When the Beacon Journal announced a yearlong project that would look at civility, an Ohio.com reader who calls himself HudsonDad had a terse reaction on the public comment section at the end of the story:
“Civility? Great idea. Butt crack. Poo. Flatulate.”
Such is the level of discourse on Ohio.com and other media that allow the public to comment anonymously about the news.
So a Beacon Journal reporter contacted some of the people who remark at the end of stories and found they sincerely believe they have something to add to the public discussion, but no matter how valuable they consider their ideas, they don’t want their names used, even in this story.
To find out who is commenting on stories, the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron last year surveyed Plain Dealer online commenters as part of the Ohio Civility Project. John Green, institute director, said the results were surprising.
Questionnaires answered by volunteers showed that “respondents are mostly middle aged and well educated,” the report said. It determined 65 percent are male and more than 57 percent are older than 46. They earn more than the public as a whole, with 73.9 percent earning $50,000 or more a year.
A majority — 57 percent — never married and 34 percent had a college degree and another 41 percent had postgraduate educations.
Only 2.6 percent commented more than once a day. About 7.6 commented daily; 21.1 percent, weekly; and 58.7 percent, only a few times a year.
More importantly, those who comment may be surprised to find that fewer people are reading their ideas than they might expect.
A Beacon Journal analysis of its comment pages shows that of its 8.9 million page views in the past month, only 2.3 percent even visited the comment pages, let alone left a comment.
Commenters on Ohio.com must first get their words through a computerized screening process before their opinions appear.
Ohio.com’s list of banned words is up to 217, with 61 variants of what is politely known as the F-word.
In addition, readers can flag comments as racist, threatening or vulgar statements to be reviewed by online editors. But sometimes, commenters will take their fights to unrelated stories, hoping to escape those who might flag their postings.
It’s far different for letters to the editor in the printed version of newspapers, where commenters are required to provide a name, phone number and address, and clearly false statements are disallowed.
Meanwhile, comments on the Web can be personal and unfair.
“Charlie” said on a recent Bob Dyer column about Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic:
“I was just gonna blame the booze and whores for ’ole drippy don’s inability to possess intellect beyond a high school jock that likely views those of the opposite sex as objects of physical gratification only.”
Peashooter, another Ohio.com commenter, offered this:
“It has been my observation that it is Blacks that hold back blacks. Just go out and perform and you will be noticed.
“Don’t listen to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who always makes excuses why blacks are held back.
“Perform and you will be noticed and you achieve. Nothing speaks louder than success”
Racist discussions are frequent and not always subtle, according to the commenter who calls himself Angry_Black.
“They slyly try to put things in there; they have code words,” he said.
“Angry_Black” said he is 36 and college educated. He volunteered that he has no criminal record.
He returns to Ohio.com comments frequently. “I like seeing how it changes every day,” he said.
He’s quick to offer his opinion and even admits other commenters sometimes make good points. He changed his mind about Kelley Williams- Bolar, the woman who lived in Akron and got in trouble when she enrolled her children in Copley schools.
“[Comments]Showing what kind of fraud she was kinda changed my opinion,” he said.
Circular firing squad
Commenters often take shots at each other.
Simon_James posted on a story about President Obama, health care and hospitals giving care without consent:
“The Kenyan Socialist needs to do something about this. Something constitutional this time.”
To which “Indy” replied:
“The kenyen socialist? See how smart you are? In just two words you rendered yourself mute. Insignificant, unworthy of rational discourse.”
Vitriol is part of the attraction.
The commenter known as OhiosVoices told a reporter: “I only post when I see an issue that is inflammatory or political or just a place to make a really bad joke.”
He insists he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“I know that I myself am probably full of s… most of the time.” He said. “I try and correct other people’s ‘full of s …ness’ because I am arrogant enough to think that I should speak out that maybe those people are wrong.”
A former restaurant manager, he has been seriously ill and often bed-ridden with epilepsy and diabetes for the last 10 years.
At 47, he’s philosophical about reasons people post comments.
“There are a lot of wounded souls that like to post because they are really lonely,” he said. “They like to lash out and know that somebody really cares about them.”
Later he added: “There are certain people who are very anti-humanity. There are some people there who just want to be a smartass and be a cyber bully. …Some people lash out in an uncivil way just to get rid of the pain they are in that day.”
OhiosVoices said his comments are occasionally “flagged” by other readers and his previous name — or avatar — was banned by Ohio.com.
It was perhaps ironic that a record of some sort might have been set last week when more than 300 comments were flagged on a Beacon Journal story about the death of radio talk-show host Howie Chizek, who delivered his own vitriol on WNIR on a daily basis.
Beating on the mayor
Politicians and public figures are frequent targets.
“Overtaxed Voter,” a regular on Ohio.com, wrote an allegation the Beacon Journal looked into and did not substantiate. He said after another commenter referred to “younger blondes” who allegedly go on city-financed trips with Mayor Plusquellic:
“Now, now, don’t be so quick to judge. Sometimes he pays for them with his campaign committee’s credit card. ... which of course isn’t allowed by Ohio Election Law.
“Of course little inconveniences like laws, rules, etc. don’t really matter to ‘The Don’.”
Talking with a reporter, Overtaxed Voter said “I try to stay nonpartisan. Now obviously I have my opinions,” and he conceded the mayor is frequently his target.
Asked what inspires him to comment, he said, “I would say it’s 75 percent informational exchange, whether it be to enlighten people who didn’t bother to read down to the 13th paragraph to the nut of the story, or to bring out issues…”
He’s also been known to correct errors in stories and lash out at reporters and said he has drawn the ire of a Beacon Journal editor who defended them as hard working and conscientious. He insisted facts in their stories were contradictory.
Impact on others
Reporters sometimes say news sources are reluctant to be quoted for fear of what commenters might say.
After a story about the appointment of a woman as the leader of a charity, a commenter named “sickofyall” had this to say:
“Wow. What a terrible choice for an executive director. I guess sleeping your way to the top still works.”
“Prochoice Liberal” was surprised to learn reporters are like most others: They usually don’t read the comments, even on their own stories. She thought they would be happy to hear about differing views, related facts and corrections offered in the comments.
She also comments on newspaper sites in Cleveland, Canton and Mansfield and said anonymity is key.
“I think it actually allows more dialogue and it lets people say what they normally wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” she said.
She’s a stay-at-home mom, an atheist and a staunch defender of gay rights.
As an experiment with commenters, Ohio.com is providing two venues for commenting on stories that are part of the America Today civility series. In addition to the traditional anonymous venue, they can post on the Civic Commons, a website that is moderated and requires commenters to be fully identified. Hardly any Ohio.com readers, given the choice to be identified or not, chose to join the Civic Commons discussion.
But given cover of anonymity, almost anything goes.
Here is the advice one commenter wrote after someone was offended by something written on Ohio.com:
“Let me offer you a tip. After a decade and a half, give or take a few years, I have realized that it is crazy to get worked up and ruin your day over a stranger on the Internet who is obviously playing with you.”
Readers wishing to comment on this story can join a moderated discussion at the Civic Commons by going to this story on Ohio.com.
At the Civic Commons, you can address these questions:
What do you think about anonymous comments?
Should commenters have to identify themselves?
Would you comment differently if you were identified?
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.