Patterico's Pontifications


Cloaking Comments at the San Francisco Chronicle Website (and ThinkProgress) [Updated]

Filed under: Blogging Matters,Media Bias — DRJ @ 3:44 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Note this Updated Post dated 11/30/2007.

Update 11/26/2007: The blog discussed below, Investigate the Media, makes the following claims [emphasis supplied]:

“Why would SFGate do such a thing? Because ever since public input was first allowed at SFGate, many commenters who had their comments deleted would come back onto the comment thread and point out that they had been silenced for ideological reasons — i.e. they weren’t sufficiently “progressive” — or because they had pointed out ethical lapses at SFGate and the Chronicle. Or any number of other reasons that the Chronicle did not want known. So, to pacify these problematic commenters, the SFGate moderators came up with a very clever and underhanded coding trick to prevent deleted commenters from ever finding out that they had been silenced.

Now, I’m certain that there are plenty of comments on SFGate that indeed merit deletion, and plenty of commenters who say patently offensive things. No question about that, and no one is questioning the Chronicle’s right to delete such comments. But there are many other comments that get removed for no apparent reason, except for their political stance, or because they strike too close to home — pointing out flaws in the article’s reporting or writing itself, or ethical or moral misdeeds on the part of the Chronicle editors or management. Deleting comments such as those would be bad enough, but the Chronicle really crossed the line with their new technique of essentially lying to any commenter who has been deleted by not allowing them to even know they were deleted — so they don’t subsequently complain.”

I thought this was important although I did not do a good job making that point. (Touche’, Christoph.) Today, however, I realized that Investigate The Media only has one post. That makes me curious and, as a result, I’m updating this post to reflect my concerns.

I also have a new post here.


The Instapundit notes a hilarious World of Warcraft commercial starring Mr. T and Star Trek’s William Shatner. I guess the Star Trek reference was still with me when I read this entry about mysterious comment deletions at the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, because my first thought was that the Chronicle has discovered a cloaking device for comments:

“The San Francisco Chronicle has recently activated a devious system by which it deceives commenters on its website, Here’s how it works:

If you make a comment on an article posted at SFGate, and if the site moderators then subsequently delete your comment for whatever reason, it will only appear as deleted to the other readers. HOWEVER, your comment will NOT appear to be deleted if viewed from your own computer! The Chronicle’s goal is to trick deleted commenters into not knowing their comments were in fact deleted. I’ll give evidence below showing how they do this.”

A graylisting feature apparently deletes some comments automatically:

“[UPDATE 2, Sat., 11-24-07, 2:20pm]: Anonymous Reader Documents “Graylist” of Banned SFGate Users Who Don’t Know They’re Banned

An anonymous commenter has just documented that, at least in some cases, the comment-deletions on SFGate are automated; that all comments from certain users who have been secretly banned from the site are immediately deleted automatically; but that such deletions are not visible to the banned commenter himself. Thus, he never knows that he has been banned.”

LGF says ThinkProgress does it, too.

How ironic that champions of free speech would use technology to block speech they find offensive. It reminds me of the criticism of President Bush and the Secret Service for “quarantining dissent” in free speech zones reserved for protesters at Bush speeches.

So if you’re keeping score:

Quarantining protesters for security purposes = Bad.

Cloaking comments to shield readers from dissenting views = Good.

Automatically graylisting commenters who regularly submit dissenting views = Priceless.


50 Responses to “Cloaking Comments at the San Francisco Chronicle Website (and ThinkProgress) [Updated]”

  1. No idea if it’s true but you’re attempted equivalence to “champions of free speech”- a fair acknowledgment – is strained d without examining the reasons behind such bannings.

    That is, unless you’re saying that 1) All speech on a blog is equal (think spam) and 2) This site or by extension those “champions of costly speech” sites have never banned anyone.

    Please try harder, do. Or just try.


    Temple Stark (b43602)

  2. A different website, but I used to comment at without incident and the comments always appeared immediately; they were not deleted. Once, I pointed out how Harvey Levin had violated a California law and my comment was deleted. I have NEVER had any comment I tried to make show up on after that.

    That lowered my opinion of Harvey Levin, as if that were necessary.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  3. Temple Stark,

    You make a fair point, which I would expect from a good reporter. My statement was based on the information provided at the Investigate the Media link (4th paragraph) that non-spam, non-obscene dissenting comments were being deleted and banned. Do you think this is incorrect and, if so, why?

    DRJ (973069)

  4. The Chronicle’s sneakiness is unseemly, but the “free speech” crack is a low blow. Free speech means the government doesn’t suppress speech; it doesn’t mean a private organization like a newspaper must subsidize others’ speech.

    roy (78d4a2)

  5. You’re right, Roy, and equally, the Chronicle shouldn’t be lying to its readers. Especially those who take the time to write them and contribute to a discussion. In marketing speak, those people are known as the “mavens” and it’s really dumb to piss them off.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  6. “How ironic that champions of free speech would use technology to block speech they find offensive. ”

    Oh dear.

    whitd (10527e)

  7. if you wipe your cookie cache before returning, the chron won’t know who tf you are.

    assistant devil's advocate (7741f5)

  8. Roy,

    I didn’t say the Chronicle acted illegally, I noted the irony of deleting comments that don’t fit an acceptable narrative. The Chronicle doesn’t have to subsidize anyone’s speech but that doesn’t prohibit others from pointing out what kind of speech it finds unacceptable.

