Home > Uncategorized > What The History of Online Communities Taught Me About “Freedom Of Speech”

What The History of Online Communities Taught Me About “Freedom Of Speech”

Around 1997, I stumbled upon and joined an online forum, now somewhat infamously known as “FreeRepublic.com”.  This was in the early days of online communities.  My initial fascination with FreeRepublic (I was a “Freeper”, but I never called myself that), and my subsequent departure from it, marked my first of life long lesson in the self-contradiction that is “Freedom of Speech,” along with other lessons drawn from other online communities.


First, a little slam to the online communities, even to HH:  We are a strange bunch.  We get together “online”, virtually, not knowing who we are talking to, and pour our hearts out, or in many cases, pour our rage out.  And when we are really coalescing, we even get together in real life, meeting awkwardly with strangers who already know our inner most thoughts and hates.

That’s really F*ing strange for human beings!

Freepers found out the hard way that “freedom of speech” among such Strange human beings is not easily manageable.  1st, Freepers tried to build their forum (and advertise it) as completely “UN-moderated,” anyone can say any thing.  No censorship!  Great ideal!  I was hooked from the very beginning.

But the Owner of FreeRepublic.com was a California Republican (hard core one at that).  So you get where this was going (even though I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask at the time).

Even though race was not generally disclosed or discussed, very quickly early on, if you expressed any ideas remotely considered “liberal” on FreeRepublic, you would get shouted down by the self-proclaimed die-hard “Freepers” as “Commie”, “Socialist”, etc.

Discussions on specific issues would always degenerate down into slogan shouting.  “Freeper” itself, became a label of slogans, as if every one else were the “enemies” of the Republic.

And thus, very quickly, many of the early members left.  No more issue discussions, only trading of conspiracy theories (against Clinton at the time).  Forum even became moderated.


On the other side, the different story of 4Chan, which sprung Anonymous, which started in 2003.  (I was not part of that).

They were a group of people, using the “B” board on 4Chan, to tell jokes that appealed to their particular sense of humor, to do outrageous things online (including forming swastika symbols using online game personas), and trolling to mess with people.

Their first motto apparently was, again, “freedom of expression” and of information.  They wanted to say whatever they wanted to say, and they didn’t care.

But in their pursuit of more organized goals, they began to hack and protest, first against a neo-nazi radio talk show host, then against the Scientologists, (and the rest of the hacking is still history and ongoing).


I do not believe I (or any one) are really beyond, above, or outside of the nature of these groups, because they really just show our own human nature.

All human beings want to feel belonging in groups, no matter how strange they are.  (Indeed, the more strange they are deemed by society, the more they want to feel belonging to their own unique group).

All human beings want to feel free to express themselves.  (Hence, we invariably create concepts like “freedom of speech.  And many groups aspire to want to keep that freedom alive.  Yes, EVEN the “Commies” fought for that in their own revolutions).

But invariably also, ALL human beings want to not merely express themselves, but the ultimate goal of every Freedom of Speech is inevitably aimed at SHUTTING someone else up.

WHY?  Because that’s the ONLY way to win an argument!


Take for examples above, both Freepers and Anonymous started out with “freedom of expression” on their minds.  But ultimately, they aimed to shut down the other side.

While Anonymous did not “moderate” their own forum, they organized to “hack” outside groups that they simply disliked (and/or justified as “Response” to some perceived infringement of “Freedom of Information”).

For example, Anonymous’ targeting of a Neo-Nazi Radio Show Host.  What’s that all about?  Some have excused it as merely pranking or trolling to mess with the host, (even though they eventually hacked his email and showed to public that the guy was an FBI informant, putting the guy’s life in danger).  There is no doubt that the ultimate aim of these “pranks” were to shut the guy up, because he said things Anonymous didn’t like.

“Freedom of Expression”?  It’s quite 1 way’ed.

Take another example, Anonymous (in)famously attacked PayPal and others (using DDoS), to protest their refusal to process payments for WikiLeak.

The justification was, on part, that DDoS was no different than a “sit-in” protest at a Diner (which is still trespass and a crime).  But ACTUALLY, DDoS is more similar to causing a 100-city block traffic jam outside of a Diner, just so that other people can’t get to the Diner.

Forget for a moment the legality of action of a hack protest, Hey, I understand that Anonymous likes Wikileak for all the “free information”.  If Anonymous wanted to help Wikileak, they could just simply help spread the information.  But instead, they went to hack PayPal (who didn’t want to help Wikileak for their own reasons).  It’s not like PayPal hacked Wikileak.

Bottom Line:  Anonymous hacked PayPal, because they didn’t like that PayPal refused to help Wikileak, but that too was PayPal’s “Freedom of Expression”.  Anonymous just didn’t like PayPal’s expression (in who it chose NOT to do business with).

On the other hand, I feel sympathy for Anonymous’ cause, they feel that PayPal (and other big corporations) are screwing the People, suppressing their right to expression by wielding the giant thunder hammer of corporate money.  So, Anonymous (and others) felt the need to respond in kind (in some proportions).  Which is like saying both the Hatfields and the McCoys are equally victims in this game.  This game of Human Need to Shut the other guy up for good.

What did I, and should you, learn from all this?

That no one really stands for “Freedom of Expression”.  All human beings really stand for the “Freedom” to Shut the other guy up.

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  1. April 15th, 2013 at 11:31 | #1

    Following up on a related note, I found that complete, unfettered freedom of speech (with minimal or no moderation of any sort) in an online community can be highly detrimental to the quality of speech, & inevitably the quality of that online community & its participants.

    The best example with which I have 13 years of personal experience is the case of Chinese Military Forum (CMF) vs. China-Defense Forum (CDF). Both were discussion sites where overseas Chinese (& any other interested party) can discuss topics related to Chinese security.

    CMF had virtually no moderation/censorship of any kind. It soon degenerated into a forum full of childish personal attacks, utterly irrelevant topics (including some random dude ranting about his personal life), and ultra-nationalist nut-jobs from China and other countries who would futilely attempt to shout each other down, as if doing so could actually made their wishful thinking become reality.

    Seeing the lack of action by CMF owners, a few individuals established their own site – CDF. In contrast to CMF, CDF was far more authoritarian. Several moderators & owners regularly banned & suspended spammers or those who degenerate logical, issue-based arguments into personal attacks (& sometimes they even banned those who simply annoyed them personally). They also enforced strict rules about posting pictures, staying on topic, starting new topics within the appropriate sub-forums, etc. They also categorized topics and moved people’s posts & deleted posts as they saw fit. In short, CDF was and is HEAVILY censored.

