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Updated:

Kurt Greenbaum has apologized for overreacting in his original response to this incident, although he doesn’t explicitly say that he is sorry for calling the school and indirectly causing someone to lose their job.

As someone whose job involves thinking about our social-media policies and our approach to comment behaviour, I’m always looking at what other newspapers and media outlets are doing, and today I came across a case that crossed a line — for me, at least — in terms of how to deal with problem commenters. It involved a vulgar comment made by a user at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website, and the response by the site’s director of social media, Kurt Greenbaum.

According to Greenbaum’s blog post (which was mirrored on his personal blog), someone posted a comment on a story in which they used a colloquial or slang term for female genitalia. It was deleted, but then was reposted. Greenbaum says he noticed that the comment alert from WordPress showed that it came from a nearby school. So Greenbaum called the school, and they asked him to send them the email with the comment, which he apparently did. About six hours later, he says, the school called and said that an employee had been confronted and that he had resigned.

Am I the only one who thinks that doing this goes way beyond the normal course of editorial behaviour? I’ve been moderating blog comments and story comments for several years now, both as a blogger and as the Globe and Mail’s social-media editor (or Communities Editor, as we call the job), and there is no way that I would contact someone’s workplace about a comment unless they had done something extremely egregious — such as making death threats, or repeatedly making abusive comments.

We’ve had hundreds or even thousands of such comments, most of which are much worse than the one Greenbaum is talking about, and I have never contacted someone’s workplace, even when it was obvious that the person in question worked for the federal government.

I know I’m not the only one to see Greenbaum’s behaviour as over-the-top, because a number of people agreed with me on Twitter when I asked the same question, and just as many or more took the social-media editor to task in the comments on his blog post. One commenter said:

“You guys don’t like moderating so you call his work and get him fired. Nice. Happy holidays.”

to which Greenbaum replied:

“Yeah, you caught me! I made him log on to his computer at work, visit STLtoday.com’s Talk of the Day, read the item, type a vulgarity and hit the “submit” key. Interesting perspective. Thanks for your contribution.”

Other readers said:

“What an abuse of power, Mr. Greenbaum!!! So is the Post Dispatch now a Gestapo Agent? What a sick and terrible thing you did to this employee in an economy where he probably doesn’t stand a chance in getting another job! I recommend that YOU get fired for abuse of power!!!!! See how YOU feel!!!”

and

“YOU are the director of social media? tools to be leveraged to get businesses closer to their customers? what an awful story and it’s even more embarassing that you squawk about it after the fact. the lesson is: be careful StlToday website visitors – never know when a bored employee will pursue some bizarre investigation that could cost you your job.”

and Greenbaum replies:

“Defend the guy who posted the vulgarity all you want. I’m not regulating someone’s thought. He can think whatever he wants. I’m moderating our boards. Follow our guidelines and this won’t be a problem for any of you. Remember, I said it was a school, right? It could have been a student. I didn’t know who it was. I just thought the school might like to know about it. I sleep fine at night.”

What do you think of what Greenbaum did in this case? Did he overstep his bounds as the moderator of the St. Louis Today site, or do you think he was justified in what he did? Let me know in the comments.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

94 Responses to “Comment behaviour: How far is too far?”
  1. FriendFeed Comment


    Fired… [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  2. It was an abuse of power. If the comment was beyond the pale, he should call the police; otherwise, he should simply delete it. If the commenter persists (where 'persists' is not defined as 'does it twice' – come on, be reasonable), ban the IP.

    • Banning an IP is a largely useless measure in stopping abusive posting. Between the use of TOR or proxy servers or chained proxy servers, it's trivial to work around a block based on IP address.

      Banning the IP would also block every other user at that school who are behind that IP. So no, not a reasonable, fair, or effective solution. Contacting the owner of the netblock the IP is part of is the one method available that is likely to result in stopping the problem, whether that be through user education (which is what SHOULD have happened) or other measures. The school could have easily given a verbal warning, a written warning, a warning in tandem with blocking access from his school log in to the specific site and so on.

