Arbor Books: Complaints Rise When Forums Go Bad
(New York, NY)—When does a forum go from a font of facts to a sewer of snarkiness, a cult of kooks or a den of defamation?
Complaints are on the rise as the posts of unrestrained commenters and the inaction of irresponsible forum moderators continue to mount. This is becoming a major issue both for the subjects of the attacks and people who are trying to find relevant and helpful information.
For those seeking facts, the question is: When in a forum, how can we distinguish the truth from the blather? How do you know if an anonymous commenter isn’t simply a competitor offering up malicious and unfounded lies? Or a disgruntled employee settling a score? Or an imposter posing as an expert? Or a late-night drunken provocateur? Or just a troll?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t know. Nobody knows who or what anyone is on the Internet. As the two talking canines in the famous Peter Steiner “New Yorker” cartoon so aptly illustrated, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
But a dose of critical thinking mixed with some general guidelines might make it easier to sift through what Google CEO Eric Schmidt called a “cesspool” where false information is growing exponentially. It’s fairly easy to spot when a particular forum goes bad, forgoes truthfulness for truthiness and ramps up into lying, libeling, obsessive-compulsive mode.
Usually the target of attack will be barraged by words such as “scam,” “liar,” “fraud,” “satanic,” and “complaint.” It’s a blitzkrieg of ruthless disparagement, the more outrageous the better. During the fusillade, one anonymous poster after another will begin to pile on with absolute disregard for the truth. Few, if any, positive statements will be made. And then, after the devastating attack of cyber-libel, the thread may lie dormant sometimes for years, but still remain to be discovered on the search engines.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that few forums are self-policing. In fact, many thrive on the freak-show aspect of it all. Let’s face it: A forum’s success is measured in how it brings in the crowds. Filled with the lonely and the lost, they’re the new chat rooms, where anyone with an ax to grind can spew their guts or post their opinions, often passing those opinions as facts. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, many forums have become nothing more than the last refuge of scoundrels.
Compounding the problem are antiquated governmental laws and regulations protecting the cyber-liars and their host forums.
When a forum goes bad or gets hijacked or sidetracked, the results can be devastating to its members and the larger community. This sometimes happens when one person posts a lie and then another poster—who might even be the same poster just another screen name—endorses it.
The problem is that many forum participants and moderators don’t screen for accurate information. They don’t fact check. In many cases, those who contradict a post—especially if the contains misinformation or disinformation that agrees with the moderator’s point of view—come under vicious attack themselves. And moderators rarely intervene. Instead, on some forums, moderators with agendas, prejudices, and biases actively encourage libel.
This flies in the face of an emerging trend on the Internet called “civilogue.” Major news outlets (from “The Wall Street Journal” to “The New York Times”) and some major forums (including Politics Daily and AOL) are changing their member rules and demanding they be civil and not engage in cyber-smears.
Still, some publishing forums cling to cyber-witch hunts, digital public burnings and cyber-lynch mobs. Ironically, in their zest to smear and misinform, commenters on such sites devalue their own forums as places for valuable suggestions.
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