Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Trolls or People? Commenters Who Push My Civility Standards

"Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment."
These are the words at the end of each post, above the box where people can comment.  

A troll, as defined by Wikipedia is
"someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. "
To the extent they actually engage the topic and force people to confront ideas that group think would otherwise keep off a particular site, they serve a positive role.  To the extent that they simply insult and upset folks, they don't. 

I’m lucky.  I don't see many trolls here.  Most commenters stay within the bounds of civility I've laid out.   Nearly all of the comments I get - even the spam - are polite.  If people disagree, they explain, sometimes with a link.

But once in a great while, I get commenters who have a different standard of decorum.  What seems like anger to me might be their normal talking voice.  And my anger may seem calm to them. So my job then is to tease out whether this is just a different standard, an emotional outburst, or an intentional disruption.

I tend to be understated most of the time, relying on readers to recognize that lack of hyperbole and insult doesn't mean I'm not emotionally engaged.  I just don't think disrespect is likely to win over people who disagree with me.  And on basic beliefs, most people aren't going to change anyway.  But much of what we talk about is on the edges of or even beyond basic beliefs, a space where people can more comfortably rearrange their mental furniture.  But only when they are emotionally ready to do that.  That's why being respectful is important - not just polite, but authentically respectful.


So, the other day, I got a comment that violated my guidelines.  In my mind, it had ‘personal insults’ and came pretty close to being a ‘rambling tirade.’  Was this an internet assassin or just someone who angrily disagreed?   While I understand that this commenter might simply be a troll who's decided to make someone’s life difficult (the attacks were aimed at another blogger I'd mentioned, not at me) my preference is to address the problems I have with the comment and give the person a chance to clarify.

I responded briefly asking Anonymous for some back up and some links to support what I saw as personal attacks on Progressive Alaska blogger Phil Munger. 

Anon's response to my short (I had to catch the ferry) comment was more than twice as long as the original comment and didn’t really address my concerns.

My next brief comment - I was busy this weekend - said there was still no back up and if the commenter continued in the same vein, I’d delete the comment. 

I got one more long comment - posted in three parts.  The tone was ratcheted down and the second two parts raised legitimate questions. 

So, what should I do?  I didn't want to continue the discussion in the comment section.  I knew it was going to be way too long and complicated. Should I just delete and ignore?  But there was a good chance it wasn't a troll, that it was someone seriously upset trying to express their displeasure.   I thought I should give the person the benefit of the doubt and see if we can engage in real conversation. 

Even if I can't find some common ground with the commenter, I can at least try to practice what this blog is about - exploring how we know things - by treating people with respect, while rigorously examining the evidence.  It's not an easy thing for most of us to do and I may not completely succeed.

So, here goes.


The whole exchange, up to this point, is in the comments section to a previous post on whether I should write about  Phil Munger’s post at Progressive Alaska reporting that two anonymous sources said the Kulluk damage was greater than the Unified Command has suggested and that the Kulluk might be headed to Asia for repairs.    I’ll take excerpts from those comments, but to get the whole context, you can go read them. It's not too long.

So take this as the next comment on that post in response to Anon’s last three comments (Feb 3, 2013). 



First, my post was about how to decide whether to report things other bloggers post, things that may not be fully substantiated.  I used Phil Munger's post as an example.  I was letting my readers know
  •  I deliberated about even putting up the post
  • why I decided to post it; and 
  • what I thought about before posting it. 
I tested Phil’s post against Reuters' guidelines to help me decide.  Phil did reasonably well against the Reuters standard (especially considering those aren't common standards for most bloggers.)   My post itself was only partially about what Phil had written.  It was NOT about Phil.  Yes, Phil was mentioned, but really wasn't the main topic.  You chose to attack Phil instead of either what I said or what he said.  I also felt you made very strong charges, but without evidence.  The irony is that the post was specifically about standards for backing up what one writes. 