  3. Banning an IP is a largely useless measure in stopping abusive posting. Between the use of TOR or proxy servers or chained proxy servers, it's trivial to work around a block based on IP address.

    Banning the IP would also block every other user at that school who are behind that IP. So no, not a reasonable, fair, or effective solution. Contacting the owner of the netblock the IP is part of is the one method available that is likely to result in stopping the problem, whether that be through user education (which is what SHOULD have happened) or other measures. The school could have easily given a verbal warning, a written warning, a warning in tandem with blocking access from his school log in to the specific site and so on.

  4. Hmm, remind me never to call Greenbaum out if I ever share the same bar space with him. Heaven forbid I think he's talking tosh and say so – first he'd have me thrown out the bar, then probably call all the cabs not to pick me up, then the fast food places not to serve me on the way home, then my work…

    Way over the top and akin to Big Brother censorship.

  5. I want to know what happened after the comment was (presumably) deleted for the second time.
    Did Kurt block the IP, or close commenting? Or did he simply delete the comment again, after which the user didn't repost it for a 3rd time?
    If so, then clearly the matter should have been done and over.

    If the poster had continued to repeatedly post, or made increasingly vulgar, or threatening comments, then he would potentially have cause to do something about it.

    Instead Mr. Greenbaum decided to take matters into his own hand, in direct violation of his own paper's privacy policy.

    While the school may have said the employee 'resigned', it's most likely that he was simply given the choice of firing or resigning. The school probably has a policy of using school computers for personal use, which, combined with the vulgarity would give then probably enough leverage to convince him it was in his best interests to 'resign'.

    But whether the employee violated the school's code is moot. The question is whether the Mr. Greenbaum was right to have provided the information.

    • “Instead Mr. Greenbaum decided to take matters into his own hand, in direct violation of his own paper's privacy policy. “

      Wait what? Unlike many of the commenters who try and let themselves off the hook with a 'I haven't read the policy, but…' ; I *did* read the policy, and what Greenbaum did is entirely consistent with it.

      Go closer to the top of this thread – I've not only posted a link to their policy, I've included the relevant snippets from it.

      Any arguments about the commenters privacy are moot however. Whether in Canada or the US, an IP address and timestamp are not protected information under any provincial or federal privacy law.

  6. Some St. Louis blog have been covering the issue of comments at the online Post-Dispatch for some time. This incident is getting all the exposure, the hateful, racist comments can be found at stltoday.com every day and no moderator addresses them. THAT'S the issue.

    http://stltomorrow.org
    http://www.stlurbanworkshop.com/2009/11/saint-l

    • That's definitely *an* issue. Has it generated as much outrage as this though? Or is it just that Mr. Greenbaum had the audacity to finally act, and people are in shock from it.

      I guess what will be interesting is if they suddenly start maintaining a standard, or if they'll continue to pick and choose what gets past the human and technical filters.

  7. I'll add a comment about the 'resigning' part. Likely he was offered the chance to resign or be fired.

    As for Kurt. It's easy. He overreacted. The Post comments often swing way worse than using a slang word for female genitalia. Racial slurs are common. Outrageous and slanderous comments are made hourly. Those are rarely moderated.

    Kurt should just admit he overreacted and move on. He's already struggling to establish himself as a wise and knowing social media guru in St. Louis. This will be like a nail in his coffin with the locals.

    Folks violate the terms of service of the Post all the time. THis is the first incident where I'm aware that Kurt over stepped normal behavior for moderators. Having been a moderator, even where kids, doctors, and law enforcement were involved, I've never felt compelled to contact parents, employers or the cops over foul language.

  8. Twitter Comment


    RT @alisonmichalk: When Online Community Managers go bad. Was a line crossed? Have u taken IRL action on a member? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  9. Couldn't Greenbaum have simply blocked the IP address?