    Today, CDF is the most respected English-language forum for any topic related to Chinese security. Most US-based professional PLA watchers (e.g. Andrew Erickson, Mark Stokes, etc) & PLA-focused journalists (e.g. David Axe, Richard Fisher, Jane’s writing staff, etc) are registered users of CDF (even though most do not actively participate in the discussions). On the other hand, CMF is still largely occupied by amateurs & wannabes.

    For those who want to compare the sites:
    CMF: http://zzwave.com/plaboard/
    CDF: http://www.china-defense.com/smf/index.php
    NOTE: Registration is required to access CDF content.

  2. Black Pheonix
    April 15th, 2013 at 12:09 | #2

    @Mister Unknown

    Yes, rather similar to how HH sprung from Fools Mountain.

  3. April 15th, 2013 at 23:39 | #3

    A thought provoking article! I don’t think members of a forum like this should ever meet, lest we can’t handle the disappointment ha ha. There’s an irrational reason as well: I believe the rational exchange would inevitably be perverted by irrelevant factors such as voice, look, mannerism, and bad breath. Just look at how image and impression have suppressed and replaced analysis in our TV generation!

    You have pinpointed something much more fundamental than just the “freedom of speech”, namely, the balance between chaos and over-regulation. Anarchy is a bad name, but Free Trade, Free Press, Free Economy, Free Expression are good. Where is the rational boundary between a chaotic row and a free, unmoderated intercourse? I only know that if I have control over a system DESIGNED by myself, I’d label it a Free System, and encourage everyone to “freely” participate, as long as they observe the name of my game.

  4. Wahaha
    April 16th, 2013 at 18:58 | #4

    (1) The essence of freedom of speech is about letting public beware of your opinions, this is where free press and freedom of speech differ.

    If a journalist has an opinion on an issue, he can make public aware of it, especially those anchors, their opinions can shape how millions of people think. On the other hand, if you have an opinion, you can’t make public listen to you unless media and journalists like it.

    (2) To have meaningful opinions, you must not be misled or manipulated. So you must have knowledge on pro and con of the issue you want to talk about.

    Because most people get most of their information from TV and Newspaper, media and journalists can control what public are aware of. They will present the pro if they like it, they will present you the con if they don’t like it. In this way they can shape your opinions about certain issues, so you will say what they want you to say.

    (3) When government controls TV and Newspaper, they control which part of issues open to public, pro or con; they can suppress opinions they don’t like. Unlike 40, 50 years ago when they blocked the information, now they don’t block all complains, but keep such opinions away from public’s attention

    (4) “free” media, means that media and journalists control TV and Newspaper; control which part of issues open to public, pro or con (free from punishment if misleading and manipulating); control what issues will get public attention. Simply speaking, let them control information and public opinions.


    Based on such understanding, China has less free press but freer speech, because in China, it is government that controls public opinions, but opinions disliked by government are still well aware by public.

    In West, it is media and journalists that control public opinions and information, opinions disliked by media never get public attention, they even suppress pope’s opinions on Russian pu$$y girls.

  5. April 18th, 2013 at 09:41 | #5

    The problem with using notion of freedom of speech to justify anything is that it is intricately based on one’s presumptions and worldviews. What I think is rational – and hence within realm of debate – may not be so rational to you. What I think is harmless – and hence with the realm of exchange of idea exchange – may not be so harmless to you.

    Hence in France and Germany, there is hyper sensitivity to religious expression by muslims, any denial of holocaust, political speech by neo-Nazis. They are hyper sensitive because people feel hurt threatened by these ideas. They are afraid certain ideas, will sweep up the populace so much in a way that leads to mob rule, to instability.

    There is no notion of absolute freedom of speech. Freedom much be defined in context – against a set of political and social circumstances. This is why debates about freedom of speech can be so hurtful. It inevitably comes down to denying other’s interests, others view of the world, other’s sense of history, etc.

    The U.S. is strong today. It is a superpower possessing a might that is unprecedented in history. So it can afford to be more tolerant to ideas that are hurtful, harmful, offensive, irrational – because less thing can hurt and harm it. The West in general also possess might that is disproportionate vis a vis rest of the world. But that doesn’t give them license to deny other’s sense of what is harmful, hurtful.

    (Someone may raise the point that India too has freedom of speech. I will address that in another post, but suffice it to say, few scholar who study freedom of speech would say India has real freedom of speech. There is rhetoric. But on the ground, there is little if any real freedom – not freedom that is transformative, that is discoursive, that is rational. If there is any, it’s a real-life soap opera political bikering that confuses and enrages…but soothes the ego of the lowly politicians)

    There is another point: freedom of speech is built on the notion that marketplace of ideas work – that it leads to rational discourse. But we all know it doesn’t.

    Recently npr has featured stories that shows how in science forums, moderation is deemed important to communicating objective, scientific ideas. Without moderation, ideas get buried or distorted under a pile of human emotion and bigotry.

    Here is one recent story about that topic:


    At its best, the Web is a place for unlimited exchange of ideas. But Web-savvy news junkies have known for a long time that reader feedback can often turn nasty. Now a study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggests that rude comments on articles can even change the way we interpret the news.

    “It’s a little bit like the Wild West. The trolls are winning,” says Dominique Brossard, co-author of the study on the so-called nasty effect. Those trolls she’s referring to are commenters who make contributions designed to divert online conversations.

    Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Virginia’s George Mason University worked with a science writer to construct a balanced news story on the pros and cons of nanotechnology. More than 1,000 subjects reviewed the blog post from a Canadian newspaper that discussed the water contamination risks of nanosilver particles and the antibacterial benefits.

    Half saw the story with polite comments, and the other half saw rude comments like, “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

    “Basically what we saw,” Brossard says, “is people that were exposed to the polite comments didn’t change their views really about the issue covering the story, versus the people that did see the rude comments became polarized — they became more against the technology that was covered in the story.”

    Brossard said they chose the nanotechnology topic so that readers would have to make sense of a complicated issue with low familiarity. She says communication research shows that people use mental shortcuts to make sense of things they don’t understand.

    “We need to have an anchor to make sense of this,” she says. “And it seems that rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues.”

    Brossard says there’s no quick fix for this issue. While she thinks it’s important to foster conversation through comments sections, every media organization has to figure out where to draw the line when comments get out of control.

    “You don’t want to be censoring opinions, but you don’t want to allow neither points that are out of topic and that are offensive to the other people that are discussing,” she says.

