Behind the Lines: Cut back on talkback back talk

What reels them in is the opportunity to take part in every single debate and vent an opinion.

website 88 (photo credit: )
website 88
(photo credit: )
It was just another of the thousand talkbacks posted daily on Israeli Web sites. "Someone who knows" wrote a comment on an item about a senior executive leaving Channel 5 that appeared on NRG, the Maariv-owned site. He claimed that the same executive also owns shares in a production company and had awarded it various contracts. But instead of just ignoring the accusation, as do the hundreds of others attacked daily in talkbacks, the company sued NRG for libel, demanding NIS 500,000 in damages. Israeli Web sites are sitting on a potential time bomb. All it could take is for one of the hefty libel suits over the content of readers' comments currently in the pipeline to find its way to a sympathetic judge, and an avalanche of ruinous litigation could descend on them. A landmark ruling has the potential to radically change the relationship between the sites and their readers. If that doesn't happen very soon, there's also the distinct possibility that the Knesset will do the same by passing one of a number of bills introducing some regulation to the chaos on the Web. In terms of Internet traffic, little Israel is an empire. Its leading Web sites all feature in the world's top 500, with numbers of daily hits far out of proportion to the size of the population. The national addiction to current affairs and breaking news used to find its outlet in the hourly instinct of switching on the radio for the latest bulletin, but the Internet gives the news junkies much more, a never-ending fix of evolving headlines and fresh details. While search engines, shopping portals and social networking sites are the most popular worldwide, news sites are among the most highly visited Hebrew-language sites. Also, the large general-purpose portals, which elsewhere usually focus their home pages around "soft" subjects, such as showbiz and beauty tips, in Israel offer their users hard news at the top of the menu. But it's not only the craving for yet more politics, military affairs and crime that reels them in, it's the opportunity to join the argument, take part in every single debate - however obscure - and enjoy the freedom to vent an opinion, no matter how radical or offensive. Very few mainstream news sites allow their readers virtually unrestricted space to let off steam. Most of them don't even offer the option to post comments on their news items; some open up only selected opinion columns to debate - and even then participation is usually limited to signed-up, registered users. Some major sites have experimented with an open policy of comments, but quickly closed these forums when confronted with a deluge of inflammatory material. Most now allow readers to comment on everything but will post on screen only a small filtered selection, usually of well-written polemics, hours or even days after receiving them. BY CONTRAST, Israeli sites allow users to send off rapid-fire retorts, which they have the satisfaction of seeing appear on the Web minutes later. The result is a frequently vicious debate that very quickly descends into personal attacks - on the writer, his or her subjects and, of course, the other "tokbekistim," as they are now called in Hebrew. Any budding libel lawyer could find dozens of cases in 15 minutes of casual surfing, ranging from hints and allegations regarding just about every public figure and celebrity to a dirty debate on the writers' looks, personality and sexual persuasion. And it's not just limited to weighty matters of state; every field and subject has its partisans. A veteran wine writer told me this week that hours after he posts his latest tasting impressions, he's already under attack from pseudonymous readers commenting on his personal and professional integrity, complete with details of his regular bribe taking. In many cases, these are not just regular readers spewing up honest bile, but rivals and personal enemies with a grudge getting their own back in a risk-free way. Quite often, those in the know can easily identify the on-line assailants. The fact that, along with a keyboard and concentrated quantities of poison, most talkback writers choose to make use of the cloak of anonymity only gives them greater opportunity to smear. Of course all the "respectable" sites claim they employ special teams of editors to monitor the incoming messages and weed out the more inflammatory, but no site has the resources to thoroughly comb through the thousands of messages pouring in hourly. The fact that comments get posted so quickly - and the sheer number of those published that would never have stood up to even minimum scrutiny - is ample proof of the lack of a real filtering effort. The truth is that the sites have little interest in regulating the flow. A site's popularity and, as a result, its advertising income is gauged by the number of hits. A significant proportion of the traffic nowadays comes from readers returning time and again to post their talkbacks, check they've appeared, read the retorts of others and write again. By some estimates, the talkbacks generate more than 10 percent of the general traffic and that is growing. THE NUMBER of talkbacks, which routinely reach into the hundreds on individual items, has become a method of gauging the popularity of individual writers and politicians. Businesses and spin doctors have resorted to using their own teams of tokbekistim on occasion, in a belief that the messages are a barometer of public opinion and even influence it. The Jerusalem Post's Web site is interesting in this context, being an Israeli site which serves a rather different readership. also allows readers to comment on many items, but at least my personal impression is that while comment writers have no compunction in airing their views with little restraint, the tone is much more to the point and less personal, especially toward the writers, who on the whole receive less vitriol, even when they're at their most controversial. Is this because the English-reading public is more polite or is it due to a higher level of effort on the part of the staff to filter out incitement? It's probably a combination of both. The great majority of people who write or are written about on the Internet and have been attacked just shrug and ignore it. Many of them claim not to read talkbacks and dismiss the writers as frustrated nobodies with too much time on their hands and not enough talent to get a real job. In reality, it's extremely hard to resist the temptation to read something written about you, however awful and untrue, and then not lose your temper. The next step is joining the fray and fighting back with some caustic talkbacks of your own. Lately a number of writers, politicians and lawyers have begun advocating legislation on the matter. Next week the Knesset will hold a symposium on the issue with representatives of both sides. The event is being organized by MK Yisrael Hasson (Israel Beiteinu), the author of a bill that would obligate Web sites to obtain the identity of users before they are allowed to post comments. There are a number of objections being raised by the Web sites. They can be boiled down to three. First, they say that the responsibility for what is written is not theirs: The talkbacks are the views of individuals who have no contact with the site save for the fact they choose to express them there, and the site shouldn't be held accountable. Second, no measure to force talkback writers to identify themselves could ever be really effective, as those determined to maintain their anonymity have a wide array of easy methods of circumventing any barrier. Third is the trump card of freedom of speech. The talkbacks, they say, are a unique expression of the public's views and any attempt to limit them is a step down the slippery slope. There are merits to all these arguments, but they are, of course, disingenuous. The site managers aren't motivated by lofty ideals, they are only interested in maintaining a high level of traffic and are worried that any limits on the tokbekistim will push down the hit numbers. Host sites may also argue that they act as billboards for the comments, not as publishers, and thus are not responsible for the content in the way they would be for, say, printed letters to the editor. The real reason to oppose any kind of legal regulation on the talkbacks is that effective control and self-restraint can only come from the writers and the site managers themselves. If they don't realize yet that their forums have become bloody gladiatorial circuses, in which reputations are torn apart without mercy, and that some basic ground rules are long overdue, they'll ultimately be forced to do so by the libel courts.