Can we teach reading comprehension to comment trolls?

…It would save everyone a lot of time.

…It would save everyone a lot of time.

I wrote a piece in the Nation this week about Texas’s pointless and cruel policy of executing mentally disabled people. The main point is shown below:

Executing an innocent man is not the only appalling injustice in this world. Governor Perry has allowed many unjust executions of prisoners who were genuinely guilty, but who did not deserve to die.

….Some were juveniles when they committed their crimes. Some were mentally ill. Some were intellectually disabled. Some were poorly represented by attorneys with known records of negligence and incompetence.

The bulk of the piece concerned two obviously guilty murderers who were both severely mentally impaired. Even so, my first commenter writes:

This is weird. You at the Nation consider all people executed as being innocent. Go Texas.

That thwapping sound you are hearing is my palm hitting my forehead.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

20 thoughts on “Can we teach reading comprehension to comment trolls?”

  1. At risk of dipping too deeply into the ad hominum inkwell, I must say that I have never seen an American conservative who was able to comprehend and respond in good faith to an argument that contradicted their ideological prejudices. Being unable to relate empathize with opposing positions to the point of comprehension or being unable to relate to reality in a meaningful way seem to be fundamental requirements of membership in contemporary US conservatism.

  2. I just happened to have read a post on Anil Dash’s blog about this sort of thing: (Forgive the attention grabbing title, it’s a really good piece about online communities.)

    The only way to enforce reading comprehension is to enforce it. No mercy. Comment sections are like gardens, and quality is dependent on the time and care put into managing them. Political blogs and news publications definitely get the most abusive commenters, but some blogs (like Ta-Nehisi Coates’) manage to build communities where the comments are regularly just as compelling as the blogger. The Nation should penalize people who make ignorant comments and ban repeat offenders. Only then will the quality rise.

    As an aside, some commenters here are very good and sometimes I’m amazed RBC leaves its comments on. I admit I wonder if Brett Bellmore is a real person or a team of bored PoliSci undergrads looking for a laugh.

  3. That’s one reason I no longer bother with The Nation. The commenters there can be divided into two main categories: 1) trolls 2) troll feeders. Some fine content from time to time but a dearth of insight amongst its readership. Pretty sad really.

    BTW, great article.

  4. Carmudgeon says:
    “At risk of dipping too deeply into the ad hominum inkwell, I must say that I have never seen an American conservative who was able to comprehend and respond in good faith to an argument that contradicted their ideological prejudices.”

    Perhaps you should get out more. Last I looked I was able to find a number of them: William Buckley, George Will, Milton Friedman and Richard Epstein to name just a few. In particular I suggest you watch the YouTube videos in which Professor Epstein demolishes Jed Rubenfeld in a Federalist Society forum on the issue of redistribution of wealth. Thank me later.

  5. Your list will be of limited value today unless you practice necromancy. And I’d emphatically disagree on George Will; his work on things like climate change does not even remotely characterize the views of his opponents fairly. Buckley and Friedman are dead.

    Epstein on Obama: (comparing Obama to Bush) Obama is the more dangerous man ultimately, is he has very little by way of a skill set to understand the complex problems he wants to address, but he has this unbounded confidence in himself.

    Yea, really a guy to make an effort to honestly understand his opponents. The president is so stupid that he doesn’t understand the (witless) principles of libertarianism.

  6. Harold, remember how you concluded your Nation piece:

    Our nation is better than that. At least I hope so. Listening to last night’s ugly crowd, I sometimes wonder.

    You were correct to wonder in that way. When Fox News first breathed in 1996 it was mildly right wing and not at all anti-intellectual and anti-science. Since then it has moved an entire older generation exceedingly to the right. Extremism always brings out the vile in people. The fact that a room full of Fox News watchers clapped in delight at the thought of 234 executions is a direct result of Murdoch and Ailes propaganda machine. Saddest of all is that all those in that room received an American high school education (in their time the envy of the world) that taught them all about the pitfalls of propaganda. And yet there they sat and cheered death, total suck-ups to the Murdoch mind-meld…

    The first comment to your post was also written by a Fox News watcher.