    Some sites remove offensive comments, some have moderators to regulate the conversations, and others turn off commenting features once a certain number is reached. Brossard says it’s important for people involved in journalism and online communication to realize the influence that comments can have and to formulate appropriate policies.

    “I think what we need to define now on the Web, what is a good conversation? What are the things that are allowed socially? Also, as an audience, what do we let happen there?”

    All good things to keep in mind before you post a comment below. [Copyright 2013 NPR]


    What was once a democratic forum for opinion and information has been reduced to a feeding frenzy. No, not Congress. We’re talking about the comments section. Web-savvy news junkies have known for a long time that reader feedback can often turn nasty. Now, a new study finds that just reading that uncivil discourse can change the way we interpret the news. The study comes from this month’s Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication by five researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Mason University.

    So if you write for the web, do you keep your commenters in mind as you write? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That’s at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Dominique Brossard is a professor in the department of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, co-author of the first study looking at the so-called nasty effect. She joins us from WPR in Madison. Nice to have you with us today.

    DOMINIQUE BROSSARD: Thanks for having me.

    CONAN: And did it come as a surprise to find that opinion on an article changed if someone wrote “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of” at the end of it?

    BROSSARD: Well, there’s been some concern about uncivility and, you know, the fact that people tend to be rude on the online environment for quite a long time. But as far as the effect of the comments themselves being rude in changing the perception of the issue covering the study, yes, we investigated this from an open-minded perspective and we were surprised to see that what we use as rude comments, which as one of the news reporters that covered our study said – as reported to the online environment was quite tame, you know, like name calling such as idiot or things like that, were enough to actually change, you know, the perception of the story. So what we use as uncivil comments, were actually quite tame. So if those have an effect, then the question is what happen when people are much more outrageous in their way of behaving online.

    CONAN: So you tested for this by writing a spurious article and then people read it without comments and people read it with nasty comments.

    BROSSARD: No, not exactly, actually. What we did is that we wrote a balanced news story about something complicated, an emerging technology, nanosilver, that can have some risks and some benefits. And we wrote this with a science writer to make sure that, you know, we would not pushing more the risk or the benefits related to the issue. And then we had more than 1,000 Americans, a representative sample, look at this story. Half of the sample saw the story plus comments that were actually quite polite. And then the other half of the sample saw the same story but with the comments that were, you know, followed by name calling. So the same comments but just name calling and just rudeness, you know, overall in the comments.

    So basically what we saw is people that were exposed to the polite comments didn’t change their views really about the issue covered in the story versus the people that did see the rude comments became polarized, they became more against the technology that was covered in the story. And again, remember, like everybody saw the same story. So it was really the fact that you had that name-calling that, you know, that really out-of-the-board type of behavior that made a difference.

    CONAN: As you said, the nasty comments you included were not all that nasty as far as the Web is concerned, and nanosilver, I have to say, is not as controversial a subject as, say, abortion or gun rights or for that matter, climate change.

    BROSSARD: Yes. Exactly and that’s a good point. We did choose nanosilver. We are interested in emerging technologies. How can people make sense of complicated issues and that have multiple dimensions, that not just about oh, I’m against or for this because my values tell me that that’s not OK, right? But if you think of complex issues such as, let’s say, foreign policy or, you know, the economy or you just mentioned climate change, that are complicated – you know, they have different dimension: social dimension, technical dimension, legal dimension, ethical dimension. So how do people make sense of this kind of complicated issue? And we know in communication research that people – all of us, we use mental shortcut to make sense of things that are complicated, right, because we cannot know everything about everything.

    So we need to have an anchor to make sense of this. And it seems that rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues. So as you say, Neal, and it’s a good point, this is likely to happen for other issues such as climate change, for example, that are also very complicated and have different dimensions.

    CONAN: So how do we deal with this? What do we do?

    BROSSARD: You know, I wish I could answer that question. I think what we do is like we all put our heads around the issue and try to find a way, all of us, you know, that are involved in journalism, communication, online communication, and that actually we believe that it’s important, as you do in your show by having callers call and be part of the conversation. It’s important to have that conversation. But how do we foster a constructive conversation? And I think what we need to define now on the, you know, like on the Web, what is a good conversation? What are the things that are allowed socially? Also, as an audience, what do we let happen there?

    Because what happen right now is, you know, as I sense elsewhere, it seems to be like the Wild West. The trolls are winning. Now people, you know, they are used to see people being very outrageous in those comments, and then they won’t comment because they don’t want to be, you know, included in this type of discussion. So I think we need to really move towards how can we moderate those comments in a way that’s good for everybody?

    CONAN: So we want to hear from those of you involved in online communications. How do you deal with flamers or, well, do you anticipate their comments and adjust your articles accordingly? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We’ll start with Brett, and Brett’s on the line with us from Phoenix.

    BRETT: Yeah, hi. Very interesting. I have been commenting mostly at the New York Times on many of the stories that I read, especially in the opinion section. And for example, I just read Paul Krugman’s very good article, I believe, in the last day. And I find that it adds layers of depth to the overall opinion piece or article that I don’t get in the article itself in many cases. And I’ve been reading these comments for a number of years.

    I would like to say one thing, though. I kind of disagree with the person on the show to say that we have to, quote, foster or moderate. I think this is a reality of today’s online, and I don’t see how it’s any different than going to a town meeting where you might have a few hecklers and people in the audience. But still, the conversation goes on and information can be exchanged. So I’ll take my answer off the air.

    CONAN: Just a comment, Brett. I think that the New York Times and other places, too, will have people remove comments that are considered offensive.

    BROSSARD: Exactly.

    BRETT: Right. And I don’t think they have to be heavily edited or moderated. I do want to hear divergent points of view, and I appreciate that.

    CONAN: OK. That’s a different point and, I think, a good one. Dominique Brossard?

    BROSSARD: Yes, indeed. And I hope, you know, I won’t be misunderstood, really not my intention to suggest that we need to heavily edit comments, and I do believe, indeed, that you can have an excellent, you know, comments that follow an article and bring a lot to the conversation. As a matter of fact, we had – a colleague of mine had an opinion editorial in the New York Times last Sunday, and you know, like, the readers brought amazing good points that really added value to our piece.

    Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. And to give you another example, our research was covered in the Journal Sentinel here in Milwaukee, and we got some comments that were totally disconnected to the topic of the article and were, you know, borderline offensive. So every newspaper, every media organization has, you know, different ways to deal with this. And the question is, and I agree with your caller, where you do you draw the line? You don’t want to be censoring opinions, but you don’t want to allow, neither, points that are, you know, out of topic and that are offensive to the other people that are discussing.