    My guess, he's angling for a book deal. In some quarters, this guy will be hailed as a hero. I wonder if he's enlisted a press agent yet.

  10. Twitter Comment


    When Online Community Managers go bad. Was a line crossed? Have u taken IRL action on a member? [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  11. Twitter Comment


    Interesting read: When Online Community Managers go bad. Was a line crossed? How far is too far? [link to post] (via @alisonmichalk)

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  12. As a news content moderator, I think my responsability is to contact the authorities when I receive illegal comments (pedophilia, negationnism…). Surely not to be a kind of righter of wrongs. It's a disgrace.

    • Actually Antoine that would be much better left in the hands of your IT department, preferably your IT group responsible specifically for security. They will, hopefully, be familiar with how to handle problems like that.

      See my reply to benlucier – http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2009/11/18/com

  13. I'm against the moderators actions, mostly from a time management and liability perspective.

    First, if I were his employer, I wouldn't Greenbaum wasting his time taking the moderation that level. Just delete it. Looking up the IP address, finding the phone number, explaining the situation to the school all took time. It would have been faster and more efficient to just delete the offensive comment, even if it needed to be deleted 4 or 5 times.

    Second, where does this put Greenbaum and his employee from a liability perspective? Again as Greenbaum's employer, operating in the litigious United States, I be implementing policies that limit my exposure to potential lawsuits that could be borne out of this sort of thing.

    • The standard practice in dealing with 'abuse' (however that term is ultimately defined by an organization) is to send an email to the RFC specified contact address of abuse@domain with the required detail to enable them to investigate and take action to resolve the problem. In this case that should have been both the WordPress email Greenbaum referenced *and* the snippet of webserver logs
      to corroborate it.

      In this case, a phone call was certainly out of the norm. If Mr Greenbaum had simply followed standard practice, he likely wouldn't be getting the heat he's dealing with right now. Frankly, it's something he should have been passing off to the Post-Dispatch IT department to deal with. Moderation should involve approving or disallowing posts. It's not so much that what Mr Greenbaum did was wrong – it's that he was the wrong person at the Post-Dispatch to be doing it.

      The bigger problem in my view is the school. Firing or requesting the staffers resignation seems extreme, but who knows what the history was. The real problem is that they followed up with Mr. Greenbaum to share specific results of their investigation. What would have been appropriate is a template email with some version of “We've investigated your report and taken corrective action to resolve it.”

      That's it.

      • After reading all the comments here, I'd dearly love to know for whom tremaine_lea moderates/manages comments because re report to his/her employer might well be in order!

        • That'd be a pretty short report Jason, I'm a self employed contractor ;) That said, if you've read the rest of my comments you'll also have realized that I was responsible for resolving complaints received from people just like Mr. Greenbaum.

          The difference is that because I'm a professional, I would never have told Mr. Greenbaum anything aside from 'we've investigated and resolved the issue.' The school (whether it was the headmaster or the head of IT) should never have responded with anything more detailed. Certainly not the status of the commenters employment.

          People *should* be outraged. They should be outraged that an organization would terminate employment or accept a resignation for something this small. They should be outraged that the school shared that information with a party who by rights shouldn't be privileged with it. They should be concerned at the level of monitoring necessary to make it possible to so easily track it down.

          The only thing Mr. Greenbaum has done wrong is gloat after the fact. Gloating about the incident is just gauche and uncalled for. It smacks of immature childish taunting.

          That he he reported a ToS violation of the newspapers website to the administrator responsible for the IP address it came from should be a complete non-issue. It's the most effective and reliable way to ensure the person actually responsible for the problem is contacted and stops.

          The gloating is just out of line and unprofessional. I'm just amazed that the level of vitriol being spent on Mr. Greenbaum isn't also being directed at the organization that terminated the man's employment. They're the ones who forced or otherwise accepted the resignation – a gross overreaction to what happened. A simple warning (or even adding a written warning to his employment record) should have sufficed.

