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In Our View: Online commenters

Promoting civil discussion

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The scream room reaches maximum capacity in the wee hours, often coinciding with last call at the neighborhood dive. Suddenly, the cyber tide of commenters rises. A public concern or local news item is recast as a bar fight on the home Apple, with coarse language and bigoted jabs.
Welcome to the wilderness of online commenters.
In the online sphere, the mission is to lure similarly agitated commenters of the opposite political stripe. Unaccountable scribblers, masquerading behind made-up handles, ignite the melee. At times, writers will use their real names. Herein lies the curse and the blessing of cyberspace anonymity.
For Internet pioneers, the Web was the great equalizer. Anyone can build a Web page. Anyone can comment on an article or an editorial in The Herald or The Economist or The New York Times. News editors are compelled to play hall monitor, trolling stories for stray outlaws who violate the language-decency rules or openly threaten others.
There are editorial topics that automatically generate Web traffic and kindle online responses. These include but are not limited to taxes, guns, the tribes, immigration, President Obama, abortion, same-sex marriage and all-things-Olympia. Last Sunday, a story on the Dream Act and an article on greater scrutiny at local gun shows kept online editors occupied. It was disheartening. To provoke civil discussion is not only constructive, but an expression of civic health. The challenge is, minus accountability, the great equalizer is reduced to a sandbox. Forget Emily Post. Bullies seize control and set the tone.
Most commenter-bullies don't read the article, editorial or column, but use the forum as a springboard to rant. Screeds provide a safety valve for the disaffected, but they push out the majority of readers who might consider participating. The takeaway from rants, as well as racist diatribes, is they are not representative of the whole. Not unlike crime, the problem flows from a handful of repeat offenders. The maginals grab the Internet megaphone and blast away. The majority race for cover.
There is an old-school solution, a letter to the editor (it can be emailed as well) with an individual's real name and city. Years ago, repellent letters were sometimes returned to writers with a note, "We wanted to let you know that someone claiming to be you wrote the enclosed nonsense."
To disagree without being disagreeable doesn't come naturally, and the Internet facilitates the lesser angels. Soon The Herald will introduce new tools to streamline online comments and highlight those contributors advancing the discussion. Some lesser angels can be thwarted. Readers, all of us, deserve as much.

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