On Content Moderation


(Important note:  I am not a lawyer.  Nothing on this site, including this post, constitutes legal advice.  Everything in this post may be completely inaccurate; in fact, you should assume that it is.  Always consult a qualified attorney for legal guidance.)

There is a long-standing (and incorrect) Internet Urban Legend that has spent well over a decade misleading people who should know better.  The legend in question pertains to sites that contain user-submitted content, such as — for example — PennLive.  The legend goes something like this:

“If you edit, delete, or otherwise modify user-submitted content, you become responsible for said content and any legal ramifications it brings.”

This wildly-inaccurate assumption is regularly dispensed by Armchair Internet Lawyers and dime-a-dozen consultants.  And it needs to die.

For context, the Clinton administration passed a very evil piece of legislation in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act.  Like so many laws, it was well-meaning in spirit but outright oppressive in its approach.  It was a knee-jerk reaction to some senator discovering that the Internet has offensive content.  To make a very complex issue very simple, it effectively held everybody responsible for any content that passed through their grasp.  If the CDA were still in full effect, any offended reader would be able to hold any given news site liable for any offensive third-party user comments, just as if the news site had written them itself.  The consequences would be staggering.

Needless to say, the CDA was a ridiculous law that was torn to shreds almost immediately after its passage.  But one critical section remained.  Section 230 of the CDA actually establishes immunity to content providers.  This is why sites can allow users to submit content (sometimes anonymously) without fear of prosecution.  Yet somewhere along the line, some Armchair Internet Lawyer ™ decided that Section 230 contained a footnote waiving all protection if the content publisher edited the content itself.

Curiously, the law — and subsequent caselaw — says no such thing.  In fact, courts have repeatedly explicitly stated the opposite.

One of the simplest-to-understand cases involving Section 230 is Zeran v America Online.  There are mountains of interpretations available online, but the court’s decision is crystal clear on its own (emphasis mine):

The relevant portion of § 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1).2 By its plain language, § 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service. Specifically, §230 precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role. Thus, lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions — such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content — are barred.

Put simply, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the notion that content publishers are free to exercise any editorial rights over user-submitted content as they might if they created the content themselves.  It strengthens this by affirming that actions against any legal claims — in this case, a claim for damages resulting from alleged defamation — must be brought against the content creator and NOT the publisher, even if the publisher edited (or deleted, or even published) the content.

The distinction here is clear and important:  The publisher can be held responsible for their own content, and a third-party creator (in this case, an anonymous user) can be held responsible for their own content, but neither party can be held responsible for the other’s content, regardless of any subsequent editing.

So what brought on today’s post?

The Patriot News’ website, PennLive.com, is a comic cacophony of trolling, racial slurs, bigotry, and other signs of civilized behavior.  This is nothing new; it’s the way it’s been for a while.

If the Patriot News wants to maintain this as their public-facing  facade, then such is their right.  Online distribution will be their future, and if this is the image that they prefer to maintain for themselves, then so be it.  I understand that the newspaper industry is in its death throes, largely thanks to an ongoing resistance to adopt to changing times (see paywalls), and a paper’s gotta do what a paper’s gotta do.  I personally think it undercuts any image of professionalism or journalistic integrity when that much of your site consists of trolling, but what do I know?  I must admit that I’ve never been at the helm of a single failing newspaper website — not that PennLive is “failing”.  Not one.

On the other hand, there are ways to effectively moderate your site’s content.  Sites like Fark, Slashdot, Engadget, Something Awful, and even Digg — all of which pull more traffic than PennLive — use unpaid, community moderators to cancel out crappy content.  The result is interesting (if not always upright) dialog.  Sure, those sites still feature trolls and stupid arguments.  But the instigators wind up getting whacked over the head with suspensions of posting privileges and/or bans so many times that the prospect of re-registering for every comment they post becomes enough incentive to drive them away.  Fark even has a unique facet to troll-defusing in that freshly-registered accounts can’t post for the first 24 hours.

Now, PennLive and/or the Patriot News can make any argument against content moderation they want.  They can argue that it’s their *right* to publish racial slurs (and it is).  They can argue that they *like* publishing personal attacks (which they may).  They can argue that there’s simply no way to effectively filter out content at this volume (which is entirely untrue; see the rest of the Internet).  They can even argue that they just don’t care (which does, in fact, appear to be the case).

But then I’d just have to ask:  Why even bother having a “Community Rules” section in the first place?

The Patriot News has slowly-but-surely been dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age.  Even PennLive has improved itself slightly over the past 18 months.  But it’s still a stale print-and-deliver content delivery mentality (really — their latest innovation is, I swear I am not making this up, a video of a woman talking about upcoming stories).  I get breaking news through Twitter and Facebook, then read about it a few days later in the paper.  I could devote an entire site to how the newspaper industry will either modernize itself or continue dying off, but there are already plenty of those out there.