          And any anger about violation of the man's privacy should be also directed at the school. And IP address is not protected under privacy law anywhere, and neither is a timestamp. The man's employment status however, should have been.

          I don't mind the level of outrage, just that so much of it is misdirected in it's entirety.

  14. Thanks for sharing…

  15. I have just finished reading about 250 comments (out of 300+ and growing) at the so called “apology” post.

    What Mr. Greenbaum fails to understand is that the outrage that has exploded over this incident is NOT in defense of the vulgar-word commentator. The outrage is directed where it should be: at Mr. Greenbaum for being the thought police, using his profession to get someone fired, violating the privacy policy of the website, his gleeful, snide and moral-high high horse attitude, and his utter hypocrisy at turning around and calling the guy at jacka$$ on his twitter feed.

  16. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch comments are chock full of racist, sexist and homophobic comments, not to mention flaming rants. And yet Greenbaum decided to moderate a one-word frat-boy type of comment in such a way that he's committed a clear violation of the paper's privacy policy?

    “We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information. In some cases, however, we may provide information to legal officials as described in “Compliance with Legal Process” below.”

    The racist, sexist and homophobic comments are so vile and so commonly ignored by Greenbaum that there's actually a site – http://stltomorrow.org/ – and facebook group detailing the situation – http://www.facebook.com/pages/STLtomorrow/20066

    Long gone are the days when journalists went to jail because they would not give up a name, and yet, here is someone, a 'director' no less, calling up and offering enough info to identify someone who lost their job over nonsense. And then he gloated about it. Repeatedly. Both in responding to comments and in a blog post. Also, that 'apology' is not an apology, but a further justification.

    By the way, this is two separate issues: 1. what Greenbaum did and has continued to do, and 2. what the school did. Also, we don't really know if the person really did resign or was fired, and we all know that some people are often given the choice to resign rather than be fired. We only have Greenbaum's sketchy word that the person resigned voluntarily.

    Back on September 3, 2009, Greebaum posted this:

    6 reasons we’re lazy about story comments
    http://www.igreenbaum.com/2009/09/6-reasons-wer

    And apparently, he's not getting much support from media pros in his area (registration required)

    STL Media Message Board
    http://stlmedia.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=p

    We all make mistakes, but Greenbaum seems not willing to admit his, let alone learn from them. I had to chuckle at one comment which suggested that he retake whatever test he took to get his 'Director of Social Media' job, and speculated that perhaps he got it because he had the most Facebook friends. Seriously though, apparently Greenbaum has near three decades of experience as a reporter. He should have know better, and he should have done better.

  17. I live in St. Louis and read, or used to read, this site and there is more to this story.

    First of all, the one word was in response to a question: what is the most unusual thing you've ever eaten? As others have pointed out, the response that was typed was obviou given such a silly question.

    In addition the St. Louis Today web site is notorious for its being technically challenged. It's not usual for a comment not to go through the first time, so you re-submit. The person's first comment was deleted immediately, the second a couple of minutes later. Rather than assume the person was being belligerent, the site should have assumed that the person resubmitted either by accident, or thinking something happened with the first submittal.

    Another reason many of us who read the site are angry is that the site has actively defended comments that are racist, sexist, bigoted, and homophobic. Blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, and bigoted. Yet, here they pursued a comment that was, at worst, mildly vulgar, and even understandable considering the question.

    Even then, the site could have deleted the comment a second time (you know how easy this is with WordPress). And blocked this specific poster. Or added the word to the WordPress blacklist. Or done any number of things.

    What the site did, was violate its own privacy policy, and then Greenbaum bragged about it after the effect.

    The only lesson learned from this event is you can't trust the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You certainly can't trust Greenbaum.

  18. I love that the P-D goes ahead an embeds an video complete with “colorful” language: http://www.stltoday.com/blogzone/pictures/video

    Hypocrites.

  19. He should not have gone too far and contacted the school. It is enough that the comments were moderated. He could just have simply banned the person from the site. To cause another person to lose his job is a heavy burden on the conscience.

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