Scott Tibbs
Hoosier Review
January 19th, 2004

Back to opinion page.

The H-T weighs in on "hateful" message board posts

The Herald-Times awards "Orchids & Onions" each week in short praise/criticism segments. Saturday's H-T issued this single "onion":

To people who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet in posting hateful and racist comments on message boards.

I'm not sure what to think of this one. Generally, I agree. People who think they are anonymous do spout off hateful, defamatory, and potentially libelous remarks around the Web. Others post messages devoid of content for the sole purpose of trying to incite a flame war. Still others enjoy insulting and attacking their favorite targets without contributing to the discussion. Anonymity brings the "courage" to say all kinds of nasty things that you would not put your real name on.

It's not that being anonymous is in and of itself a bad thing. There are good reasons someone may want to remain anonymous when saying controversial (but not hateful, defamatory or libelous) things. Still others don't want their real name (and location, if it's a local board) out there on the Internet for all to see. The problem with anonymity is when it encourages libel, defamation of character, personal attacks, racist hate speech, and other undesirable behaviors.

What I'm interested in is why the H-T felt the need to address this. From May of 2001 to March of last year, the H-T ran the Hoosier Talk forums. (The H-T had been running forums since 1997, but the new software was vastly superior.) The forums were closed when things got too nasty. The biggest example of racism was a poster who called herself "America", and she was pretty much driven from the forum after a year of spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.

The interesting thing about the Hoosier Talk forums is that it could have worked. I understand that Hoosier Talk's moderator could not afford to spend all day babysitting a group of brats more interested in bickering than in discussing issues of the day. He has other responsibilities and moderating an active forum takes a lot of time. But there were many others who did contribute in a positive way to the forum, and enjoyed it. It is too bad that a few trolls managed to ruin the forum for everyone else.

But a workable solution was well within reach. The H-T could have easily recruited a group of volunteers who would have been more than willing to moderate the free of charge. Three or four moderators would have been more than enough. To make sure good strings are not permanently deleted, the moderators would only have power to put posts that are potentially over the line into a "Penalty Box" only viewable by the moderators. I'm sure there is a way to make the IP addresses of the computers from where messages are being posted visible only to the staff. (For possible reporting to the offending poster's Internet Service Provider for terms of service violations.) Only the tech staff would have the power to permanently delete a thread or post.

I suspect the demise of Hoosier Talk had less to do with the trolls than with the fact that the forums were upsetting the H-T's desire for "Pleasantville". Those ideologues (the ones that the H-T is always saying "can't get elected" despite evidence to the contrary) were disagreeing! We can't have that! Furthermore, I suspect that the H-T was somewhat embarrassed that people could read breaking local stories on the forums before (sometimes several days before) they appeared in the newspaper. The stories and editorials in the H-T also took beatings on a nearly daily basis.

Fortunately, local resident Greg Travis had set up his own debate forum around the same time Hoosier Talk opened. Most of the people on Hoosier Talk moved there when it closed. While one can discuss national issues anywhere, and other newspapers (like the Indianapolis Star and the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette) offer the opportunity to discuss state issues, Hoosier Talk was, for a time, the only place where people could gather and talk about local issues. Of course, if AssMoTalk didn't exist, new forums (shameless plug) would have been set up elsewhere, either on a paid server or on one of the many free forum-hosting services, but Greg should be lauded for his willingness to put up with often rowdy forum participants to fill the void that Hoosier Talk left.