    CONAN: Let’s get Mike on the line. Mike’s on the line with us from Cape Cod.

    MIKE: Good afternoon.

    CONAN: Good afternoon.

    MIKE: I’m an editor of a website about Earth science. And one of the things that we do is we try to edit out comments, delete comments that don’t advance the conversation. I don’t necessarily mean ones that are disagreeing with the point of view or, in the case of science, you’ll get people who are denying the science. We don’t necessarily even weed those out. But the things that are nasty, that are uninformative, that are just sort of someone’s making it up, we just go out of our way and nip those comments in the bud. They’re not advancing the conversation. And just because you have a First Amendment right to have freedom of speech does not mean you have a First Amendment right to express that speech on my website.

    CONAN: I understand that, too, but doesn’t this take up a fair amount of time?

    MIKE: It can. That’s what the delete button is for.


    CONAN: I see. OK. But as there are other journals and other publications that are not – don’t have editors like you to say, well, I don’t know. Maybe this one, maybe not that one.

    MIKE: Yes. I mean, that’s the problem. But I think it’s an obligation. If you’re going to open up the conversation online, you need to be prepared to moderate it and to stay engaged with it. A lot of – where a lot of sites go wrong, whether it’s at federal agencies or at newspapers, is that they open this up and then they let the free-for-all happen, and then they wonder why it goes wrong. If you’re going to have – if you can’t manage the conversation, you shouldn’t open the conversation. Just don’t take comments.

    CONAN: Just as a question of technique, do you respond to, you know, commenters’ questions? I mean, for example, if they ask a factual question, would you say “the answer is 476, Ed” or something like that?

    MIKE: Yes, we will do it. We’ve been known to make corrections or make adjustments or additions to a story and note that, that readers pointed that out.

    CONAN: So there is a hint that there is an intelligence there that is moderating the conversation.

    MIKE: Yes, absolutely. And we owe that to the readers. It’s not easy. It’s not – it does take time, but it – that’s our responsibility, if you’re going to have a conversation. That makes it two-way. Otherwise, you’re just talking at people.

    CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

    MIKE: Thank you.

    CONAN: We’re talking with Dominique Brossard, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of a new study in this month’s Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication on the online nasty effect. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

    And Howard’s on the line, Howard calling from San Antonio.

    HOWARD: Yes, hi. I just was going to comment and say that I have a site, and it’s a soccer site. It’s americanizesoccer.com. And with a name like that, you can imagine that there’s a lot of people who disagree and are very upset that here I am stating some of the rules in soccer may need to change and – for Americans to like the game better. So I know ahead of time that people are not going to agree with what I’m saying.

    But what I try to do and because I’ve had so many people comment and so – the trolls that you talk about – people just out there just make horrible comments just for the heck of it, I try to be as clear, concise. I try to make common sense. And in the end, people are going to disagree, but at least I can feel good about the fact that I’ve written the article to try to explain exactly why, and the Americanized soccer is a thing that we should look for, for the future in soccer.

    CONAN: Well, I don’t – I will not agree or disagree about Americanized soccer, but I will appreciate your difficulties in writing about something that people, as you suggest, feel so passionately about. So I don’t envy your editing tasks.

    HOWARD: Exactly. And thank you for allowing me to comment.

    CONAN: Thanks very much, Howard. And let’s see if we go next to – this is…

    BROSSARD: Neal, if I can say something.

    CONAN: Go ahead, please.

    BROSSARD: I think it’s important to keep in mind, I think your callers, you know, it was great to hear that they wanted to establish a fruitful conversation with their readership. But I think the point that you brought up earlier, which is related to the volume, is extremely important. I mean, how can you deal like – our opinion editorial in the New York Times, you know, had 400 comments after two hours. So they just stopped allowing, you know, those comments to be posted.

    So the problem is really a question of human power, or how can you deal with this? And I think that’s where we are right now. And you do have different companies that are trying to develop different ways of having automated ways of moderating the comments, you know, but this is complicated. You need to have intelligent algorithms that let you, you know, still keep the essence of the conversation and not be too harsh in eliminating the ones that do not feed the flow, for example.

    CONAN: Here’s a tweet from Jessie Hudgens: “I try to engage with trolls. Often, gentle pushback can lead to concessions and convert rants into fruitful debate.” And again, that’s the moderated question, but what if you got 400 of them? And that’s the point that Dominique Brossard just made. Matisse is on the line calling from San Francisco.

    MATISSE: Hi, there. So I have about 25 years of experience in online discussion forums because I started using and eventually became an employee of and then continue to use a system called The WELL, which was one of the early online discussion systems. And my comments or observation is that a technique that is not a silver bullet but has tremendous value is to not allow anonymous commentary.

    So, for example, if people must use their real name and it is linked to, say, their zip code, if there’s a national or international forum, and backed by the use of a credit card, not that they have to pay in order to make a comment, but that it’s backed to a real verified identity, that it helps a lot. Obviously, NPR uses, like, a much more – higher-cost technique of screening every caller…

    CONAN: Yes.

    MATISSE: …before they’re allowed on the air. And you can’t do that if you’re getting 400 in two hours. But if you restrict comments to people who are publicly identified by their real name and do not allow anonymous…

    CONAN: And I don’t mean to cut you off, Matisse, I just wanted to give Dominique Brossard a chance to respond. Is the cloak of anonymity a problem here?

    BROSSARD: Well, actually, it does help to some extent to have, you know, way to link the commenter to some kind of identity. But it’s not foolproof either. And, for example, that news story I was commenting on, that generated a lot of nasty comments for our own, you know, study, you had to actually log in with your Facebook account to this.

    CONAN: Ah.

    BROSSARD: So – and still we got a fair number of the – we got more than 170 comments, so our numbers are very good. Ones, you know – when I say good, it’s like either they disagree or agree, but in, you know, constructive terms. And we still got the nasty ones. So let’s say that didn’t prevent the trolls from invading our space.

    CONAN: And, Matisse, thanks very much. As you suggest, not a silver bullet, but perhaps helpful. Our guest was Dominique Brossard, co-author of a new study on the Web’s nasty effect. She joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, and we thank her very much for her time. Tomorrow, doctors work through on pot prescriptions. Join us for that. I’m Neal Conan, it’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

    Here is another.



    This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I’m Ira Flatow. When you read a news article online, how much attention do you pay to the comments that follow at the bottom? What about how many times the story has been re-tweeted or how many Facebook likes it has? Do you pay attention to those?

