The snakepit of anonymous comments

I did something dumb this week, and now I feel dirty and degraded. I allowed passion to supercede self-control and crossed a line into one of our society’s scummiest realms. I only hope writing this washes some of the stink away.

“What’s he talking about?” you’re wondering. Did he solicit a prostitute? Tweet pictures of himself in his boxers? Run for political office in New York?

No, nothing that crazy. I merely posted a few comments on a local website, but that’s plenty stupid enough.

The site is called Eater Maine. Launched last summer, it’s one of two dozen regional food blogs operated under the umbrella of the national Eater organization. The Maine site’s editor, Tom Minervino, was kind enough to publish two posts about this month’s cover story in The Bollard, “Satan’s Sous Chef,” in which I documented numerous examples of the Portland restaurateur’s outrageous behavior.

I certainly appreciate the extra attention posts like this bring (and our online advertisers appreciate the extra page views), but I don’t appreciate being slandered by anonymous commenters, and that’s how this whole mess got started.

When my journalism career got started in the late 1990s, news websites were relatively new, and posting comments online was not an option for readers of the alt-weekly I worked for. We published plenty of signed letters to the editor, but anonymous opinions were promptly deposited in the “circular file” (a.k.a. the trash or, later, the “rectangular file,” a.k.a. the recycling bin), unless they contained a promising tip or were witty enough to merit being passed around the office or taped to the wall for a few weeks.

As far as I’m concerned, this is still the best way to handle reader feedback. Until recently, The Bollard never gave readers, anonymous or otherwise, an opportunity to post comments beneath our content. (The exception is Al Diamon’s Media Mutt column, which we added last year; Al requested that this type of response be permitted.)

I gladly publish signed letters that slam my publication and criticize me personally. I respect readers who feel strongly enough about our work to publicly add their opinion. But I have zero respect for those readers who take shots from behind the wall of anonymity.

This column has generated a lot of hateful comments directed at yours truly, but the BDN wisely requires posters to identify themselves. I can shrug off that stuff, but those posters are lucky my relatives don’t live in this area. Had my mom been Internet savvy before she passed away, the headline would have read: “Old Jewish lady from Tennessee slays 16.”

I usually resist the urge to jump into the frays beneath my work online. But this week, addled by perhaps one cup of coffee too many, I couldn’t resist.

A “guest” on the Eater Maine site asserted, falsely, that a financial partner in restaurants that compete with Chef Smith’s is a financial partner in The Bollard. After calling me a name that can’t be printed here, another “guest” (at least, I assume it was someone else) accused me, without evidence or example, of “embellishing” articles with falsehoods to serve some personal bias.

This kind of crap presents a quandary. Do you allow lies and slander to stand unchallenged on the assumption that their anonymous source has no credibility? Or must one rebut false allegations before they spread, lest one’s lack of response be construed as proof of their truth?

The best course of action is to ignore this garbage, because even one post in response indicates you’ve read it, and once that’s been established, like zombies alerted by a car alarm, the horde will swarm. But I couldn’t let it go. After posting to rebut the partnership allegation, I challenged the other “guest” to read the story about Chef Smith (he/she admitted they had not read it) and summon the courage to reveal their identify and contact me to discuss their beef.

Bad move. That second post only invited more name-calling and baseless accusations. Sparring with anonymous commenters is like trying to punch ghosts — hardly a fair fight. In my third and final post, I vowed never to visit Eater Maine again — a vow I sincerely intend to keep.

There is a shadow world of haters in this state, cowards who get some sick satisfaction from spewing insults and lies behind the guise of online anonymity. I regret having stooped into Hater Maine’s snakepit this week. The serpents who comment there won’t get another chance to nip at my heels.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.