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CITY's comments are back 

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Ten months ago, CITY disabled the comments function at the bottom of articles on its website after the platform became a disheartening, sucking, swirling eddy of insults.

For years prior to being dismantled, the comments section had simultaneously served as a marketplace of ideas, an exchange of information, and a self-moderated town hall. There were always trolls lurking among the opinions of well-intentioned readers, of course. But they didn’t dominate the discussion.

Until they did.

Trolling, defined as the act of posting incendiary or derogatory messages in online forums, usually anonymously, plays on humankind’s most primal instincts.

In his parable of the Ring of Gyges in the fourth century B.C., Plato told of a good and decent shepherd who, when imbued with the power of invisibility, seduced a queen, killed the king, and took over their kingdom. Plato argued that without accountability for our actions we would all behave badly.

In other words, anonymity brings out the worst in people. Morality, Plato theorized, stems from, or is at least reinforced by, full disclosure.

Anonymity in the internet age hasn’t overthrown a government (yet), but it did kill the CITY comments section. There was one troll who posted comments under a variety of pseudonyms, sometimes commenting under one fictitious name, then applauding himself under another like some sort of self-congratulating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

CITY prides itself as being the people’s paper, however, and is willing to give the comments section another chance. We view restoring the comments as a goodwill gesture to readers who enjoyed, and have told us, they missed the feature.

In recent days, CITY resurrected the commenting function with a new tool called Disqus. With Disqus, readers will be required to log in to the platform using one of four gateways — their Google email address, their Facebook account, their Twitter account, or their Disqus account — to be able to comment.

We are under no illusions this additional step will make anonymous comments obsolete. False or concealed identities on Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail abound. Disguising oneself remains easy to do for anyone so inclined.

We do hope, though, that the new tool will mitigate the trolls. The Disqus platform allows users to “upvote” and “downvote” comments, much like in a Reddit forum, ensuring the most popular entries rise to the top of the thread. Users can also control whether the comments in a thread are presented chronologically or by popularity, and block other users.

Many readers have already begun using the new comments function. And some of them are doing so under what appear to be pseudonyms.

All of the comments thus far have been civil, however. That’s what we’re really striving for here — a medium that encourages and elevates respectful debate.
Keep in mind, too, that most of CITY’s content is also posted on its social media channels, where readers are free, and encouraged, to comment.

No doubt there is some value in letting readers express opinions that may get them in trouble at work or offend friends and neighbors, without having to give their names. But comment forums drunk on anonymity have the tendency to slide into the equivalent of a barroom brawl and drown out the voices of sober and thoughtful readers who become less willing to speak up when the punching begins.

Let’s not go there this time.

Recently, a reader wrote to me asking why CITY insisted on printing the names of people who submitted letters-to-the-editor for its Feedback page.

“Is a point made or opinion held salient, irrespective of the name slapped at the bottom?” the reader asked. “Should that not be the yardstick employed, not who typed it up? If the actual identity of the author is germane to the content — no one wants an imposter writing in for a local politician or civil servant — an understandable exception can be made.”

CITY prints the names of its Feedback contributors for the same reason it encourages readers who post comments to use their real identities: Standing behind one’s opinions with one’s name is the best way to encourage open, robust, and, most importantly, civil discourse.

Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.

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