Blog Comment Policy and Conflict
Blogger Michael Iafrate of Vox Nova has written a post objecting to a comment moderation incident which occurred last night/this morning here on The American Catholic. Michael had written a comment in which he described a fellow commenter as:
typical of the death-worshiping Christofacists that this blog… attracts
Such comments are typically deleted in keeping with our comment policy. However, in this instance the comment was, for humorous effect, replaced with new content so clearly out of keeping with Michael’s online persona that Michael himself admits the effect was amusing. However, Michael objects to having content posted under his name which is not in fact his creation, and we agree that this represented a momentary lapse in judgment, however humorous. Clearly, the right thing to do in this sort of situation is simply to delete the offending comment or verbiage, and in cases of repeated offense to ban the commenter entirely. We, the editors of The American Catholic apologize for this lapse in our judgment, and commit to our readers that we will not, in future, modify comments. If comments contain objectionable statements which detract from civility and discourse, they will be wholly or partially deleted, but never replaced, even for humorous effect.
Given that Michael made several more specific complaints about TAC blog administration, which are doubtless of interest to few, I will address those briefly below the fold.
In an effort to clear the air, I will briefly address three specific concerns that Michael expressed in his post in regards to TAC and it’s editorial procedures.
It is probably no secret that in some respects there exists a sort of ongoing blog “spat” between this blog and another Catholic group blog that is politically and theologically “conservative.” As much as one might like to wish that such rivalries did not exist, it is simply the case that this blog was founded quite deliberately in response to the emergence of this blog, taking cues from Vox Nova’s style (right down to the very WordPress theme!) and tending toward direct commentary in response to our posts.
Since similar concerns have been expressed on several occasions by Vox Nova contributors, I think it’s probably best to take the chance to address them here. It is true that at a basic conceptual level Vox Nova provided an example of how a diverse (this is before the right-leaning writers were hounded out of Vox Nova) Catholic group blog could be a successful and interesting format for a site. Other inspirations included sites such as InsideCatholic, CatholicExchange, Catholic Online, the First Things blogs, etc.
Other similarities, however, are purely incidental. For instance, though we initially launched with another WordPress theme, we eventually moved to the same template because there’s only one fairly restrained-looking two column WordPress template which includes the sidebar on every post page. We do certainly hope to get the chance to customize the template one of these days, but we haven’t had the chance.
But I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between the two blogs has gotten ugly. Which is why I was strongly in favor of issuing an apology for any ways in which this blog has contributed to scandalous and abusive exchanges among members of the Body of Christ. Indeed, I ended up being the one to draft that apology. One commitment that we made at that time — reluctantly, for various reasons — was to moderate the comments at this blog in order to weed out problems before they started. This has since taken the form of simply not approving comments or of editing comments by removing irrelevant or insulting portions. A large percentage of comments are approved. Of the “problematic” comments, most are simply unapproved and only a few are edited.
As could have been predicted, the blog mentioned earlier responded by increasing its own tendency to moderate comments, especially those left by writers from this blog. This is certainly their prerogative. It seems obvious to me why some of our comments are not welcome there, especially when we point out that some of their contributors promote ideas that seem quite contrary to the faith and to human flourishing.
I think it’s worth making an effort to clear this concern up, though I have no idea if Michael will take us at our word. There has been and is not any concerted policy of moderating Vox Nova writers in our comment boxes. It is certainly true that some of our contributors have over the years found themselves on the receiving end of frustrating instances of comment moderation at Vox Nova, I’m sure that a few Vox Nova contributors may at some times have felt the same way about us. However, our comment moderation efforts strictly relate to comments which openly insult TAC writers or readers — as well as, obviously, profane, blasphemous or violent comments.
Perhaps the confusion may stem from the fact that Michael Iafrate himself often seems to feel it necessary to “point out that some of their contributors promote ideas that seem quite contrary to the faith and to human flourishing” by calling people “fascists”, or “death-worshippers” or when imagination fails simply “idiots” or “morons”. It is our belief that this kind of unconstructive (to put it mildly) conversation only serves to lower the level of discourse on the blog and cause more anger and strife, and so we routinely moderate such comments.
It is, however, an entirely different matter when comments are deleted and manipulated in order to distort the conversations that take place or to show a commenter in a bad light. This is a regular occurrence on the blog in question. It often takes the form of deleting a reader’s comment and then replying to the deleted comment by saying something like “We will not tolerate your insults” when no such “insult” ever took place.
This is doubtless very much a matter of perception. The difficulty which editors face in dealing with comment moderation is that if a commenter posts a number of comments which insult the editor in the most extreme terms, the editor is, naturally, made angry. If the editor deletes all the comments, he actually ends up making his antagonist look better, because only the antagonists more reasonable comments get through. (What is worse, some such commenters catch on to this and intentionally post comments intended to “get the goat” of the post author, who of course needs to read each comment before making any deletion decisions.) And yet, invariably, if one lets all the worst comments through, the comment thread descends into a flamewar. Anger (righteous or otherwise) is a very contagious emotion.
We have begun to consider the possibility that the solution to this is to ban totally any regular commenters who are so routinely offensive that their comments are frequently deleted.