In your Feb 1 comment you say things (in response to my challenge to give me evidence supporting your claims) like:
"Little support? All the support needed to demonstrate Munger's hackery is on display on his website. The hackery is and has been on display for quite a long time. His own posted assertions that directly contradict his own later postings of newer or successive assertions are glaringly obvious."
That's essentially an attack on Phil without any evidence other than to say "The evidence is obvious for anyone to see."  If it is so plentiful then it wouldn't be hard for you to say, "For example, see this post about X dated ?/?/? (link) and this one (link)."  Then readers can judge for themselves.

Then you write:
"I'm surprised you couldn't find any instances of anyone else discussing the need for heavy lift vessels for the transport of the Kulluk and indications that the repairs need be done in Asia, and specifically in Korea, instead of facilities on the west coast of the US. All it takes is to Google a few key words and you'll see that has been discussed as far back as at least Jan 7."
Well, I found one, dated around January 20 and it didn’t mention Korea.  All you had to do was give a few of these links.  It's your argument, so, in my book, it's your job to supply the evidence, not tell me and my readers to go search the internet. All you had to do was say:  “There are stories here (link), here (link), and here (link). [Later he objects to using links to sites he opposes and I'll address that later.]

You also follow up a comment I made "like all of us, he's [Phil] a complex person":
"As for Munger being a 'complex' person? More like 'has a few too many complexes'"
Cute word play maybe, but it's just another put down which doesn't offer any substantive response to my remark about him being a complex person. 

Let’s go to your three Feb. 2 posts. (Again, you can see all the comments complete here) Part 1 begins:

Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 7:14:00 PM AKST
Steve, First, I'd like to make note of an inconsistency in equivalency, or is it simply a lack thereof? After, I'll attempt to speak to a couple of other points.

You made reference to 'harshly' challenging an unstated number of 'charges' Munger has made, I don't see any links or any more easily confirmable evidence of these as yet indeterminate charges which you harshly challenged.

In terms of the discussion here in the comments, I didn’t see the need to link because I’m conceding that you are right on this.  I’m conceding that there are times when Phil makes wild allegations and uses unnecessarily insulting language.  Isn't it enough that I just acknowledge you're right?  Since you already believe this, why do I need to give you further evidence?

Now, if you think that I’m lying, and that haven’t challenged Phil and that I’m just saying that to appease you, well, then I can understand why you might ask for evidence.  If that is your concern, here’s a post where I harshly, for me, called Phil on what he wrote.

I’ve also made comments on Phil’s blog in the past when I thought he’d gone too far.   I did use his blog’s search function to see if I could find some examples, but it doesn’t search the comments.  It's just too long ago for me to remember or to search for.  You’ll just have to trust me.

Another excerpt from your comment:
“Am I correct in perceiving that I'm to be held to a far different standard when it comes to participating in a discussion? You're allowed to be indeterminate or unspecific to a fairly high degree, ...and yet I'm deemed to be held to a different level . . .”
If you read my blog, you'll know that I frequently supply links to supporting evidence.  And sometimes I've even changed what I say because I've found, searching the net, that I was wrong.

In this situation, our discussion was taking place in the comments section of a post. I was  referring to comments you’d made in the comment stream above.  There was only one other short comment by someone else.  I figured a reader could just look up there and see your comments.  Things like:
“you're looking for journalistic integrity or some ethical mores or just plain old honesty from Phil Munger?”
I took that to be a rhetorical question which was essentially saying that he had no journalistic integrity or ethical mores and he was dishonest.  I don’t think my readers failed to find what I was referring to.  Or,
“all Phil does is stand on other people's work.”
I was referring to your comments in the same thread on the same page.  Your two comments totaled about 750 words.  And they were right there above what I had written. You were referring to unspecified posts on unspecified topics in a blog with thousands of posts.  I don’t think there was a double standard here. 

In the 4 pm post, you start to give some examples.  Examples that allow me to see what you're complaining about.  You identify two of Phil’s recent posts - one about the number of military suicides during President Obama's term in office and the other on President Obama's second Inaugural address.