    That’s almost “enough said”, however this point wants out too:

    It was large of you to call it out. More main stream bloggers should. The danger comes when people sit back and let these people spew their Murdoch lies. I am reminded of an anecdote I heard today: An Austrian Jew knew it was time to leave his country for the USA when he heard the Nazi anthem being sung (i.e. Happiness is jewish blood on a knife) and no one in the street told the singer to “sit down and be decent”. True public ridicule won’t cure these people, for extremism knows no shame. But it is vital for the rest of us. And keeps the flame burning…

  7. Comment trolls (those who abuse facts willfully or ignorantly) exist not only on your comment board, but in the world of journalism and politics in general. I’d argue that it’s far more rampant on the right than on the left. On the right, the conservative moral system acts as a rigid frame into which “facts” need to be forced–whether the so-called facts fit or not. The conservative world of moral absolutes allows for no nuance or complexity.

    Thus, when you believe in an eye-for-an-eye Biblical justice, it doesn’t matter a) if capital punishment doesn’t work as a proven deterrent, or b) if a few innocent men are killed by the State in the pursuit of that moral system. What matters is that the conservative moral system, premised on Biblical justice, remains rigid and sturdy.

    The reason I am a liberal is that I believe the liberal moral system is flexible and can allow for the introduction of contradictory facts, which necessarily reshape the frame. On the left, the new facts come first and the moral system adjusts to accept them.

  8. I assume comment trolls make a kind of sense. Maybe that is a mistake. But if what the person meant was essentially, “You lefties don’t think anyone deserves the death penalty,” then at least he’s hovering around the truth. I know that is not literally what he said. He literally accused you of thinking all executed people were “innocent,” but if what he meant was “undeserving of state-sanctioned death because no one is,” then his intemperate and inaccurate language is perhaps explained by his emotional response to someone he believes opposes the death penalty in principle (which he evidently strongly supports).

  9. Matt: The reason I am a liberal is that I believe the liberal moral system is flexible and can allow for the introduction of contradictory facts, which necessarily reshape the frame.

    Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety

  10. Joel Levine’s comments are very revealing. Buckley and Friedman, have long been dead. The other two, Will and Epstein, are respectively, old and not young and the first is demonstrably dishonest – as Marc pointed out. For al his failings Epstein is the epitome of reason compared to the younger generation.

    Modern ‘conservative’ commenters prefer Karl Rove’s style of debate: attack the strengths and insult the character It is almost a formula:

    1. Avoid the issue raised

    2. Raise a barely or completely unrelated issue framed in a right wing way

    3. Attack the character of the person who raised the first issue

    The pay off seems to be

    1. A warm feeling of tribal self-righteousness

    2. Destroying habits of reason and respect that are necessary for maintaining a civilized discourse. This is why they are so destructive on a blog.

    I think ACLS is correct and I treat my own blog as a seminar with looser rules for raising issues – if someone violates rules of respect for others and a loose definition of relevance, first they get a warning and second, booted.

  11. Was anyone else struck by Perry’s odd phrasing in his now-quasi-famous response to Brian Williams’ question about the death penalty?: “if you come into our state and kill someone….”

    What struck me as weird about it (I live in Texas) was the idea that only outsiders who come into the state kill people. “If you come into our state,” not “if you live in our state”–the implication being that somehow a native-born Texan wouldn’t commit a heinous crime.

    It’s a minor issue, but it jumped out at me when I heard Perry’s answer.

  12. My experience is as a longtime (10 years+) editor of a website that is part of a well-known independent media brand. I don’t comment much elsewhere, because the quality is so hopeless (a reason I value — and comment at from time to time — RBC) most other places on the web.