    DRJ (973069)

  9. The funniest part was that the first poster cited by instapundit was all in a tizzy because his post that started out “… you idiot …” was deleted … and he didn’t know about it so he couldn’t flush cookies and post another insult!

    bob (3e432a)

  10. To find out if you’re being deleted, a commenter needs to partner-up with someone else. Keep checking each other’s postings. “Do you see what I see, or have I been removed?”

    ManlyDad (d62cf6)

  11. After years of arguing against “designated free-speech zones“, it appears that the San Francisco Chronicle has decided to make “exclusion zones” to protect their readers from messages that the newspaper does not agree with. Hmm… Sound familiar to anyone?

    JoJo Dog (86beda)

  12. Something just occurred to me… when I was suspended from for one week, any comments I posted would, from my computer, appear to have been posted successfully, but when I cleared my cookies, which I do frequently, would no longer be there.

    I was automatically greylisted so to speak, after being clearly informed of the reason and length of time, so deception isn’t what I’m talking about here.

    I’m thinking, technically, unless there’s something I’m missing, perhaps their software just works the same way and commentators never were told they were suspended/banned and/or missed that?

    Now their reasons may be wrong, but isn’t the software working the same way this site’s does?

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  13. By the way, as someone who has built a WordPress template before, I know there is code you can use to show a comment is in moderation (usually shows text like, “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”), but’s theme is missing this code by oversight or design so it’s impossible to tell when your comments are in moderation from your own computer unless you periodically clear your cookies.

    This means, effectively, works exactly the same as the allegedly dastardly software denounced in the post above. Further, by consigning said commentator to moderation, this creates the automatic “greylist”.

    Note: This is with the tag in question looks like in my theme at the file located here: wp-content/themes/theme_name/comments.php

    <?php if ($comment->comment_approved == ‘0’) : ?>
    <em>Your comment is awaiting moderation.</em>
    <?php endif; ?>

    Feel free to add said code to this theme if the SF Chronicle’s behavior is not what you want here.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  14. * you can’t copy and paste that code verbatim, because WordPress converted the single quotes into single ‘curly quotes’. If you change those to straight single quotes in your text editor, it will work.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  15. Gekkobear at Ace of Spades HQ points out there is a difference insofar as doesn’t use a login so it’s cookie-based here. IF it did use a login, however (and WordPress has this functionality), it would still have the exact same behaviour as SF Chronicle because of the deficiency in Patterico’s theme missing this standard code.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  16. I wouldn’t be surprised at the SF Comical for doing this, intentionally or not. This is the WORST newspaper I have EVER read. It is predictable. It is regional only and most of its hard news is focused only towards the region it serves. They do not provide a fair shake to anyone that isn’t aligned with them. I take it daily and except for the sports section, goes immediately into recycling. As I pack to move back home to Texas, however, it is serving as cushion for the bottom of my moving boxes.

    Pam (0713b8)

  17. If you have a dissenting view that they don’t like, they don’t want that view to appear ANYWHERE, not just on their site. The silenced poster still believes that he has a forum to make his views known so he will forever be a contented mute.

    This cloaking scheme happened to me at about 4 years ago. They weren’t too worried about me catching them, I guess, because the leftists over there always used to reply to my posts and then one day I stopped getting any replies at all. It still took me awhile to figure it out though because I think it cloaked the ip so that when you delete the cookie and just read the threads without logging on, your post still appears there. You have to use a friend’s internet to discover the cloaking.

    The people cloaking you could theoretically reply to you on the board while cloaking THEIR response to everyone EXCEPT you so as to conceal the subterfuge.

    j curtis (8bcca6)

  18. j curtis

    Your comment about Fark is making my head hurt.
    What a life those troglodites must lead, that they find it important enough to cloak and uncloak so as to keep you in the dark.

    That’s too much bother. I’d rather just deal with the ideological impurities the old fashion way (if I were a farking liberal).

    papertiger (4d1249)

  19. Fark isn’t that lefty.

    whitd (10527e)

  20. The web has rediscovered the “Twit”. Back when FidoNet ruled the BBS scene, there was software that did this for a sysop. The user became invisible, unless someone wanted to look at the user’s posts and invisibly reply.

    Not a nice thing to do.

    htom (412a17)

  21. To find out if you’re being deleted, a commenter needs to partner-up with someone else…

    Or, write comments in Firefox, read the same page in IE (or vice versa) on the same PC. The two browsers don’t share cookies, etc.