On military suicides you write:
“In a post purporting to claim concern for victims of military suicide, Munger makes the bald faced assertion that our president has not been at all responsive to the problem. The facts are, that those closest to this issue, those in all levels of the military and groups outside of the military, professionals, policymakers, veterans organizations and military family groups, have all very publicly noted that president Obama has done more to address this issue than any other president.”  [emphasis added]
I searched his blog for military suicides and found a Dec. 28 post.  It quotes the Veterans Administration statistics (via another website) on military suicides and then Phil comments on the numbers:
“Obama certainly isn't responsible for each of these deaths, but he is as responsible for the growth of this tragic epidemic as is anyone.  Now that he has been re-elected by Americans, will he do something about it?
I doubt it.”
What you said he said is really a distortion of what Phil wrote.  He doesn’t say “our president has not been at all responsive to the problem,”  He said the president is “as responsible as anyone.”   This is more opinion than fact.  I’m not sure how you can prove something like that, but he is the President and has more authority than anyone else to make sure policies to prevent suicides are followed.  Who might be more responsible? (Please don't say "the soldiers committing suicide.")  It doesn’t mean Obama is encouraging people to commit suicide or that he isn’t concerned about it.  Or that he isn't the most responsive president ever.  (I'm not sure it was an issue of big enough proportion in the past that presidents were called on to do something.  We've never had a such a long war with soldiers repeatedly returning to combat.) 
OK, you could infer from the question about whether he'll do something about it in the second term,  that he'd done nothing in the first term.  But it's hardly a 'bald faced assertion."  Again, it's opinion. 

I think that Phil’s tone often tends to be provocative, and it's a bit ironic that I find myself defending him, but I don't think you characterized his comment on climate change in the Inaugural correctly either.  You wrote:
“Recently, speaking of our president's 2nd inaugural address, Munger very specifically asserted that the president made no mention of climate change.”
What Obama said was:
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Phil didn’t say that Obama didn’t mention climate change.  Phil spent most of the post comparing Martin Luther King's (the Inaugural was on MLK Day) anti-war stance to Obama's.  He lamented that under Obama our military budget is a much higher percent of the total budget than when MLK spoke. 

Specifically, he said:
“Indeed, our pro-war mindset has numbed us to almost too many things to list. Non-response to the real dangers of climate change, degradation of lands and oceans through insane agricultural practices that poison each almost irremediably, decaying nuclear plants and the ticking time bombs of nuclear waste in spent fuel pools, top my list.
Of course, none of these dangers came up in Obama's second inaugural speech today. ”
As I read this, Phil isn't even talking about Obama's speech in the first part.  He's talking generally about the American people.  In the final sentence he specifically says "none of these dangers came up."   It's true, what you say, that Obama did mention climate change in the speech and even promised to do something about it.  But that doesn't make Phil's comment false.  Yes, climate change came up, but "the dangers" of climate change that Phil said weren't mentioned, didn't.

Part of me thinks Phil’s regular complaints about Obama are tiresome.  But part of me knows that Obama gets far more pressure from the right.  Critics on the left, like Phil, give him ammunition to say, "I can't do that or my own party members will fry me." I first saw how this worked during the Vietnam war.  The most extreme protesters, like those who poured blood on draft board records, made other protesters seem reasonable in comparison. 
You write further on this:
“The fact is, Obama made very implicit and unmistakable mention of a promise to address climate change. Ah, but the facts don't mesh with the false narrative Munger wished to promote in his 'construction', so his false assertion was that the president ignored and did not even address climate change. “
I often read something and then when I go back I realize that it didn’t quite say what I thought.  You’re right, Obama made an (I think you meant) explicit and unmistakable promise to do something about climate change.  But Phil didn’t didn’t say, as you portray it, that “the president did not even address climate change.”  He said the we all are “non-responsive to the real dangers . . .” and that "none of these dangers came up in Obama's second inaugural speech."

It's hard to write clearly and unambiguously.  Readers have an obligation to read carefully, especially before they publicly complain about what they read. Phil could be clearer.   I could be clearer usually too.  And so, Anon, could you.   I can see how someone could take ‘non-responsive’ and interpret it to say that Obama “didn’t respond” and then slide over to “he never mentioned. . .”  Even when someone is perfectly clear, many readers read what they expect to see instead of what someone actually wrote. 

