April 9, 2014 Last Updated 7:24 am

Comment spam discourages many websites from trying to build communities of readers

The growth of comment trolling has led many websites to turn off commenting, moves that have been met with criticism by some journalists who have never had to moderate comments themselves. Frustrated with both the amount of trolling and the growth of spam commenting, editors have had to make a choice between increasing their comment moderating, requiring registrations, or simply turning off comments.

Last year the editors at Popular Science said they had had enough, they were turning off comments.

“It wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” Suzanne LeBarrre wrote. “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

Commentspam-lgThe catalyst for the move was the continued commenting whenever a story regarding evolution or climate change appeared. While the article would reflect the consensus of the scientific community, the commenting appeared to show that there was, in fact, no consensus as commenter after commenter refuted the claims.

A column in The Washington Post applauded the move, but the comments on the story accused the Popular Science, and the columnist, of stifling debate about these subjects. In other words, the comment trolls were everywhere.

But the move to shut down commenting would not be so easy a decision were it not for the rise of commenting spamming. Unlike advocates of intelligent design or climate change deniers, comment spam is less political and more driven by money. Comment spam can range from simply someone pushing fake designer handbags, to pure gibberish. And it is not a new phenomenon.

Wired magazine wrote about comment spam back in 2003, and its description of it would be familiar to any website owner.

“The first arrivals drifted in innocuously, like the stray seagulls lurking during the early minutes of Hitchcock’s The Birds. They were mostly phrased as salutations and praise, posted to the reader comments area of many popular blogs. Harmless notes, at face value, but they harbored a secret menace.”

Wired placed the blame for comment spam squarely at the doorstep of Google, which then, and to a certain degree, still does elevate certain websites based on the links into that site. But Wired was very sure that the rise in comment spam would be defeated by the countermeasures being taken by website owners.

This proved to be a very bad prediction. If anything, comment spam is far worse today that it has been in the past. The reason may be the economy, where far too many people have too much time on their hands, and the few pennies they can earn make the effort worth while.

But ad revenue from web traffic is big business, and so the incentives to drive web traffic, even phony web traffic, is huge. Google owned websites earned $37 billion in revenue last year, a 20 percent growth from the previous year, and much of that revenue is advertising. Globally, Internet ad revenue is projected to grow to $121 billion this year and represent nearly a quarter of all ad dollars spent by marketers.

Yet estimates are that well over a quarter of all web traffic is “phony” (the WSJ puts it at 36 percent) – driven by sensational headlines, paid traffic, phony referrals, and comment spam.

Most media observers are treating all this as simply part of the web, but the lack attention being brought to the problem is allowing the behavior to evolve into organized criminal activity. There are millions of dollars to be made at this game, and the company feeding the trough is still Google.

If Wired prediction proved to be wrong, then let’s try another here: over the next few years the management and oversight of the Internet will continue to be a concern, thanks to the U.S. government’s behavior. Because of this, many governments and international organizations will begin debating new ways to oversee the web. As part of the conversation may be further criminalizing web activities such as comment spamming and phony traffic. The idea that “the web should be open” and that “comments build communities” is so obviously outdated that one has to question the credibility of the digital-firsters who continue to advocate for these positions. They are stuck in the nineties, unaware of just how ugly things have gotten.

But the goal, an open Internet, where communities can be built, is still a worthy goal. The problem before us is how to clean things up so this is possible.

  • Thomas 4 years ago

    My comment system is integrated with Askimet, Honeypot, botscout, Mollum, and a few others. I have captcha on but since these are real people typing the spam (or copying and pasting), the aforementioned plugins do 99% of the job and they never get published. The bigger ones like Askimet have plugins for just about every CMS and comment platform, so it’s worth looking into. It can be stopped, but most laypeople don’t want to bother investigating preventative measures.