    A recent piece published in the journal Science found that all of these things can influence how readers feel about a topic, even if they don’t realize it. So how does the online environment impact the public’s perception of science? Can just the tone of the comments sway people’s opinions about an article on, say, stem cells, climate change, even nanotechnology? Are comments sections still effective ways to spark discussions, or are they now breeding grounds for misinformation, and we’ve all seen how online trolls work.

    In fact, we put this question out this week on our Twitter: Does moderating comments violate freedom of speech? And can such discussion of the question on our website, responses – you can see that discussion, and they were overwhelmingly in favor of moderating comments. That’s what our Twitter audience thought when we put that out earlier in the week.

    So we’re going to talk about what some of the pitfalls of communicating science online are, and how can we avoid them and deal with them in the new normal about how science is published online and what’s going on there. Let me introduce my guests.

    Dominique Brossard is lead author of the Science paper, which was titled “Science, New Media and the Public.” She is a professor at the Department of Life Science Communication at the University of Madison – University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she joins us from Madison. Welcome to the program.


    FLATOW: You’re welcome. Bora Zivkovic is the blog editor at Scientific American and organizer of the ScienceOnline Conference, which is going on right now in Raleigh, North Carolina. He joins us by phone from the conference. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

    BORA ZIVKOVIC: Great to be there, thank you.

    FLATOW: Thank you. John Hawks is a science blogger and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He joins us from Salt Lake City. Welcome to the program.

    JOHN HAWKS: Thanks.

    FLATOW: Dr. Brossard, tell us a bit about your piece in Science. Apart from the content of the article itself, what kinds of things did you find that could influence readers’ opinions? Tell us what you studied.

    BROSSARD: Well, we’ve been interested for quite a long time, let’s say two or three years here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, investigating the effect of the online context for public perception of science. We have noticed that indeed people are moving from traditional outlets to actually rely much more on online environments to find out about science, let’s say through searching or, you know, going to blogs and not going to traditional, mainstream newspaper outlets.

    So the question remained, though: What type of effects do those new environments have, you know, on public perception of science and public understanding of science? And one of the things that we know that are very different in that online environment are those comments that people post on blogs or the potential likes, you know, that people put on their Facebook to show that they appreciate a particular piece or the number of ways people tweet about a particular topic.

    But however, there is really not much as far as in people evidence showing us how much this impacts how people feel about science. So basically there was a starting point. It’s like how can we rely on social science to help us understand how these new media environments will influence the public about, you know, that (unintelligible) science in the United States. And what can we do to actually offer the best possible environment for this audience to interact with the scientific content in a productive way?

    And the study that you mentioned that called, you know, for a lot of attention around the online environment lately was that particular study that looked at the tone of comments. What happened when people are rude, you know, following a story that otherwise is very well-written?

    And we chose the topic of nanotechnology because like a lot of new, emerging technology, new scientific topics, this is relatively unknown for the vast majority of the American public. So what happened when you find a story well-written, by a good science writer, that actually is followed by comments that may not be always extremely polite?

    So if you did a study, randomly assigned people to different conditions, some people saw polite comments, other people saw the same comments but just, you know, with rude language such as idiot, et cetera. And what we found is that people that were exposed to those rude comments tend to become polarized about the issue that was covering the story, which was nanotechnology.

    So basically just being exposed to rude comments, even if the content of the comments themselves was the same, made people react differently to the content of the story. So the question is therefore: What do we do, right, to encourage better understanding?

    FLATOW: Do you have a suggestion?

    BROSSARD: Well, I mean, and that’s interesting because, you know, like my colleagues who are practicing bloggers and extremely fruitful doing so, that are on the show tonight, today, can actually tell us what they think. But what we can, you know, basically say is that right now, you know, it’s much more the choice of the blogger himself or herself to decide how to manage those comments and not a lot of empirical evidence as far as how to do so.

    What our study suggests is that indeed even, you know, slightly rude comments because, I mean, we were not even investigating trolling, we were not investigating, you know, how disruptive behavior, which obviously from a common-sense perspective, you know, everybody would take out from their comments thread, right. We’re just showing, like, people that were getting a little bit, you know, into the discussion so much as to say you idiot, I think you should think like me, or obviously there are, you know, benefits related to this, you know, this technology.

    FLATOW: So even the tamer comments were influencing how people thought about the research?

    BROSSARD: Exactly. So it was – that’s the thing, and that’s where, you know, when you asked me what we should do, I think obviously we should get rid of anything that’s not polite, That doesn’t follow civil discourse. And then we should, you know, discuss what does it mean to have a civil discussion online.

    What are the social norms that we strive to establish in this environment, such as we have social norm, let’s say, in – at the dinner table, right, where some things are, you know, implicitly not allowed because it’s not something that should be, you know, considered polite. What is a polite, you know, behavior in the online environment? And I think we haven’t yet decided what are those social norms.

    FLATOW: Now we’re going to talk about it. That’s what we’re talking about this hour. I want to get into that and other issues. Dominique Brossard, how do you deal with it? And I know you’ve been very vocal on the Internet in the last few weeks about – I’m sorry, Bora, how do you deal with it on your website?

    ZIVKOVIC: Well, my website is hosted on Scientific American. So it is traditional media, which has a reputation and a brand as, you know, a 167-year-old magazine. So I cannot treat it exactly the same as I would me, you know, personal blog, kept completely independently somewhere there. So I need to keep always in mind that our site is an educational site where people come through searches or recommendations to learn about science.

    And so this kind of discourse in comments is very important for me, and the study was very insightful to me that just the tone of comments can skew how our readers are learning about science because stuff that goes on our site is vetted in some way that it is corrected. It is accurate science. And so the idea that commenters may skew that is something that makes me nervous as an editor of our blogs.

    FLATOW: So do you believe that they should be moderated, these blogs?

    ZIVKOVIC: Yes, I think the ideas about comment amelioration have changed over the past, you know, 10 or 15 years, that these things exist online. In the beginning, I think there was the idea that this should be a free forum. And now there are so many free fora out there that I don’t think a site like Scientific American should provide a free form for everything and everybody and all kinds of online fights to happen in our comments because I think the free speech applies to the Web as a whole, not to any particular site.

    And I think the host of the site has to keep in mind what is the goal of the site, what is the reason why the site exists. If it’s educational, then these kinds of comments need to go. And it’s perfectly OK. It’s perfectly legal to do it. So I think we need to have our readers in mind first and act appropriately.

    FLATOW: John Hawks, you’re a science blogger and a scientist, a professor of anthropology. You have definite opinions about this also, don’t you?

