While much of the internet is still talking about the Los Angeles Times' aborted "Wikitorial" experiment, nobody seems to have noticed that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (which I scrape for RSS feeds, since the official feeds are only accessible in Hebrew) recently added a "Talkback" feature to their website, following the lead of other Israeli dailies. Online readers are able to add their personal comments at the end of articles. Unfortunately, a recent article in the paper suggests that that at least one author is not happy with how they have turned out.


Channel 2 reported on Saturday night that almost all the advertising and public relations' agencies employ people who respond in favor of their clients and transmit hundreds of messages under different names and nicknames on every site. Thus, they create a sudden sequence of dozens of "spontaneous" responses for or against a certain figure, opinion, act or shortcoming. However, it is clear that these reactions lose their significance if they are published by professional responders.

The only way to stop astroturfing is to provide a framework in which the offenders can be discovered. Mandatory registration combined with a easy way to view the history of a user's comments might help.


The possibility to respond anonymously, or under a false name, or publish a large number of responses of a certain nature, attracts people who use the talkback as a venue for their aggression and personal, political or social frustrations. This trend fits in well with the growing verbal and physical violence in every sphere. Some responses are characterized by obscene language, verbal abuse and biased, manipulative information.

Again, comment registration tied to permanent user accounts would help. Given the divisive nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a community-based moderation system (like that used at Slashdot) might be useful in weeding out ridiculously offensive or absurd comments.


There is reasonable concern that at least some of the journalists are influenced by the talkbacks in a way that could induce them to write or select subjects in a way that would evoke as many responses as possible. After all, numerous responses would be an indication of the great interest their article aroused.

Hire better authors. Seriously, I do not think this is a major concern. Then again, this article about trackbacks has generated over 300 responses, while the second most popular article has generated less than 200.

Read The Fucking Article

But these journalists do not realize that most of the attention is focused on the talkback itself and most responders do not refer to the article at all, but to the ongoing chats and curses among themselves. It is doubtful whether all of them even read the article to which they are responding.

Again, moderation would help here. Off-topic comments could then be deleted or otherwise hidden.

The problem is not that the trackbacks exist, it is that they are unregulated. By forcing people to be accountable for what they post, Haaretz could increase the quality while moderating the tone of its online trackback discussions.