    I’d be careful of putting this issue on a left-right axis. True, the righties are a dreadful bore, unable to sustain a conversation much past “you suck.” The leftie ones, not so much. But…

    There are several other local sites who draw a crowd that is largely unsupervised that I observe out of professional curiosity. Often I find myself removing dreck, only to find very similar comments, but with just enough twist to fit in at these sites with very different ideological mixes, posted in about the same time frame as one I’ve already dealt with. Happens too often to be coincidence. My conclusion? There are people out there that simply get their jollies trolling, no matter where, who, or what idea is involved. Not much ideology in that past general nihilism — and living in Mom’s basement I suppose.

    Sometimes we spend too much anxiety on such things flung against the wall. Better to just hose it down and move on without too much personal investment or concern. If people aren’t smart enough to start a conversation on a reasonable plane — and mostly stay there — there are lots of other places on the internet for them to hang out and regurgitate.

  13. When people post stupid junk, don’t let it stand. Delete or edit the post and tell them why. If they do it a lot, ban them.

    You could say there’s four stages of moderation:
    1) Remove spam that overwhelms the site
    2) Remove blatant rude language and personal attacks
    3) Remove arguments based on misinformation or faulty analysis, and remove posts that are so poorly written that they make no clear point
    4) Remove anything you disagree with

    Pretty much every site does 1, and most sites do 2, but then they stop. Some people go all the way to Stage 4. But the sweet spot is Stage 3, and I really wish more sites would try to achieve it. If you have a moderator who’s intelligent enough to tell honest arguments from propaganda, and tactful enough to hold well-meaning people to a high standard without driving them away, then go for it! If you don’t have that good a moderator then your site probably sucks anyway, so just hope you’re good and go for it! Edit posts, delete posts, email the poster, ban them, whatever it takes. Every time you leave a bs comment sitting there, that means that tons of people will read it and a few will probably fall for it. And everyone who might make a similarly lousy comment, or might not, will get a little nudge toward the dark side.

    I guess you don’t have moderating privileges at the Nation, even on your own articles. They probably don’t want to deal with it. I would encourage you to send a letter to the editors asking for that privilege, or for them to appoint someone else to do it.

  14. Curmudgeon: “At risk of dipping too deeply into the ad hominum inkwell, I must say that I have never seen an American conservative who was able to comprehend and respond in good faith to an argument that contradicted their ideological prejudices.”

    You may want to have a look at James Joyner and Steven L. Taylor (both currently blogging at Outside the Beltway). Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy can be objective to a fault (though, arguably, he may be more libertarian than conservative).

    Unfortunately, you see a lot of thoughtful conservative voices being drowned out in the current political atmosphere, but it’s not like they don’t exist.

  15. Alas, what Harold (perhaps deliberately) fails to grasp is that comment trolls need to have fairly high levels of reading comprehension to be so spot-on in misrepresenting what someone else has said.

  16. Running Chicken blog:

    I’ve written a great many words about the death penalty over the past week (here and here) and many people have seen fit to read them, to think about them, to share them widely across the internet, and to discuss them with me. For this I have been extremely grateful.

    I think it’s safe to assume that not a single one of the people who attended the GOP debate last night read any of those words. That’s not surprising; I’m an academic blogger with a fairly narrow readership. Of course, the debate audience likely also didn’t read this excellent and unsettling piece about Cameron Todd Willingham. And they haven’t read anything about Troy Davis. They certainly don’t know the names of any of the people who have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence came to light. In fact, they probably don’t know that any such people exist.

    I would happily wager that they haven’t read much of anything about the death penalty they so vigorously applauded. Their support for it is, in the words of Sister Helen Prejean, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They do it reflexively, without a care in the world. They hear “justice” and, like Pavlov’s dogs, they salivate. But they haven’t spent any time considering what “justice” means; the only context in which they seem to understand it is when it is used as a synonym for vengeance.

    This is the justice that is done to someone else. Never to them, never to anyone they care about or have even met. That situation is one they cannot even imagine; their privileged position affords them the opportunity to sit in judgment of another person without even considered what life must be like for someone who ends up on death row or for someone who cares about a death row inmate. Indeed, for a great many, their position is so privileged that they do not even recognize that privilege exists.