    HAWKS: Absolutely. I started blogging nine years ago, and when I started, I didn’t have tenure. And so I was very nervous about, you know, putting my opinions out there and having people read them who might evaluate me. And so I sort of developed a voice that allowed me to be able to be critical of scientific research studies without being polarizing.

    And I think one of the interesting things about what Dominique is finding with online forums is that the scientific literature is sort of like this. You know, it has these interactions. People submit comments to journals. Sometimes they put a lot of fire and personal invective into them, and it has always polarized the kind of work that I’m involved with.

    Our research is in human evolution and genetics, and there are some big personalities in that field and some strong feelings. And you see people publish letters to the editor, and it just drives you crazy sometimes.

    FLATOW: So you don’t allow any comments on your site.

    HAWKS: Yeah, I began – I began my site without comments. I could just see that it really took a lot of effort to create a community where you had people able to be confident that they could write what they were thinking and not be trolled and not have a lot of rudeness, you know, put on them.

    So I began without comments. I experimented from time to time, you know, allowing comments on certain things. And I just have to say it is an enormous amount of work to look through what people are publishing and try to really encourage that community to build.

    So I admire people who are able to do that online.

    FLATOW: If they want to troll or get rude, start your own blog is basically what you’re saying, stay off of mine.

    HAWKS: Yeah, I started my own blog. Yeah, exactly. You know, I pay for my server. I have my own independent site. And if somebody wants to criticize me, they’re welcome to. If they – if I write something that they don’t like, they can send me a letter, and I will be happy to publish their thoughts about it. But the reality is that if somebody just wants to hang around and lob comments on things, I would rather that they spent the effort to build their own reputation that gave people a reason to listen to what they had to say.

    FLATOW: All right, we’ll take a short break, we’ll come back and talk lots more about this. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. My guests are Dominique Brossard, Bora Zivkovic and John Hawks. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break. Don’t go away. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, and you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


    FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the impact of the Internet and bloggers and commentaries on how the public perceives science. My guests are Dominique Brossard, professor in the Department of Life Sciences – Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; Bora Zivkovic, blog editor at Scientific American and organizer of the ScienceOnline Conference that’s going on this week; John Hawks, science blogger, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

    Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Does science, technology, health, medicine occupy a special niche in reporting and the way that commentaries and commenting should be handled on a website, as opposed to entertainment, even politics? You know people are going to badmouth and do all kinds of stuff there, but it might be – and that doesn’t matter on those kinds of sites. Does it matter more, Bora, on a science site, where the research itself, if I read Dominique’s research – her file, her piece that she published – is actually distorted, gets to be distorted by listening to the commentaries?

    ZIVKOVIC: I agree. Maybe it’s my bias because I come from science, and I’m now in the media. I think that when it comes to science, health and technology, this is less the matter of opinion and more or less of, well, what are the data saying about it. So I think the – kind of the he-said-she-said type of journalism is probably the least prominent now in science reporting, compared to, you know, political or others – but also because science bloggers bring expertise.

    Many of them are working scientists or used to be working scientists. They are kind of the area of reporting or area in the media which was the first to, kind of, breach that wall, you know, the old war between journalism bloggers. I think journalism bloggers are now one and the same and working together and teaching each other and learning from each other and, kind of, together building this new ecosystem for online media reporting.

    And, you know, we are here today at NC State campus with 450 people who are on the cutting edge of that, and it’s really hard to say who is a blogger, who is a journalist, who is something else. Everybody is wearing multiple hats and seeing the things from all the angles.

    So I think the science writers and journalists and science bloggers are – have been working together now for several years to improve the overall level and quality of science coverage, online and in other outlets. And one of the first things to go is to assign equal – let’s say an equal truth value to all the opinions that are out there, because there are data that support a particular statement and no data that are supporting the opposite statement. So why let the opposite statement even go there.

    That can be in the politics section or when you’re discussing ideology or why people believe weird things. But when you’re straight-out science reporting, there’s really no need to include or allow inclusion of opinions that are completely unscientific.

    FLATOW: But we live in an age, at least in the United States, where some people, now, in the last few years, possibly politically oriented, say that, you know, science is just another matter of opinion, you know.

    ZIVKOVIC: Yeah, that’s their opinion. That doesn’t mean that opinion is correct, either. Because unlike other opinions, scientific opinion has to be backed up by empirical information, by empirical data, and it’s a self-correcting – at least long-term – self-correcting endeavor. So an individual scientist may have biases or opinions, but science as a whole is a way of knowledge that actually is trying to represent nature as it really is.

    FLATOW: John Hawks, how do you feel about this?

    HAWKS: You know, I’m an American. I’m skeptical of people that have a lot of power. I don’t think that we are spending our science dollars in the most efficient way in lots of respects. But I understand, as a scientist, that skepticism is important to science. And you have to play at a very high level of knowledge, of understanding what data are, of understanding what scientific methods are and how they work in order to make scientific progress.

    There is a reason why we attribute an authority to scientists who have spent the time to understand an issue and are reporting to the best of their ability the data that they see relative to that issue. And I think that there’s a misunderstanding of science, that somehow scientists are human – that’s true – but then that somehow makes science just a matter of their opinion.

    In fact, their opinion can’t last in science unless it comports with what the data are showing us. And…

    FLATOW: Let me – I’m sorry.

    BROSSARD: Can…?

    FLATOW: Go ahead, Dominique.

    BROSSARD: Yes, so just to represent it again, I’m coming from a social science perspective that look at how scientific information is processed, by say, the (unintelligible). And I think we need to keep in mind that no – to some extent no reporting is unbiased. I mean, no – like everything that is written about science, or anything else, will be processed by audiences in the context of their own value predisposition, the context of what we call the perceptual filter that help them make sense of that information.

    So when the Scientific American blogs about a particular issue, the readers will interpret the information, even if it’s presented in the most objective possible way, in light of what they already have stored in their memory that helps them make sense of that information.

    So when we get back to what we want to accomplish with scientific reporting, which I think is at the core of the matter here. If we want to enlighten, you know, let’s say, the vast majority of the American public – and you all mentioned, and some people in the United States may think that scientists, you know, information is just an opinion – well, if you want to change this, my question is how do we do that.

    And what I’m concerned about is that by that heavy emphasis on science blogging by scientists, that at the end of the day will mostly be read by a population of people that are already interested in science, that already are, you know, the audience that doesn’t have that, let’s say, that, you know, like, subjective view of science.