That’s why it’s important to supply the examples.  If you had actually quoted what Phil said, you might have recognized that Phil didn’t quite say what you accused him of saying.

OK, I think I’m beating a dead horse now.  But getting the details right is important in disputes like this.  It's also what makes them so tedious for many. 

The third part of your Feb. 2 comment raises your reluctance to link to sites you don’t wish to promote.  I understand your sentiment here.  I've had the same concern.  Not so much for blogs like Phil's, but for true hate group websites.  I’m not sure your concern is still totally valid. My understanding is that since Google found that spammers put up comments specifically to get their clients’ websites higher ranking, Google has stopped using such comment links in their calculation of web ranking.  And they even penalize some.

I don’t know how that affects links that non-spam commenters might make.  But you needn't have put the links in.  If you just put the URL, Google wouldn't count it.  Readers could cut and paste.  Or you could give dates and topics of posts so readers could find them. 

Besides,  I wasn’t asking so much for links to Phil’s posts which I later could find once you gave me topics.  I was really asking for links to the sites you said talked about the damage to the Kulluk and its possible relocation to Asia.

It's your turn Anon.  I'm sure you'll find problems with my response.  And try to keep in mind my comment guidelines.  

[Disclosure:  I met Phil while blogging the political corruption trials in 2007 and 2008.  He'd read my blog and introduced himself.  He's been unfailingly supportive and generous to me, even when I've criticized him.  He's got lots of knowledge about a number of disparate topics.  But he certainly doesn't follow my comment guidelines on his blog.  But it's his blog and he can follow his own heart there.  I'd note that his post I referenced was quite carefully written and Anon had no comments about it except to say that others had already posted the same points.  But he didn't tell us where.]


  1. Steve -- I hadn't read your previous post until you referred to it here, but now I have just spent 15 minutes carefully reviewing everything you and Anon have said.

    First, my compliments to you at all stages of this discussion. Too few bloggers are this conscientious in seeking an ethical way to write about controversial stories. I especially commend your consulting (and quoting) the Reuters guidelines. As a former newspaper reporter I appreciate respect for journalistic best practice, since too few practitioners seem to be following it these days.

    Second, my compliments to you for your patience in lots of back-and-forth with Anon. Most bloggers would have deleted the comments and moved on long before you did. Your mild tone did eventually calm Anon down and get us a little farther in a quest for truth, even if we haven't really arrived yet.

    I suspect some of your readers checked out of this discussion long before the end; it's a bit too inside-baseball for most people's taste. But it does validate your credentials as a responsible blogger. Thank you on all counts.

  2. Jumpin bald headed Jesus, you have the patience of a saint. You can bet i will read more often than i do. Thanks AKjah.

  3. Speaking of military suicides. Munger took someone else's story line about the issue and proceeded to create a false narrative in order to attempt to smear the president, and falsely attempted to lay blame on the president.

    One can mince words all they want, the crux of what Munger attempts to pass off is that the president is and certainly was responsible for, unresponsive to and/or simply uncaring concerning the issue when reality does not support that premise in any way. It's a fictional narrative, a construct not supported by reality.

    Our president is not, by any stretch of the imagination, 'as responsible for the growth of this tragic epidemic as is anyone'.

    Anyone spending minimal time researching what is known and what is suspected about the causes of the increase in these suicides could not in any rational manner attempt to assert that the current president is as responsible as anyone else. The lowering of military standards for recruitment, stop loss orders, constant rotations, and any number of other causes are the result of previous administration policies and/or Congressional moves beyond the control of the president. Not to mention illegal wars of convenience that were started some time before the current president could be considered to be in charge.

    One only has to look at the issue objectively and see that the cascading causes which are leading to the increases in these suicides are the result of policies and and circumstance that our current president had little or no control over.