    This is what underlies the applause and this what underlies Rick Perry’s absolute certainty that not a single one of the people on death row in Texas might be innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned. And this is what separates me from the applauding audience members and from someone like Rick Perry; I know what death row looks like, I’ve talked with condemned men, and because of my interaction with the death penalty in this country I’ve been given a good look at the privileged life I lead.

    There is nothing to applaud when people die. There is nothing to applaud when people fail to examine their own lives and the good fortune they have had. There is nothing to applaud when our leaders do not understand the difference between justice and vengeance. There is nothing to applaud when people believe that the only thing our government can do properly is inject some citizens full of poison.

    The deaths that this audience applauded are the deaths of human beings, more than 200 human beings. No matter what they did — and I don’t pretend that they were all innocent, kind, or virtuous — they were human beings. Their deaths ought not to be cheered like we would cheer at some sporting event. Their deaths did not make us safer and they certainly did not make us better. What that audience applauded was its own smug self-satisfaction, its distinct pleasure at not knowing or caring or empathizing.

    By the time you read this, you’ll likely know that the progressives are already making jokes about Rick Perry and about the blood-thirsty audience. I began to see them on Twitter less than an hour after the debate’s conclusion. But there isn’t anything funny about what happened. It signals, in fact, how deeply divided we are in this country: this crowd believes that Americans fall into two camps, but it isn’t the divide that Republicans politicians have been suggesting between the “real” Americans who love freedom and family values, on the one hand, and some other “fake” Americans who hate those things, on the other. This spontaneous applause demonstrates the divide as it actually us: between those with whom these supposed “real” Americans can identify and those with whom they cannot. In the former camp are the Americans whose life experience is similar to the life experience of these audience members; they are similar in appearance, they grew up in similar circumstances, they face similar daily challenges. In the latter camp is everyone else, those who don’t look like “real” Americans, whose names don’t sound like “real” American names, whose religion is not the dominant one, whose life experiences do not bear even a remote resemblance to the experiences of the “real” Americans in that audience. And because the “real” Americans cannot recognize how privileged are the lives they lead, how well-off they are in so many ways, they cannot empathize in any way with those other Americans; indeed, far from attempting to care about their plight, they do not even consider those other Americans. They are not objects of care or respect and thus, when some of them commit terrible crimes and are executed, these “real” Americans cheer those executions because they are not “real” deaths. They are, instead, better likened to the way we destroy the dangerous dogs that snap at our children. We are so deeply divided in this country that one group cannot even recognize that the deaths they are applauding are the deaths of human beings like themselves, who once had hopes and dreams, plans for the future, and families who loved them. No one should be surprised, then, that these “real” Americans don’t want to be taxed to provide much-needed basic services for others or that they refer to people, not actions, as “illegal.”

    The two minutes shown in the video clip above are, for me, absolutely heart-breaking; those two minutes speak volumes about the state of affairs in this country. This crowd, the one that broke out into spontaneous, extended applause at the mention of the death of more than two hundred people, is the pro-life crowd. They profess a deep and abiding belief in Christianity and blithely ignore the messages of forgiveness and mercy at the very heart of their religion. They are fiscally conservative and cheer for a shockingly expensive, unnecessary government expenditure. They have a fundamental distrust of the government and can’t wait to vote for someone who believes that the government — with all of its many, many flaws — ought to be in the business of deciding life and death.

    This is either a stunning display of dishonesty or of stupidity. Either way, it is all terrifying and profoundly sad. It actually makes me feel that this is a group of people as disconnected from me and my experiences as they are from those whose deaths they applauded. The difference is that, if they think about this at all, it pleases them. I am unsure how we bridge that divide, but I am absolutely convinced that such a deep division on the very nature of our relationship to one another ought to be considered a crisis by anyone who cares about the future of this country.

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