A reader writes:
I’ve been working as a writer on, let’s say, teapots for a few years, and have been working hard to make my way from blogger to reporter. In the past I’ve tried to write about the Westeros Teapot League, but they were not set up to accommodate media requests, so I gave up writing about them. Last year, I was hired by a site to write solely about the King’s Landing Teapot League. They credentialed me, were very accommodating with media requests, and teapot contests were accessible to me.
The two leagues had some issues that I reported on, with many WTL players joining the KLTL. A lot of the stories that came from the players were less than complimentary towards the WTL, and while I remained as objective as possible myself, the quotes from the players were clearly frustrated with the Westeros league and looked at the King’s Landing league as a much better option.
For a year now, I’ve been receiving angry, negative comments on my articles about KLTL on my site by one particular woman. Which, okay, it happens. But this particular commenter has left comments on more than half my pieces over the course of months, growing more and more abusive as the months have worn on. At first I tried to engage reasonably, but it only enraged her further, so I stopped even reading beyond the first few lines of her comments.
I have asked my website to block her IP address from commenting; they refused, telling me it’s a perverse compliment. This did not go down well with me as I was stalked in the past (not connected to this), which was absolutely terrifying. This has brought up a lot of those old fears but since a) this harassment is online, not in person and b) she stopped commenting for a month or so, I let sleeping dogs lie.
I have since gotten a new editor, and my commenter has turned back up.
The kicker of this is, I’m 99% sure this is the former communications director of the WTL. She uses the same phrasing as this commenter (who goes by the same first name), her IP address is very similar and she often knows things only a league employee would know. I’ve reached the point where I want to contact her former employer and tell them this is occurring and they need to put a stop to it.
If it’s her former employer, they’re unlikely to be able to do anything about it. And, if you’re wrong, you risk unfairly defaming her.
Unfortunately, angry and negative comments are part of writing online. That’s just the unpleasant reality, and yeah, it can be truly hurtful and upsetting. In fact, at times it can make your brain begin bleeding out of your eyeballs, which is both gross and unhealthy.
But it is indeed part of writing online. It’s going to happen, and you can’t reasonably insist that your employer ban someone just for negative comments. However, when someone’s comments cross over to abusive, especially repeatedly, that’s a different thing.
I wonder if, when you talked to your employer, you showed them the truly abusive stuff this person posted, or more of a mixed selection that included the merely negative? If so, they might have not realized exactly how bad the situation is, and it would be worth going back to them with a selection focused specifically on outright abuse.
Also, does your employer have a commenting policy that addresses what is and isn’t acceptable? If so, is it enforced? It they don’t have a policy or it’s not well-enforced, you could tackle it from that angle — pointing out that any well-trafficked website needs to have a method of enforcing community standards so that its commenting section doesn’t become a race to the bottom that drives away civil commentary. You could show them some examples of similar sites that have good policies, and could even point out that Twitter recently changed its policy and announced they’ll now ban users who send abusive tweets (and that they’re getting loads of good press about it).
Beyond that, though: Does your job require you to engage with commenters? If not, you might simply consider a break from reading comments, possibly a permanent one. Loads of writers don’t read the comments on their pieces, for exactly this kind of reason. (For example, while I try to look over most of the comments here, I never read the comments on my articles on Yahoo! News, because they’re at a totally different level of discourse and I’m not a masochist.) If you’ve been feeling somehow bound to follow the comments on your pieces, try giving yourself permission to skip them and see how you feel.