By Scott Tibbs, December 28, 2015
On December 21, the Herald-Times announced that the comments would be closed for two weeks due to the increasing incivility and large numbers of abuse alerts. (I am sure that holiday vacation schedules contributed to this, as some moderators being on vacation would leave more work for remaining moderators.) Comments are scheduled to be open on January 4, though it honestly would not surprise me if they never open again.
Was it an overreaction? One person estimated before comments were closed that there were probably at least two thousand comments over the same period that there were two hundred comments reported as abusive. Of the ten percent of comments that were were reported, less than ten percent of those were actually removed. Is it an overreaction to suspend all comments for two weeks because less than one percent of all comments over a ten day period were found to violate HTO policies and were removed by a moderator?
I have said dozens of times that the lack of a "three strikes" rule is a huge part of the problem of uncivil behavior in story comments. Back in January of 2012, the H-T implemented a policy where someone who had three comments removed over a fourteen day period would be automatically suspended from commenting for two weeks. That rule drastically improved the tone of HTO comments in 2012-2013, because knowing that you have to control yourself or you sit in the HTO penalty box for two weeks was a powerful incentive for people to behave. Unfortunately, the vastly inferior TownNews.com software does not have this feature.
The current software also does not have the ability to notify commenters when a comment has been removed, which is also unfortunate. Unless someone goes back to look at a thread that is a couple days old, he may never know his comment was removed, and this is compounded by the fact that the big red "comment removed" box only shows up for deleted comments that had replies. If you do not know your comment was removed, you may not know what rule you broke - especially given the very bad habit of HTO moderators to change the rules on the fly. If the H-T finds a way to restore the autoban feature, comment removal notifications will be absolutely necessary.
Without the two-week autoban feature, the only real stick the Herald-Times has left is to ban people from commenting altogether if they refuse to behave. It is extremely rare for the H-T to actually ban people, though they have threatened to ban a number of different posters several times.
Threatening to ban posters but never following through (especially when someone has been warned more than once already that he could be banned) is a sure fire way to convince trolls that they can post anything they want and will not be disciplined other than having their posts removed. The practice of banning needs to be used far more frequently. Banning removes troublemakers and serves as a warning to others to follow the rules.