When Internet trolls attack: A view from the receiving end

One well-known science site recently turned off reader comments due to trolls and spambots. The host of CNET TV show Rumor Has It, who has dealt with her share of online abuse, ponders the move.

Karyne Levy Former Assistant managing editor
Karyne Levy is an assistant managing editor at CNET. When she's not taking a red pen to the computer screen, she can be found researching tech rumors and dishing about them as co-host of CNET TV's Rumor Has It.
Karyne Levy
4 min read
Thumbs up, you guys. Great job on those good comments. Screenshot by CNET

"Whatever you do, don't feed the trolls."

That's what my co-workers always say when I tell them I'm about to read online comments about the CNET TV show I host, Rumor Has It.

"Don't read the comments, comments are stupid."

My internal debate about whether to view the show-related comments is a big one. Especially when user comments are so often nothing more than "First!!!11!" Especially when user comments attack my appearance, sexuality, and gender.

Screenshot by Karyne Levy/CNET

I'm not the only who's debated the value of reader comments.

CNET sister site GameSpot recently changed its Community Code of Conduct and will more rigorously moderate comments, based on what Social and Community Manager Walter Lopez calls "the abysmal practices seen in our comment section."

And Popular Science has decided to shut off its comments entirely, saying, "As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter."

The site will no longer accept comments on new articles. That is a very bold move.

And it's a debate in itself. Will Oremus of Slate says the decision to turn off comments is "lazy and wrong." He brings up a good point, saying that "commenters also help authors understand where they've explained a point in a misleading way, and what readers are taking away from their posts."

On CNET, most of the comments related to Rumor Has It are positive and relevant. People love voting in the polls, and speculating about what the next iPad will look like. Or what Samsung has up its sleeve.

Some comments about my looks or sexuality slip by -- "She looks like Austin Powers" or the ever-popular "Lesbian!!!" -- in which case I flag them as spam (I have the power!). But for the most part, people are engaged and want their opinions heard, and I try to encourage them with replies of "Thanks for watching!" and thumbs-ups. I love the Rumor Has It fans. People are watching the show, and caring, and it's really cool.

Then there's YouTube.

The Rumor Has It team decided to turn off the comments on the show's YouTube channel more than a year ago. They were mostly attacks on my gender, my former co-host's body, or our supposed relationship with each other (we're best friends, nothing more, but still, why is that relevant?). The show is silly and fun, about tech rumors, and it's something I'm very proud of.

YouTube is known for having particularly harsh comments, and the Rumor Has It YouTube page is no exception. People can be rude. And mean. And heartless. And anonymous.

They call me stupid, they insult me because I'm a woman, or maybe because I'm a woman with a passion for technology. Or maybe both. And they cannot handle that I wear button-up shirts. Nobody seems to be able to figure out whether I'm a boy or a girl, and a lot of people call me "dike" (pro tip: it's actually spelled "dyke").

I'm not alone. In fact, Google has recently made strides to fix this kind of reckless commenting.

I come to work every day and do my job to the best of my ability. I'm 35 and I like who I am. I'm in a very happy marriage, I sing in an a cappella group. I love musical theater and I take pictures of my weird cats, Chowder and Noodle. I spend weekends watching "America's Next Top Model" and "Homeland" and playing video games like Call of Duty and even dorky Candy Crush.

Screenshot by Karyne Levy/CNET

And I'm over the online bullying. Mostly. But some of the comments break my heart. They make me want to pack up my things, get off the stage, and go back to being a behind-the-scenes editor. I want to quit the entire thing, stop producing the show that I love, and give up.

I used to not feed the trolls. I was very careful to ignore the mean comments. Then I read Whitney Phillips' post on DailyDot suggesting that people should do the opposite. That not feeding the trolls "gives all the power to the troll (or the person accused of trolling) and blames the victim for the aggressor's actions."

I've since then changed my tactics. Now, whenever the comments on my YouTube page are accidentally left on, I pop in there, comment back, and sometimes tweet the responses. It makes me feel better. Kind of.

The underlying problem remains, though. And based on very limited research derived from my personal YouTube experience, anonymity is not necessarily the issue. People's full names appear right above their rude comments. Sometimes people's names and pictures are there. Would these people say these things to me on the street? Maybe. I wouldn't want to find out.

If comments can't be moderated, should there be comments at all? If the whole purpose of reader comments is to engage the readers, and all I get is personal attacks, am I the one doing something wrong? The Internet can be a place that fosters free speech. And while yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion about my looks, does that mean they should let those opinions be known when it's irrelevant to the work I've produced? I don't think so. Maybe there shouldn't be comments at all. Maybe this is why we can't have nice things.

Hopefully Google's efforts to fix commenting algorithms by favoring relevancy over recency, and offering enhanced moderation tools, will fix the YouTube commenting problem.

In the meantime, I'll continue sharing tech rumors on the show I love. And wearing my button-up shirts with pride.