From an editor of Scientific American, regarding comments on his Scientific American blog:
The same goes for climate change. It is a fact that global warming is true. And it is also a well established fact that humans played a big role in it. And the notion that if we broke it we should fix it is what responsible humans do. Thus, an article about a new study about climate or weather or energy or infrastructure is not a proper forum for debating the well-established facts. There is no debate there. Thus, such comments need to be deleted.
Now let’s go back to the very beginning of this post and the forthcoming article about the effect the tone of comments affects readers. If we leave the creationist or denialist troll comments up, what does it do to the rest of the readers? It polarizes them, it makes them more certain about things than what their actual knowledge warrants, while at the same time repelling experts from wading into the mud-pool to correct, over and over again, the untrue statements and anti-facts posted by denialist trolls.
How do you decide what is a trolling comment?
The first definition of trolling is ‘posting comments in order to derail the discussion’, to take it away from the topic of the original article and onto a topic the commenter wants to discuss – his/her own pet peeve.
If you want your comment threads to remain clean and civil, and to stick to the topic in the article, you HAVE to delete off-topic comments.
So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling. Any comment that contains the word “Monsanto” instantly flies into the spam folder.
If I write about a wonderful weekend mountain trek, and note I saw some flowers blooming earlier than they used to bloom years ago, then a comment denying climate change is trolling. I am a biologist, so I don’t write specifically about climate science as I do not feel I am expert enough for that. So, I am gradually teaching my spam filter to automatically send to spam any and every comment that contains the words “warmist”, “alarmist”, “Al Gore” or a link to Watts. A comment that contains any of those is, by definition, not posted in good faith. By definition, it does not provide additional information relevant to the post. By definition, it is off-topic. By definition, it contains erroneous information. By definition, it is ideologically motivated, thus not scientific. By definition, it is polarizing to the silent audience. It will go to spam as fast I can make it happen.
For a science site, every comment that insert non-scientific, anti-scientific, nonsensical, ideologically or religiously motivated anti-facts, is by definition not just trolling, but spam. Like online Viagra sales. Literally! There is more and more evidence that a small subset of trolling posts (e.g., those aggressively promoting climate denialism) may be paid for by astroturf organizations funded by some vested interest groups. By peppering every article and post that can remotely have anything to do with their topic of choice, they provide an illusion that their pet movement is bigger than it really is, or that support for their position is more widespread than it really is (which then, if it works, results in the actual rise in the support for their anti-science positions). This then encourages the others (after they got persuaded quickly, without having their own sufficient knowledge, as the nanotechnology paper showed) to keep posting additional comments for free. The first troll comments are supposed to be seeds for more trolling. Which is why it is essential to cut them at the root. You do not want to provide a free platform for a paid political operation.
I am certainly not using cowardly, mealy-mouthed He-Said-She-Said mode of writing my own posts, so I will also not allow for a He-Said-She-Said pseudo-debate to develop in my comment threads. You don’t like it? Deal with it. Go and complain in the comments on Watts’ posts, or on your Facebook wall.
And the idea that deleting inappropriate comments reinforces the formation of “echo-chambers” is a complete myth. Plenty of different opinions are out there, many more of them much more easily available than before the Web. The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.
My own moderation rules
You are reading this on my own, personal blog. I know, the distinction is fuzzy. The blog is hosted on Scientific American, and I am an editor at Scientific American, thus this blog is in some way a public face of the organization. But writing this blog (or even hosting it on this site) is specifically not included in my contract and in my job description. This remains my own, personal blog. I host it here because it makes sense to me – it is easy (I am here all the time anyway), it feels natural, and it provides me a greater visibility than if I self-hosted it elsewhere.
Now, I am aware I represent the organization in public. Thus, I am very careful that everything that goes up on this blog is following the range of topics and the discourse standards of SciAm. If I think something I have to say does not really fit here, I post it on my Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Tumblr. And even there I am aware that I am still seen as a public face of SciAm so I am careful what kind of language I use, how I behave, etc. Deleting trolls, and not providing a platform for anti-science ideas, is good behavior for a scientist, a science writer, and an editor at Scientific American. It demonstrates I care for the truth.