? And I don’t at all understand what you mean by “where others are required to provide the protection, at their cost.” What do you mean? Who are the ‘others’ & what is the cost they pay?
Again, I don’t think you read my posts carefully in this thread. I have plenty of negative, disagreeing comments in my blog but they are respectful comments w/o insult or histrionics (I have even left some deeply offensive comments displayed so that my readers can see what real hate looks like). There is a way to engage in debate over issues that is respectful & there is a way that is not. Surely you understand that?
Please point out to me anything that I’ve said that is “demanding” in my forum threads. In the thread you’re commenting on all I did was ask if a plugin author would consider writing a plugin to a address a need I perceived. How is that “demanding?”
By the way, the solution of Dawzz I chose to solve my problem was Angsuman’s Referrer Bouncer plugin. Works like a dream.
Jason Truesdell says
The junior high school student’s interpretation of “freedem of expression” doesn’t leave much room for understanding of the concept of “editorial control.” A lot of people never develop a more sophisticated view of freedom of expression than that early impulse.
Freedom of expression has consequences, both for those who publish and those who are shouting nonsense on the streets. I have the right to express something threatening, but a threat is also an action, and in some cases punishable by law. Not all speech is “just speech.”
I can certainly complain if my voice is ignored by someone who has the power to publish, but there’s no reason to deny them their right to editorial control. If you create a forum for expression, you create the rules. The rules may be just, open, or random and capricious. If I don’t like the rules, or the dynamics that result from that editorial control, I’ll depart and move on.
Censorship is not the same as editorial control. When the state controls whether a thought may be published or expressed in a particular medium, that is censorship. On the other hand, the New York Times won’t publish every death threat they receive, and, although I certainly have my disagreements with what the New York Times chooses to publish or leave out of their paper, I don’t begrudge them the right to choose which voices appear or do not appear in their paper.
I delete trackback spam, the occasional random/irrelevant hostile comment, and an occasional comment that I consider inappropriate for my audience, such as profanity laden nonsense. People may have the right to express themselves, but I have the right to set the parameters and consequences in my own forum. When someone comes to a site that I publish, it’s like visiting my house, or at least the front door. If I have a visitor who comes to a dinner party I’m hosting, and they become drunk and behave inappropriately, I have every right to ask them to leave.
On the other hand, if someone at the same party disagrees politely and respectfully with my thoughts on trade, spirituality, or politics, I’m not going to make them leave the house over that; I’ll happily engage them in dialogue if I’m in the mood, or just change the subject if I’m not, or let that guest argue with someone more interested in corner somewhere. I don’t have problems with people disagreeing with me; I have a problem with hostility and uncivility.
At the same time, I don’t feel like I have any right to force myself into a party with Christian evangelicals promoting gay bashing, and then scream and yell at them. They shouldn’t feel any obligation to allow me to stay if I do so.
There are so many channels for expression online that people shouldn’t feel any expectation that their host must entertain them on their own terms. Civility should be valued as much as expression.
You’re on the right track in exploring software solutions to make this new technology do what you want.
I have been using an analogy similar to what Jason offered (inviting people to my home for a conversation) in thinking through similar issues on my blog. As the host of whatever conversation takes place, it is my part of my role to set the boundaries for the conversation I hope my guests will have. I’ve invited people for a conversation, not a brawl or a shouting match.
I also think of myself as a publisher. Leaving an abusive comment on my blog means that indirectly I am continuing to publish that comment, even if it is not my opinion. Not even the newspapers publish every letter to the editor they receive.
The harder issues for me are the borderline cases, where the commenter might be well-meaning but inexperienced or unsophisticated in how to express his or her idea politely. When the comment is from a total stranger, I also have to wonder whether the borderline comment was cunningly written by someone pushing my limits. In the borderline situations I wish I had an easy way to keep the comment from being published while I give the commenter an opportunity to edit it appropriately or tell me they won’t change a letter.
Richard Silverstein says
Thanks to Stewart and Jason for their cogent & articulate responses which approach the issue in the kind of broad, comprehensive way that is truly necessary. It is all too easy to make blanket pronouncements like “censorship is bad” or “freedom of expression is an absolute good.” Those slogans sound good. But if you think about human civilization it is not based on the Hobbesian premise that “anything goes.” It is based on norms & codes of conduct. It is when we divorce ourselves fr. these norms that we get into trouble as a species. So I see nothing wrong and everything right with acknowledging that while the broadest possible range of expression is best, there are some limits to blog speech.
Angsuman Chakraborty says
You are well within your rights to deny any comments. It is your blog after all.
Personally I just remove the profanity with comments at the end on why I removed them. And of course spam.
It doesn’t hinder freedom of expression. He is free to create his own blog at blogspot and indulge in as much freedom as he wants. However freedom of expression doesn’t imply that he can share any podium to express his views. In real life he doesn’t have the right to stand on your garden and ridicule you and your faith or family. However he can do it outside.
BTW: Any update on the permissions front you were investigating.