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Hot Topix: Web site forum draws criticism

Sunday, September 28, 2008

SIKESTON -- It's a hot topic: are Internet forums for area cities a great place for community discussions or just a way to anonymously slam people and businesses and get away with it?

In what some might see as ironic, a caller to SpeakOut -- the Standard Democrat's forum for anonymous comments -- suggested Sikeston should "start a petition ... and get rid of Topix in Sikeston."

"It's nothing but a gossip site," the caller stated. "To be able to put people's names in there and say what you want, which is usually no truth or partial truth, is wrong."

And many agree.

"I think it's a bad thing," said Tim Wall, a Sikeston resident and business owner.

Wall said he has personal experience with the nasty side of Topix.

"My name has been blasted all over that thing," he said. "Since being bashed, I have gotten on there and monitored it. They bash everybody and it's just downright mean. Unfortunately people get on there and read that and believe it to be true even though most intelligent people would see it and know (the posters) just have an axe to grind."

"We get thousands of comments every day," said Chris Tolles, chief executive officer of Topix. "Certainly there will be some controversial material appearing now and then."

Tolles said Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "global village," said that "what ties together the global village is gossip."

"There is a very large amount of online engagement going on," Tolles said. He said the "vast majority" of posts are not problematic and that it is actually a "small amount of stuff that has people up in arms."

As of press time, there were just over 1,000 "threads" or topics on the list for the Topix Sikeston discussion forum alone. Subjects range from discussions on national topics to local events.

The titles of many threads name businesses and individuals, however, and "opinions" included in those discussions range from complimentary and informative to vulgar and even what appears to be libelous.

"I think some of these things are very hurtful," said Dennis Ziegenhorn, county commissioner. "I don't want to take away the freedom of press but if someone has a problem with me I would rather they come to me than write something where I don't know where they are. If they have a problem with someone, tell them."

Ziegenhorn said he isn't a fan of SpeakOut for that matter either, but noted that SpeakOut comments are at least screened and statutes are in place for newspapers.

"Reporters that have to report the news report facts," he said. "With the Internet there is a lot of positive but there's a lot of negative that goes with it."

"There is nobody on there to check that stuff," Wall said. "They should at least have sort of moderator."

"We certainly have controls in place," Tolles said, but added that these controls are "under the surface" and not advertised. Algorithms are used, Tolles said, to filter offensive material from the site.

Asked about the Topix policy of not requiring registration to post, Tolles said they researched registration and determined there is no feasible way to authenticate identities.

Tolles said their statistics on complaints tell them non-registered users get 50 percent more banned posts but are contributing five times as many posts.

Topix is still able to ban users by IP address and domain, Tolles said, and "people who are problematic for us are banned" regardless of whether they are registered or not. "We have a full time moderation staff that look at every complaint," he said.

Wall said he has reported posts and nothing happened -- the posts remained in place. "The posts I reported were very inflammatory and libelous," he said. "Just bashing for the sake of bashing."

Tolles said Topix gets 150,000 comments per day from 20,000 cities and towns. He said their four full-time moderators are sufficient to address all the complaints.

"That doesn't mean we do everything people want," Tolles said. "That doesn't mean every time someone is unhappy we are going to take down the post."

Wall said that as he received no action from the Web site, he is taking it up with the Attorney General's office. "They are supposed to be assigning me an investigator," he said.

"We really haven't received a lot of complaints," said John Fougere, spokesman for the Attorney General. "Very, very few."

"Anonymous commentary and the ability to post a negative comment about someone is a part of the freedom of speech," Tolles said. "What the Internet does is provide a mass communication system."

Tolles said Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act states Web sites are not responsible for opinions of third parties posting on their site.

"We act to take down things that are clearly libelous," Tolles said. But, he added, "in terms of our legal liability, there is none."

Tolles said they do make efforts to assist law enforcement with their requests for information in the investigation of crimes as well comply with subpoenas for civil libel cases.

In the end, Tolles said, posts say more about the community than his Web site.

"This is Missouri entering the 21st century, this is the future, this is what it's going to be like. It isn't always going to be pretty," he said. "People want to talk about what they want to talk about. ... Who is to decide what you or I get to say? ... I'm just a platform providing a forum for people to say what they want. We're just a mirror."