    On top of that, as I said before, anyone who makes the least effort to find out what this president has done in regards to this issue would know that attempting to portray Obama as the least bit unengaged or uncaring, or 'as responsible as anyone else' is ludicrous. This president is more engaged than any president before and he's done more than any president before. He's been leading the VA and the DoD in addressing and revamping both policies and reaction to the crisis.

    You want an example of total disregard for journalistic ethic? Munger's post. Hackery in a nutshell, the perfect example to showcase for your post's heading, Steve, was, at least in part, blogger ethics.

  4. In Munger's deceptive attempt to smear the president using someone else's story about Obama's speech, Munger leads off his setup listing a few 'dangers' he said topped his list of 'concern'.

    Number one in that list of Munger's pet dangers was "Non-response to the real dangers of climate change".

    In the next breath, Munger claims 'none' of his pet dangers came up in Obama's speech and he went on to attempt to claim there was no mention 'because EXXON'.

    Yeah, well, that charge is an utter fabrication. It's a bald faced lie.

    Here's the pertinent quote from President Obama's 2nd Inaugural speech:

    "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

    "As stated, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide a habitable world for our children, grandchildren, and all as yet unborn generations. Climate change is a civilization challenging issue that mandates active U.S. engagement with our entire global community. It requires a commitment to lower our own greenhouse gas emissions and to provide financial and technical resources to those most vulnerable and least resilient in adapting to our changing climate."

    "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."

    Is there any way to read that as a non-response to the dangers of climate change? No, in fact, a majority of articles about the president's speech noted how the president set a precedent specifically because he was so forthright with his inclusion of statements about climate change.

    Again, It's very clear this example of Munger's hackery was but another of his fictional constructs. This particular example of hackery was also topped off with Munger's dog-whistle racial slur. That alone qualifies the post as being not only unethical but indefensible.

    I truly believe it's fairly disingenuous to attempt to imply I made some error in comprehension in regards to Munger's hackery. I don't have a problem comprehending what I read, and I don't have a problem recognizing hackery in all it's forms.

  5. As for whether you agree or disagree with how I choose to use links, I don't feel that's what this discussion turns on.

    I chose to comment on your post specifically because you brought up the issue of 'blogger ethics'. I offered information which was on topic and in context to your heading. I see by the heading above that there's some inference that I was maybe possibly a mere troll.

    You said I might have a 'problem' with your post. I can only note it was you who stressed that it's important to 'get the details right'. I don't believe I missed any detail and I certainly don't believe I had any comprehension difficulties.

    I also know what it it to be a mere troll. Like a lot of nomenclature connected to the web, the word 'troll' is often brought into play in circumstances where it's not actually pertinent, situations like whenever someone's confronted with some content they don't care to hear or some other what they deem to be an inappropriate instance. Sometimes a 'troll' is nothing more than a troll and sometimes it's a convenient label used as an attempt to censor or demean. Myself, I'd save the troll label for some instance that is more properly descriptive of actual trolling.

    I'm guessing, unlike most of your readers, you did become engaged to a degree, you were able to find at least one example similar to what Munger is claiming exclusivity for, and, though your 'interpretation' leaves much to be desired, you also found examples of Munger's hackery i cited. You found those things without my providing links. As you conceded earlier instances of 'challenged' material originating from Munger, there's little doubt that he's still not concerning himself with journalistic ethics, or for that matter, little regard for fact or reality.

    As always, I appreciate your time. Confirmation of that which we can know can only be resolved by confronting what we don't know.

    False narratives and fictional constructs have no place in reasoned debate. They only deserve scorn and derision.

  6. And, yes, Steve, (in case anyone is wondering), I did go back and reread Munger's posts to see if your 'suggestion' or your 'interpretation' of 'what I might have seen on a first read may have been something else entirely' could have some merit and that I may have 'misread' what Munger posted.


  7. Arguing with axe-grinders is a waste of time. If someone who refuses to identify themselves wants to attack another blogger, let them go to that blog to do it. You should have deleted her/his comments and not bothered to justify it.