PennLive, moderate your content.  Screen user comments before publication (honestly, there are scripts to do this; failing those, it takes one employee to handle your entire family of sites with a delay of only several minutes).  And when users do report content, delete the content that’s actually offensive and in violation of your already-existing rules, and not just every report that comes in (I don’t know if you know this, but people will often report content that disagrees with their own worldview just because).  Recruit your most active users as community moderators to police and maintain your user-fed areas.  Score users so that users with oft-reported content are forced into a moderation pool, or go the other way — give users with over 100 posts and under 1% reported content a pass, and put everybody else in the pool.  There are literally countless ways to do this, and the sites that have a handle on their content are the very sites who have been raiding your readers for the past decade.

To put it another way, catch up to where the rest of the Internet was ten years ago.

Or don’t.  Journalists don’t die; newspapers do.


  1. Grayd says:

    Great post. What amazes me is, as you point out, this stuff isn’t hard. Do you think they really just don’t see where this is headed? I’m assuming they don’t, which floors me…

  2. David Newhouse says:

    Hi Floor9. David Newhouse, the Patriot-News’ editor here. As a fan of your blog, I’ve decided it’s time to jump in. Sometimes the Internet is a community conversation, sometimes it’s more like a game of whack-a-mole. I know that happens first and foremost (around Harrisburg) on Pennlive.com, so I wanted to explain how we look at and work with comments.

    You may disagree vehemently with my views or how we do things. Fair enough. But your blog has always been rational and intelligent. You definitely practice what you preach and I respect that. So here goes.

    First, we care a great deal about the level of animosity, personal invective and, all too often, suggestions of racism on Pennlive. We have spent a lot of time talking about how to try to improve things. I assume you’re thinking “well they didn’t do a very good job!”

    Pennlive is part of Advance Internet, the web arm of Advance Publications which also owns The Patriot-News. I only say that because Advance Internet handles all of its sites together and sets policies that apply to all of them. We don’t actually control those policies, tho I do think they are reasonable.

    The comments on all 10 Advance sites around the country are monitored in a central location in Colorado by a company that does monitoring for hundreds of web sites. You are right that they don’t view every comment. Believe me, I fervently wish they could. We have more than 10,000 comments per month and Pennlive is one of the smallest Advance sites. Throw in larger sites like NJ.com and Cleveland.com, and it’s common to see more than 10,000 story and forum comments per day.

    We’ve set up three ways to try to spot comments that violate the community rules (most commonly through personal attacks). First, we do have community moderators – everyone who uses the site is asked to help identify inappropriate comments. When those are flagged, the monitoring folks will normally see the flag within an hour or two (depending on time of day) and evaluate whether it does, in fact, violate the rules.

    I always get a kick out of the “conspiracy theorists” – and I use the term affectionately because they have included friends of mine – who think we respond or don’t respond to user flags based on subject matter – e.g. we’re out to get Mayor Thompson or to defend Mayor Thompson, we’re out to encourage criticism of the Milton Hershey School or stifle criticism, etc. The reality is that those monitors in Colorado don’t even know who Harrisburg’s mayor or the Milton Hershey School is. They wouldn’t know Allison Hill from Camp Hill. They judge purely on the basis of the words.

    Do I think they sometimes judge incorrectly? Absolutely. I have seen comments left up that I find offensive (many times). I have questioned why other comments were removed. If Rendell is called an incompetent idiot, is that a personal attack or a judgment of his performance as governor? All I can tell you is that these things are driven by plain old human differences of opinion (or fallability) by the monitors, and not by any ulterior motives.

    There are two other ways that we try to take down the worst offenders. First, if we think a story may tend draw personal attacks, we put it on a “hot list” for the monitors. In that case, they do look at every comment on the story. That has helped when we can identify the story, but it’s amazing – commenters can take a routine short item about a mugging and turn it into a racist attack on the mayor (and by the way, as Dan Victor said, it really was just a fluke the other day when we had all those muggings. We post all the news we can find every day, period. The more, the better – always! I do agree that Chief Ritter has for the most part been very helpful, unlike some in the administration, so maybe incidents get reported – to us – that did not always get reported in the past.)

    Finally, the editors at The Patriot-News have the ability to remove story comments ourselves (though not forum comments, due to limits in the operating software.) In particular, our two online editors Janet Pickel and Dustin Hockensmith will try to monitor comments if they think a story may be a lightning rod for invective, and they remove dozens each week. If you’re frustrated with what’s on the site, you should see the filth that we pull down.

