(Sat. 12-01-07, 7:30pm)
[All updates can be found below at the end of this entry]
In response to the scandal caused by our earlier exposé at Investigate the Media, the Webmaster for the San Francisco Chronicle has given an interview to local news site SFist, admitting that the Chronicle's Web site, SFGate , did indeed have a policy of deleting certain users' comments in such a way that the commenters themselves did not know they had been deleted. The Webmaster, Eve Batey (whose official title is "Deputy Managing Editor for Online"), had this to say:
The software we use for article comments isn't an SFGate creation -- it's provided by an outside company with which SFGate has contracted. When we gave them our requirements for article comments, we made it very clear that we really, really needed a way to indicate that a comment had been deleted -- something as simple as having the text of the comment replaced by "This comment has been deleted due to violations of SFGate's Terms and Conditions" would have done the trick nicely.Just as we suspected, the commenting software for SFGate was supplied by a third-party vendor (perhaps Prospero or Topix, both of which are known to offer this feature). Notice the bizarre excuse she provides -- that no one could figure out a way to delete a comment and replace it with a notice that it had been deleted, except for using the unintentionally nefarious "block user" function. How could that possibly be? Indicating deleted comments with a standard notice (such as "This comment has been deleted") is commonplace on nearly every blog and commenting platform. So excuse me if I don't entirely believe this bizarre excuse.
However, this wasn't something the company was able to provide to us immediately. We at the Chronicle and the folks at SFGate weighed this problem, and decided not to let this keep us from moving forward on article comments. This nagged at me and at my colleagues, that deleted comments would just "be disappeared," but we felt such a sense of urgency to add article comments to the site that we pushed this worry away, and hoped that this transparent deletion function would be added soon.
Unfortunately, the commenting company hasn't been able to provide us with this tool yet, and suggested that we use their "block user" function as a stopgap measure. (This "block user" function is what you see your colleagues in the blogosphere calling us out about.) The "block user" function blocks all comments made by a user from view by anyone but themselves (upon login).
So, what we've been doing is deleting TOC-violating comments from folks who only occasionally violate our policy, but in cases where mass disappearances of comments would make the article comment conversation completely incomprehensible, we opted to use the "block user" function. This function has been used very, very sparingly (and only a few of us have access to this function), and only for those few folks who have repeatedly violated the TOC.
Clearly, however, even though this only has impact on a few users, it was the wrong thing to do -- and that, in our eagerness to have discussion and conversation on the site, we failed to take into consideration those users who would feel hurt and deceived by having their comments blocked from view.
I'm glad that this issue has been raised because I think that this will help make our commenting software providers understand the importance of having a function that makes it clear that comments have been deleted. We've stopped using the "block user" function as of today, even at the risk of having comments "disappear" and at having some article comment section conversations suffer as a result.
Also note that Batey reveals a detail that we suspected was true, but which we had no proof of until now: that all crytpo-deleted comments were hidden automatically by the software, and only applied to "graylisted" users, those who were victims of what Batey called the "block user feature." Any comments that were individually deleted by human moderators simply disappeared entirely, with no evidence that they had ever been made. Which means that if any user sees a notice in an SFGate comments thread that says "This comment has been removed by SFGate," it means that someone out there is still graylisted and getting their comments deleted without their knowledge.
Though this may at first appear to be a double victory -- getting the Chronicle to admit to its deception, and then getting them to change the policy -- the celebrations may be premature. Because even two days after Batey announced that they were no longer graylisting anyone, notes that say "This comment has been removed by SFGate" are still cropping up in Chronicle threads.
To see whether or not Batey was telling the truth, I made an intentionally innocuous comment on this thread about an earthquake in the Caribbean. Sure enough: when I viewed the thread as "jimjams" the comment remained visible, yet when I viewed it simultaneously (on a different browser) as an anonymous unlogged-in user, the comment was gone, replaced by "This comment has been removed by SFGate." Here is a screenshot proving this: the top browser window is Safari, with me logged in as "jimjams," which shows the comment visible; and the bottom browser is Firefox, with me not logged in at all, which shows the comment as deleted -- at the same time (click image to see it full-size):
Notice that the time of the article (Nov 29 at 1:42pm, circled in blue) is a full two days after Batey claimed the Chronicle had stopped graylisting commenters. And that when I'm logged in as jimjams (circled in green) the comment is visible (circled in green); but when not logged in (circled in pink) the comment is shown as being deleted (circled in pink). Which proves that Batey was lying when she said that they had stopped using the "block user" feature as of November 27.
Now, since I only know how my own account functions, I can't say for sure if any other formerly graylisted commenters are still being blocked. Perhaps "jimjams" uniquely is being punished for raising this issue. So I invite any readers who think they were graylisted in the past to check again now, to see if you're still being crypto-deleted; post your findings in the comments section of this thread.
[UPDATE 1, Sat. 12-01-07, 7:30pm]: S.F. Chronicle Webmaster speaks!
Eve Batey, the Webmaster for the San Francisco Chronicle's site SFGate, has dropped in and made some illuminating comments on this thread. She pleads -- rather convincingly -- that the problem lies with the software company which supplies SFGate's commenting platform, and not with the SFGate editorial team, which had no intention of doing anything underhanded. She also states she unintentionally misspoke in the SFist interview when she claimed she was unblocking all formerly blocked users, unaware at the time that there was no way (or so she says) of getting or creating a list of blocked users, so there was no way to identify them so they could be unblocked. As an attempt to "do the right thing," she has offered to unblock any currently blocked user who contacts her via the email address she posts in her comment.
Read all she has to say in comments #1 and #14 of this thread and judge for yourself. She vows to change the SFGate policy regarding crypto-deletions, eventually eliminating them altogether, and I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt until evidence proves otherwise.