£769 Obama's Effort at Online Transparency Stymied by Internet Trolls
Updated April 13, 2009
Obama's Effort at Online Transparency Stymied by Internet
By James Osborne
Obama's pledge to provide open dialogue on his Web site is being tested
-- gangs of activists who try to derail discussions -- and now the
White House faces unique challenges as it tries to manage the posts
without infringing on the right to free speech.
President Obama's pledge to open the White House up to the
public through online forums faces an irksome challenge: a plague of
-- troublemakers who work to derail cyber-conversations through
harassing and inflammatory posts.
The problem became immediately apparent last month when Obama held an
online "town hall" forum on the economy and invited the public to post
questions on the White
House Web site
Those questions, in turn, were voted on by users to determine which
ones the president would answer.
Three and a half million people participated in the event, but the
had their way: Following a coordinated campaign by marijuana advocates
to vote their topic to the top of the list, questions on the future of
the U.S. dollar and the rising unemployment rate
were superseded by
questions about legalizing pot as an economic remedy.
The president himself had a good laugh about the volume of
marijuana-related questions, saying, "I don't know what this says about
the online audience -- we want to make sure that it was answered. The
answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our
But the die was cast. Through a perfectly legal "underground"
campaign, a relatively insignificant question had risen to the top.
For the White House, the question was not so much how to answer it --
but what to do about it, and how to prevent it in the future.
Unlike privately run Web sites, whose managers are free to remove
nettlesome material, the White House finds itself searching for a way to
combat these disruptive users without infringing on their right to free
speech and inciting cries of censorship.
In 1997, the Supreme Court
ruled that freedom-of-speech laws apply to
after the American Civil
sued the government over a
federal law that would have criminalized the online transmission of
obscene or explicit content.
"The law is well established, which doesn't mean government actors
aren't going to try to restrict speech on the Internet, and that has
happened," said Aden Fine, an attorney with the ACLU
speech on the Internet is something we all need to be concerned about."
With all eyes on its cyber-presence, the White House will have to tread
institutions have the right to remove obscenities or limit comments to a
specific subject area, but they are limited in their ability to remove
comments that are merely repetitive or disruptive, said John Morris,
legal counsel to the Center
for Democracy and Technology
"If the comment is on topic, they won't be able to remove that
without raising some constitutional issues," he said. "Say they did a
forum on national security
, and activists say Guantanamo
be closed next month and not next year, and they flood the forum.
"It's on topic and they're not violating obscenity rules," explained
Morris. "The government would have a difficult time pulling it down."
Ever since the first Usenet group was created in 1979, Web
administrators have been contending with "trolls."
In 1998 Judith Donath
a professor at the Massachusetts
, chronicled various cases, including one where a troll
on to a brides' forum and assumed the persona of an upper-crust matron,
admonishing other users for supposed breaches of etiquette such as
using a laser printer for their invitations rather than an engraver.
"Responding to a troll is very tempting, especially since these posts
are designed to incite," Donath wrote. "Yet this is where the troll can
cause the most harm, by diverting the discussion off the newsgroup
topic and into a heated argument.
"Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is
played without the consent of most of the players."
But scrubbing trolls' comments from a site presents a whole new
challenge. And considering the increasing role online discussion board
and forums play in people's lives, many don't consider it a laughing
While Obama's marijuana advocates wouldn't technically be considered
trolls, who are defined by their lack of definitive positions and a
simple desire for disorder, these special-interest groups do muddle the
president's message and related discourse.
How the White House will handle those and other disturbances in the
future poses a conundrum.
Methodologies to control online discussion boards and forums are
wide-ranging -- including everything from filters that keep out spam and
obscenities, to more advanced software that analyzes language for an
overly negative or harassing tone that a Web administrator might choose
Many sites allow users to assess the value of other posts and
determine their prominence in the forum, in effect creating an online
But even that can prove problematic, as evidenced by Obama's first
online Q&A last month.
Daniel Ha, CEO and founder of the Web site management company Disqus,
said he was generally impressed with the White House's online savvy,
but that there was still work to be done.
"Content submitted by other people is really hard to -- I don't want
to say control, but maintain and set a quality to," Ha said. "A lot of
the issues they're going to have to address as they go along. [An online
forum] is just a medium. It's the same as if they held a rally in the
park and people started making noise. That problem is going to exist no
matter where you do it."
Morris said he didn't see any legal issues with using software to
manage the forum, as long as the software was "viewpoint neutral."
"If you have software that looks at repetitive and harassing
comments, regardless of the content, that's something the government can
do," he said.
A White House spokesman
did not respond to specific questions about
what online tools they were using, only saying, "we are continuing to
explore ways to use the Internet to increase the American people's
access to the government and to engage with them about the challenges
facing our country."
"People were informed that this was a community-moderated system, and
people should remember that even though they may not like the viewpoint
behind someone's question, everyone has a right to their opinion."
No announcement has been made on the date of the next White House