  8. Harpboy appears unready for a life not of his own design.

  9. Kathy, AKJah, Jacob, Harpboy, and Joe, I appreciate your your thoughts and please excuse me if I address this mostly to Anon.


    Suppose you were walking down the street and saw through my window that I was having a discussion with my friends. You walk up to the door where there’s a sign that says “Please remove your shoes and refrain from smoking.” You then walk through my front door, leaving muddy boot prints on my carpet, sit down in the middle of our discussion, light a cigarette, and start to give your opinions.

    We would be so taken aback by your behavior that we wouldn’t even hear what you were saying.

    Something like that has happened here. I have a sign at the comment box that asks people “to refrain from personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition.” Yet you jumped right in throwing insults at another blogger, telling us how awful he was, and repeating phrases like 'hackery' and 'dishonest' and 'false narrative.'

    An unwritten expectation, explained above in this post, is that people will support their assertions with evidence so readers can evaluate their claims. These rules are common in science, where people’s writing is evaluated by how well they use empirical evidence to support their statements. This standard is also common in other forums like high school debate teams, where the debaters are evaluated on the evidence they bring to support their assertions.

    And when you did provide backup evidence on Obama’s speech, you convinced me that you were right and Phil was wrong. You gave us two more quotes that I missed. You also mentioned news reports on the speech, but didn’t give us specifics. I did find one in the NY Times that makes your point well:

    “President Obama made addressing climate change the most prominent policy vow of his second Inaugural Address, setting in motion what Democrats say will be a deliberately paced but aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep Congressional opposition.”

    You said several times in your comments things like, “Anyone making the least effort knows . . .” Well, we don’t all know about every topic. And all I've been asking was that you make the least effort and show us your evidence. Like I’ve just done with that New York Times quote. And like you did with the two more Obama speech quotes.

    Think about this blog as a Vegan restaurant. If you’re looking for steak, there are plenty of other blogs where red meat is not only acceptable, but encouraged. That’s not my preference. I didn’t force you here. If you drop in, please respect our preferences. You can even tell us about the wonders of steak and ribs, but please don’t actually bring any in here.

    You did have a point to make, but you made it very hard for us to hear it. If some of my readers - say Harpboy - were in control of the delete button, we never would have heard it. I’ve come to terms with Phil. I have the same problem with his style that I have with yours: lots of name calling. But I do appreciate his knowledge from experiences in a variety of fields. So I stick my head into his blog now and then to see what’s up, and if I think he’s gone too far, I might say something, but usually others have already done that. But it’s his blog and he can do what he wants there. That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. The same applies to me. And Blogspot allows you to set up a free blog and set your own rules.

    So, thanks for coming by. Thanks for making me think about this more deeply. And do come back. Bring along the evidence, but leave the insults in the car. I don’t expect everyone to have the skills of a debate team member, but I do expect them to do their best to respect our style here.

  10. Allow me first to acknowledge your admission that I had not in fact suffered from some complication of perception on my part as to what Munger had actually written.

    Also, I'm made aware that you speak of 'unwritten expectations', I too, tend to have some expectations also. One being that people will actually carefully read and precisely or correctly comprehend that which they do read. I'm often disappointed as you can well imagine....

    I did have a point to make, and I won't apologize for using descriptive terminology that, by definition, was perfectly apt for the circumstance. Words have distinct meanings and I try to apply the proper word for the circumstance. 'Insult', is such a subjective term, but is it an insult to describe a distinct reality? Is it really 'rude' or 'uncivil' to speak of what cannot be denied? If dishonesty, false narrative and hackery are perfectly descriptive terms for the circumstance, what is the insult? The obvious insult is the dishonesty, the hackery and the false narrative.

    Some people prefer not to be exposed to something that maybe makes them uncomfortable, or something that challenges their preconceptions, or maybe threatens to upend something of their fancy.

    As you noted, if Jacob or Harpboy were able, there wouldn't have been even the possibility of any interaction wherein anyone might have become more aware of just what it is we might know of something.

  11. I guess I am guilty of proactive deletion by approximation. Re-read, please.


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