    Are we missing the boat, to some extent? The mainstream news outlet, where you have science that’s reported in the middle of other type of issues, may be the way to reach that – those audiences. And our research has shown that indeed, the people that do go to the Internet to look for information about science, tend to be more educated, and slightly more males do so, than the general audience.

    So, you know, like on the one hand, indeed, you know, like science bloggers are doing a great job. They have their blogs. They try to be as, you know, respectful of science as an enterprise as possible. But on the other hand, are we still replacing on the Internet, you know, what we have seen happen before with science museums, for example, science museums where you have already interested audiences that go there, you know, to find out more about science.

    But basically they are not the one who would need it the most.

    FLATOW: Let’s go the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Nina(ph) in Santa Cruz, hi Nina.

    NINA: Hi there, good morning. I’d like to ask the panel of what their opinion of what they think about Yelp? Yelp is a little different in that they mostly make money off of the negative review. Because when you get a negative review as a business, you have to sort of rally the troops, as it were. You have to get everybody from your mom and your brother, your customers to respond to the negative reviews because ordinarily, people don’t write a good reviews.

    They want to go someplace to complain. You know, Yelp is a giant complaint board. So I’m wondering what your panel thinks about this conflict of interest and how it’s affecting online reviews.

    FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, Nina. That brings us – I’m glad Nina brought that up. She was reading my mind because I was reading today that Google has submitted an antitrust proposal to the EU because Google has been sued a couple of times – I think, at least once by the United States, it’s dropped that suit and won that suit, Google did – about the fact that they massage – and maybe Yelp does the same thing – the accusation that when you Google something, they massage the kind of information they want to send you back for their own purposes.

    And you may not find what you’re looking for.

    HAWKS: That’s what I found very interesting about Dominique’s publication is that they really thought about the way that how we find information online, how Google is giving us search results, is changing the way that people are actually learning about scientific topics. And I know that people hit my blog from Google, and it’s completely things that I would never predict that I turn out to be what they find. And sometimes, the things that I’m most committed to, that I’m really the world expert on, I’m not on the top page of Google rankings. So it is really becoming a matter of algorithms how we discover things.

    BROSSARD: Yeah, exactly, John, you couldn’t have put it better, and this is something we saw most particularly in the context of nanotechnology when we try – when we tracked the keywords that people were using to search, you know, the issue of nanotechnology. And then, you know, we looked at the content they were likely to find, and we saw that, indeed, they were most likely to find content really to help even if at the start – as a starting point, they were looking for something (unintelligible) the nanotechnology and the environment.

    So sophisticated algorithm that are based on volume of keyword searchers that are based on things like how often, you know, a specific story is forward through email, how many links you have on your website, et cetera. And honestly, we – hard to have access to the actual algorithm. We try to do that because it’s constantly revisited to be able to reflect, you know, basically try to guess what people are looking for. And I think in the context of science, this is really problematic, because let’s say going back to that issue of nanotechnology, it could be any issue, even evolution if you wanted to be more broader and, you know, something that more social implications right now.

    But basically, we may give like a false perception of all the dimensions that can be attached to an issue by, you know, like letting those searchers govern to some extent the public discourse. It seems that basically, you know, people like you, John and Bora, that are doing the best you can to enlighten the public with really sound information about science. You have less power, let’s say, than the algorithm behind Google.

    FLATOW: Yeah. That’s for sure. Let’s go to Paul in Panama City, Florida. Hi, Paul.

    PAUL: Hey. Thanks for taking my call.

    FLATOW: Go ahead.

    PAUL: I just wanted to say I rarely comment on any pieces that I read. But in my general Internet usage, if I’m not specifically researching something, when I come across a video or a piece that has the comments disabled, I just make it a habit, you know, eight or nine times out of 10 I just ignore it, and there’s two reasons for it. First, I’m an adult, you know, I’m able to discern the intentions of the trolls and people who oppose whatever they’re commenting on. And, you know, that can help me make my own decision.

    The second, and more importantly, if you’re willing to post an opinion, a belief, a statement, work, research, whatever, and you’re not willing to discuss it, there’s something in that that’s visceral that just makes me not want to engage. And, you know, it’s hard to explain but…

    FLATOW: Well, let me have you talk…

    PAUL: …what sounds like (unintelligible).

    FLATOW: Well, let me have you talk to John Hawks who doesn’t allow anybody to comment on his…


    FLATOW: …website. John?

    HAWKS: Well, I completely understand that attitude. You know, I want to see what the diversity of people think, but there’s a lot of information sources out there where you can find out that diversity and (unintelligible).


    PAUL: Right. When I’m looking for – when I’m looking specifically at researching, I’ll ignore that rule. But I mean your point earlier about trolls leaching off the reputations of, you know, the people they’re commenting against, I mean that’s very well taken. But I really believe that most people are intelligent enough to look past the trolls and to the deeper issue.

    FLATOW: Well, we all hope so, Paul.


    FLATOW: Thank you very much.

    PAUL: Thank you.

    FLATOW: Our number, 1-800-989-8255. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow here with Dominique Brossard, Bora Zivkovic and John Hawks. You can also tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. I’m going to read a couple of the tweets that came in. CGino(ph) says: When it comes to science and tech, it’s less a matter of an opinion than when it comes to – I imagine – other things. All kinds of stuff like that. Can I ask the panel about crowd funding for research? What do we think about that? Crowd funding for research.

    ZIVKOVIC: I really, really like this idea, especially with the new – kind of new world of science funding where the reduction of funds, there’s a lot of researchers looking for money and less and less money for it. So I’m looking with great interest at all the new endeavors for people for doing crowd funding. There’s three or four organizations or companies now that are organizing or coordinating crowd funding. For now, those are not going to be $5 million grants. People are asking for, you know, several thousand dollars for small projects that can be pilot projects that can then be turned into bigger grants for NIH or NSF funding.

    But what I find very interesting about it is in order to crowd fund even, you know, several hundred dollars, one has to actually engage with potential donors which are the anonymous public. So you can’t just write the grant proposal or, you know, make a video and put it online and hope that people will drop, you know, $5 for your project. You have to actually actively engage with them in order to sell them on the idea that they should fund your project. You have to promise them that once you get funded and do the project, they’ll be the first to know, maybe get something extra out of it for some extra reputation for funding a project that worked out well.

    So it’s a very, very nascent field. It really started just within the last year or two. It’s very, very interesting to watch how that is going to change the way researchers are interacting with the public if the public is directly funding them from their own pockets out of their own choices what they want to fund.

    FLATOW: Quick question before we go to the break from James(ph) in Phoenix. Hi, James.

    Hey. Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.


