Tag Archives: blog comments

Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter

Dave Statter is a very well-known blogger on fire and EMS issues at statter911.com. I’ve linked there a few times and appreciated him commenting here. Not long ago, he commented on a post about blog comments. I really liked what he had to say and asked if he would prepare a guest post on the topic. Here is some great advice for anyone who engages in blogs or any form of social media. If you haven’t encountered toxic talk yet, you certainly will.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments
You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.
Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of STATter911.com. The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.
As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire. But on the blog — like news websites everywhere — there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy STATter911.com but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues. There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section. I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know… I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify. But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me. I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.

I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you — and your reputation is on the line — I may be able to help. Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks? First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond STATter911.com. My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on thewatchdesk.com. FYI: No language filter on that site! Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.
I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They’re now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

•    I never attack the attackers.
•    I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
•    I explain the why and how of what I do.
•    I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
•    I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
•    I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
•    If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
•    I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love.

When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments.
I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.
A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.
When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.

In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money.
Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here’s why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.

I no longer hear from any of the bullies on thewatchdesk.com. I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.

On STATter911.com the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.
My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

Blog comments–a good thing or bad thing?

When blogs first came out–say about 10 years ago–the ability to comment and enter into a conversation was one of their strongest suits. Now, the internet is dominated by this kind of conversation and interpersonal interaction–but as this Mashable comment points out, comments on blogs may be more controversial than ever.

Personally, the biggest problem I have on crisisblogger is from spam comments. While WordPress does a pretty darn good job of catching most spam, the nasty spammers keep finding ways around it. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen this kind of activity greatly increase with spammers using normal sounding names and nice and complimentary comments. While the spam catchers can’t catch the nuances, the comments are so silly and stupid and vapid that the spammers stand out pretty clearly. I delete them as quickly as I can.

But that is not the real problem with comments on blogs. If you engage in online conversation at all you soon discover what I call Toxic Talk. That apparently is why Engadget is suspending blog comments. Frankly it is incredibly tiresome. I go to my local newspaper The Bellingham Herald and it seems that the majority of people who take the time to comment on stories are mean, nasty, cranky, politically extreme and snarky. It seems the younger the group, the more politically-oriented the blog, and the more the subject lends itself to strong feelings (global warming, Apple computer, religion) the more heated and ugly the discussion is.

What to do about it? First, resist the temptation to get down there with these kind of people. As I learned a long time ago, when you wrestle in the mud with a pig, you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it. Second, monitor and police your comments. Hey, your site (blog, social media or interactive website for crisis or daily use) is your site, its your home, your castle, your turf. You can make the rules and you can enforce them. In the four years or so since I’ve had this blog I’ve only booted a couple people off for violating one of my strict rules–treat everyone with respect. No personal attacks and everyone has a right to be heard and responded to respectfully. Violate that and you’ll be treated like a spammer. Third, understand that there still is value in the interaction. I think Engadget is wrong. Yes, it is tiresome and annoying. Make rules, stick with them, but don’t discount the value of the conversation.

This is especially true in today’s crisis communication. Your stakeholders and publics need a multitude of ways to communicate with you and let you know how they are feeling. New social media such as Twitter and Facebook facilitate that to a greater degree than ever. But don’t let the noisy, uncouth toxic talkers allow you to plug up your ears from those who have something valuable to say, and don’t let them put you in a corner of someone who isn’t interested in diverse opinions.