"The registration requirement did significantly discourage and reduce the number of 'fly-by' commenters, many not even from our community, from posting snarky, disrespectful and often incendiary comments that our moderators needed to edit or remove," Johnson said.
After seeking feedback and input from readers and holding two virtual community meetings, the Town Square editors considered additional changes, which are in the process of being implemented.
The most significant change, which will be completed in several weeks by the company's software developers, will create a "pre-moderation" function that will automatically delay the posting of comments by newly registered users until a moderator has reviewed and released them to the site. That preview process will remain in effect until a moderator clears that user to post directly to the site.
Similarly, existing posters can be switched to pre-moderated status if a moderator determines they are undermining the goals of Town Square by attacking other commenters, repeatedly violating the Town Square terms of service or not sticking to the topic.
An added benefit of this new system is that it should virtually eliminate spam, since spam always comes from a newly registered "user" and will be subject to deletion before readers see it.
Other changes, which are being implemented on Town Square this week, include a length limit of 2,000 characters (about 200 words), an end to the "like" a comment function and a new requirement that posters use the same screen name for all their comments. At the discretion of the moderator, posters who make consecutive or an excessive number of comments and are dominating a discussion may have their comments deleted.
The "like" upvoting feature has been removed because of extensive abuse by some commenters who circumvented our automated checks to prevent repetitive voting from the same user.
In explaining the need for the changes, Johnson said the company felt an obligation to do its part to better manage Town Square in light of the widespread abuses of social media both locally and across the country.
"Town Square is intended to be a place residents can share their opinions, debate local issues and give their feedback on our reporting. But like other social media platforms, it is also used by those trying to manipulate public opinion, create false narratives and incite distrust of institutions, including the media," Johnson said.
"On a local level, we had already been evaluating how to improve our Town Square online reader forum and ensure that we weren't aiding and abetting those who sought to polarize and divide the community through misinformation."
Johnson said that the substantive content and political views expressed by commenters have never been a factor in moderation decisions and won't be in the future.
"We don't care what your position is on local issues. As long as the comments are made with respect for those with differing opinions, aren't snarky or sarcastic and are not presenting false information, we believe the more diversity of views the better," Johnson said.
"Moderating is an art, not a science, and we have and will make mistakes. But our collective goal as a community should be to talk about issues with civility and, when appropriate, passion, without attacking those who are honestly and respectfully expressing different opinions," he said.
Here is a summary of the changes being made:
? All new Town Square posters will automatically be "pre-moderated" before their comment goes live on our site. While this will result in a delay in their posts appearing, it will allow our moderators to review comments for adherence to our rules and guidelines. It will also reduce spam. When the poster has shown that they are willing and able to follow the rules, his or her ability to post instantly will be activated. Similarly, any established commenter who frequently violates the rules may be relegated to pre-moderation at any time as a sort of "penalty box."
? The "up-voting" function that allows anyone to "like" a comment will be removed. Too many posters are using tools to circumvent our limit of one vote per person and are creating a false impression that their comment has been embraced by large numbers of other people. These abuses have made the voting meaningless.
? "Screen" names of a poster will need to be consistent across all topics. Currently, we allow a poster to comment under different screen names in different Town Square topics, but do not permit them to change names within a single topic discussion. This will be changed to prevent the use of multiple names.
? The length of comments will be limited to 2,000 characters, or about 200 words. This will be automated and no one will be able to exceed this length. This will prevent excessively long posts that can easily dominate or overwhelm a discussion.
? Extremely short comments of 200 characters (about 30 words) will also generally not be allowed. Most of these short comments are emotional outbursts only designed to denigrate or be dismissive of another person or an organization. They don't seek to engage others in a conversation. Deletion for shortness will be at the moderators' discretion.
? The frequency of commenting by a poster will be limited. No poster will be permitted to make consecutive comments on a topic. The comment of at least one other person must be made before a commenter may post again, and repeated comments from the same poster that dominate a discussion will be removed. Moderators may make exceptions, such as in the case of a second short post correcting content in the previous post.
TALK ABOUT IT
There are plenty of conversations happening on Town Square. Check them out at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.
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