    JAMES: I understand the opposition, the comments and posts, and both sides are very interesting. However, my question about bad info. I’ve been doing some research on vaccinations, and it seems I cannot find a story on that, where there’s somebody trying to say that, you know, they’ve just proven vaccine, autism today where conversations don’t take that corner. So this essentially becomes a political debate, not related to science. I’m wondering if what the panel thoughts were on some kind of editorial discretion and the likes.

    FLATOW: How would the…

    ZIVKOVIC: I would say it really depends on the site. And there are bloggers who focus on this particular issue, and they actually provide a forum for discussing this and providing all the necessary information to counter those claims. A site like Scientific America has to be much more careful about it because all the comments are – that are published on Scientific American are published on Scientific American. So it is as if we did it, so we have to be a little bit more careful what kind of information to allow and then how to counter it the best way so people – the 90 percent who never comment, the onlookers, the readers get the right message in the end and I understand that people are coming to every news piece with their own preconception…

    FLATOW: All right

    ZIVKOVIC: …with their own worldviews. But over time, people do change their minds. Nobody is changing their mind immediately.

    FLATOW: All right, Bora. I got to interrupt though. We’ll take a break and we’ll pick this up right after the break. So stay with us. We’ll be right back. I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


    FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the Internet impacts public perception to science and scientific research. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let’s go in the few we have left to Phil(ph) in Rochester, New York – in New Rochelle. I’m sorry. Phil in New Rochelle, welcome.

    BILL: Yeah. Hi, Ira, only it’s Bill(ph). I see a lot of people in blogs that make scientific comments. They’re a complete balderdash. I saw one this morning where a fellow said that it was the coldest ever in Alaska, minus Haiti. That proves it there’s no such thing as global warming. And you see so many of these things, and they all support each other. And I’m starting to think of it as a superstition. And I wonder – I liked to hear Professor Brossard’s comment on that.

    BROSSARD: Well, I mean, you raise a good point, which is that people will comment on and, you know, and try to portray their opinions about something. And I think these sort of question, what do you do with these kind of comments? And I think what would be important to keep in mind is that in this case, the person who’s reporting, the blogger, may have an opportunity by interjecting in the discussion, within the comment and thread, to, you know, bring the discussion to a point where people realize that this is something that shouldn’t be taken into account. So I’m – to be honest, like a proponent of the blogger, be more, you know, involved in the moderation by reacting, redeem the comments thread. And I realize that it’s also not possible because of the volume of the comments themselves.

    FLATOW: Good point.

    BROSSARD: But on the other hand, research shows that discussion does increase learning. So, you know, like if you have a text and people discuss it afterwards, you know, that increase the potential for people to learn about it. So how can we do that in a conservatively way on line?

    FLATOW: Bora, how do you do the – do you just block the blogger or do you use that, as a Dominique is suggesting, as a teaching moment?

    ZIVKOVIC: I agree with Dominique completely. And in the piece I wrote last week about this topic, that was kind of the main point I was making, that the most important part of moderation of comments is for the author of the piece to show up. And often just by the fact that the author showed up, the tone changes. People say, oh, this is actually not just a, you know, a bathroom wall. This is actually somebody’s place and somebody’s watching and moderating and – their discussion and leading the discussion. And suddenly, people tone down. And many people who are coming in just to, you know, troll for ideology careers may decide not to join in because they sense it is a more controlled environment. And then those debates can happen, and it can be very constructive and very instructive and educational for the onlookers.

    FLATOW: Mm-hmm. That’s a good point. Let’s go to Derrick(ph) in Fort Myers, Florida. Hi, Derrick.

    DERRICK: Hi. How are you doing?

    FLATOW: Hi there. You’re on.

    DERRICK: Hello?

    FLATOW: Derrick, you’re there. Can you hear us?

    DERRICK: Yeah, I’m here.

    FLATOW: Turn your radio off.

    I can hear you.

    Yeah. Go ahead.

    DERRICK: Well, I just – I wanted to say that I worked for Detroit Free Press as a writer for 23 years. And we went through the system where we allowed readers to comment on every story. I mean, our names and emails and phone numbers were on the bottom of every story. It got to the point where it was so toxic, the commentary, that we finally switched to a system where they could no longer be anonymous. They had to sign on through a Facebook system. And that got rid, I would say, of 90 some odd percent of the real masochists because a lot of these people, you know, I mean, they’re cowards. And they were just looking for a place to sit and throw bombs. And when they could no longer do that, you know, from behind a screen of anonymity, it made a huge change.

    FLATOW: Interesting.

    ZIVKOVIC: I would like…

    HAWKS: We…

    ZIVKOVIC: …to respond to this, just that it’s a very important distinction between anonymous and pseudo-anonymous.

    BROSSARD: Yeah.

    ZIVKOVIC: A heading, a consistent pseudonym is very important for people who, maybe because where they work or who they are, would not otherwise be able to inject very important information into the conversation because of the fear of reprisal. On the other hand, I’ve seen people very proudly writing very noxious things under their own names.

    FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dominique, did you want to jump in there?

    BROSSARD: Well, I mean, I think the caller brings a good point. I think it is easier for people, you know, like they’re not tying up their name to be ruined in their own environment. But I think we should also bring back the discussion to what our piece was trying to show, that it’s not – we’re not talking about, you know, like outrageous trolling online. We were talking about where do we draw that fine line into, like, what’s acceptable or not? And I think, you know, common sense would say, let’s get rid of people that are not, like, let’s get rid of feelings, let’s get rid of comments that are not following the topic of discussion. Like, you know, like, if we’re talking about nanotechnology and you have a climate change denier or, you know, comment that shows up. Obviously, we shouldn’t leave that and also people that are outrageously rude.

    But how can we, you know, make sure that we do leave things that are constructive but are not disruptive of the discussion? And that’s the thing that I think we need to really ponder as we’re developing into this online world. We don’t have enough evidence right now to actually say what’s the best way to go. We need more research on a whole (unintelligible) crowd of funding, you know, some research that would allow us to develop guidelines that everybody can use. And I think this is really something that we should think about.

    FLATOW: And you’ve got the last – and she has the last word today. I’m sorry we have to let it go. Dominique Brossard is professor in the department of life science communications at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Bora Zivkovic is the blog editor at Scientific American and the organizer of the ScienceOnline conference, big conference which are going on right now in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bora writes at A Blog Around The Clock. And John Hawks is a science blogger and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

    HAWKS: Thank you.

    ZIVKOVIC: Thanks for having us.

    BROSSARD: Thank you.

    FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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