    Having said all that, are we satisfied with the tenor of comments on Pennlive? Sometimes yes – there have been some great comment threads on things like bankruptcy, where people have serious ideas and really interesting perspectives. We have also gotten story ideas and tips from reader comments. We want to listen to our readers as well as encourage a community conversation, and the comments can be invaluable.

    But I couldn’t agree more that far too many comment threads are dominated by name-calling that makes the elementary school playground look like the UN Security Council by comparison. Other Advance sites like Cleveland.com have had some success encouraging more constructive comments by having their reporters actively engaged in the comment threads. It’s not a magic bullet but it has tended to encourage the viewers – and there are many – that really do want to have an intelligent discussion, or even an intelligent argument, instead of a verbal brawl. We’re going to begin doing that. We really, truly hope it helps.

    As I said at the top, you may vehemently disagree with all this. You may think we should monitor another way. But there is not a single day when I’m not bothered by the tenor of comments on Pennlive. We have tried to address the problem and, I think, have made some progress in the last year. Of course, mostly, I’m bothered by what it says about our community and our society.

    btw, one final note about your feeling that The Patriot-News was dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet era. Should we have been doing aggressive Internet reporting some years earlier? Probably. We’re newbies compared to your blog. But our staff has been enthusiastic about developing a strong site, and I think the results say a lot. We’re the largest news site (in traffic) in central Pennsylvania. Of newspaper-affiliated web sites, we’re 15th in the entire country in reach – our viewers represent 36 percent of the central PA market – which I think is not bad for an area that, seven years ago, was considerably less wired than the national average. And in a typical month, Pennlive has more than one million unique viewers. So, anyway, maybe better late than never.

    Thanks for listening and thanks again blogging. And now, let the criticism begin! 🙂

    1. Matt Zieger says:

      Kudos for an excellent reply! Very helpful and informative. As another Pennlive reader who is frustrated by the tenor of the comments, I hope that Advance Publications acknowledges the issue here and enables more local control. Remember, no matter what your comment section may look like, you have a community around you that wants (and needs) your publication to succeed! I hope these kind of public and honest interactions continue…

    2. floor9 says:

      David, thanks for your reply. Nothing like getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. And thanks for the insight on how things get handled at Advance. I’m glad to see you acknowledge the issue.

      To be blunt, you’re right — I think you’re not doing a very good job. I’m not sure if it’s a limitation in your publishing software, a lack of effort on the part of your moderators, or overall apathy towards the matter by the rest of the organization. Perhaps there’s simply a level of comfort in knowing that the Patriot News has no recourse with Advance if they aren’t happen with the way Advance manages the Patriot’s image. Inspiration and complacency rarely co-exist.

      Consider the story on the assault in the River Street Garage. I’m sure this is one of your “hotlist” stories, yet earlier in the day it was peppered with at least comment declaring “black people are more violent than any other race”. Actually, it’s still there. I’m pretty sure I reported it at least once already, though it’s hard to keep track. Maybe I’m thinking of the poster who said it was time to drive “the black people” out of the city. Or maybe it was “shoot”. I’ll be honest; it’s pretty difficult to keep track of what threats of physical violence, racial slurs, ethnic bigotry, or sexist commentary I’ve read on PennLive today. But it’s perfectly clear that nobody — NOBODY — is proactively monitoring that comment pool. Or f they are, they certainly haven’t actually read your Community Rules.

      Why doesn’t PennLive feature even the most basic Troll Control techniques that other sites have pretty much nailed down over the past decade? Why can’t we ignore users? Why aren’t frequent offenders given a posting timeout? Do you have any methods to deter shilling (signing up for a new account for the purpose of bolstering your position in a thread)? Do you implement a keyword filter to bounce likely candidates for review into a moderation pool? Why not use such a pool for accounts with under a given number of posts? Are users whose posts are frequently deleted by moderators pushed into any such moderation pool? Why not use social moderation, with users up- or down-voting comments?

      I concur that there are many times where one person’s opinion is another person’s hate speech. Such is the way the First Amendment works. But there’s a clear-cut difference between “I think Linda Thompson / Steve Reed / Ed Rendell and her / his kind need to move elsewhere” and “black people are more violent than any other race”. I know you agree with me — in spirit, anyway — because this is outlined in your Community Rules.

      So David, while I do believe you understand and share our concern, I don’t think you want to — or are permitted to — implement the changes necessary to address that concern.

  3. Harrisburg says:

    Case in point: Today’s online edition featured a tragic story about a young couple getting jumped in the garage. 123 comments and counting. At least half are people first screaming at PennLive for not mentioning race, then insisting that “they just know” they’re black, then screaming about how this “black on white” crime has no news coverage, then blaming “the blacks” for everything.

    If that’s what PL means by monitoring the contents, congrats – you failed.

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