    Not Ellers, and so are you (d169c5)

  22. I haven’t followed this intensively, but I have had commenters tell me they can still see their comments, even when they’re in moderation.

    It’s not part of some dastardly plan.

    Patterico (2586cd)

  23. Ah. Christoph’s #12 makes the same point, I see.

    Patterico (2586cd)

  24. I haven’t followed this intensively, but I have had commenters tell me they can still see their comments, even when they’re in moderation.

    That hasn’t been my experience. Is the spam catcher a different queue than moderation?

    Pablo (99243e)

  25. Yes.

    Patterico (2586cd)

  26. Alphie, for example, has posted a comment saying he can see his comment — but nobody else can, because I banned Alphie.

    (The final straw, by the way, was when he made a comment on another site about how I’m not used to convincing rational people because I kick them all off my juries. Another commenter directed my attention to that comment. It helped clarify for me whether Alphie was interested in debate, or just pissing people off.)

    nosh was banned for a similar reason: he knew the rule against disparaging my fitness for my job based on my blogging, and violated it anyway.

    Patterico (2586cd)

  27. Pat, you blocked me for a week or so I think, but my comments still appeared on my computer (though not on the “recent comments” sidebar.) Cleared the cookies on my browser and the comments themselves vanished.

    I guess that’s how the software works these days

    blah (fb88b3)

  28. Missed the earlier comments

    blah (fb88b3)

  29. The question isn’t how the Chronicle is banning comments and commenters, it’s why.

    DRJ (973069)

  30. “The question isn’t how the Chronicle is banning comments and commenters, it’s why.”

    Well, DRJ, I agree that’s a question similar to the one I made in comment #2, but I don’t think it was the question. When you go back and read your post carefully, don’t you make the how point with much greater emphasis and repetition than you do the why and when you do make the why point, don’t you mix the how with it?.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  31. I don’t agree with the paper doing this with comments unless they are obvious spam posts. But I’m not all that impressed with newspapers having a blog/comment site because of the anonymity. It encourages people to say things they might not otherwise say, particularly in terms of rudeness. obscenity or personal attacks.

    It used to be that a person who wanted their voice to be heard in a paper, magazine, etc. needed to at least let the paper know their real name, address and contact number. Requests for privacy and anonymity were generally honored.
    Once someone puts their name to it I think it helps the discourse rather than hurts it.

    Bottom line is that I’d almost rather that newspapers not have forum/comment sections. We hav one at our local newspaper and it is a total waste of time to read. But to give them credit they don’t graylist or monkey around with comments from what I’ve observed.

    voiceofreason (388d74)

  32. I generally agree with you, VOR, but there are papers that have very good blogs. I put the Houston Chronicle in that category.

    I think it depends on whether the paper sees the blog as a novelty to indulge a few readers or as a serious way to communicate with a different group of readers.

    DRJ (973069)

  33. alphie is pointing out that his initial one-week vacation was for a different offense. But I have undone bans on others after similar vacations. The reason I didn’t undo his ban was due to the referenced comment.

    Of course, he pretends that my claim was that the initial ban was for the comment on another site, which is not what I claimed. And he starts his comment with “Haha” before launching into his incorrect premise.

    Yup. I really miss him!

    Patterico (ae1f6d)

  34. This is how Moveable Type, the software for the SF blog, works. The basic idea is that you ban users who use foul language are abusive, post spam, etc. If you ban them and they know they’ve been banned, they switch user names, take countermeasures, etc. and are on their merry way junking up your blog comments again, in no time. If they don’t know they’ve been banned, they continue their destructive behavior in their own private microcosm, and eveyone else can continue un-assaulted.

    I suppose if you mis-use this feature to take out any comments with which you simply disagree–well, then, shame on you.

    You can also ban users such that they know they’ve been banned.

    Lee Kane (e796a7)

  35. SFGate requires registration to post comments. The poster lets them track, profile, and sell the info while targeting advertising at the user in exchange for the ability to comment.

    Sandboxing violates that trust.

    The answer to sandboxing is to only read comments while logged out, after clearing cookies. Only log in to comment.

    This breaks user profiling and targeted ads.

    This tactic will not work on the IMDB, which requires logging in just to read the message boards.

    Looking Glass (826f2d)

  36. Same with WordPress, which Patterico’s Pontification uses. So, basically, it isn’t a great conspiracy and Ace, DRJ, and Investigating the Media really owes an apology here or at least a serious hard core update. I could see or DRJ making one (not sure DRJ will, but can visualize it); Ace and Investigating the Media?

    Not so much.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  37. Help me out here, Christoph. What exactly should I apologize for?

    — For criticizing the Chronicle because it bans what appear to be non-spam, non-obscene comments and commenters without notice?

    — For criticizing the Chronicle for, apparently, banning dissenting comments while allowing supportive comments to remain up?

    DRJ (973069)

  38. By the way, there are a number of websites that have similar features for comments. Some are even more sophisticated than the one used by the Chronicle. For instance, College Confidential is a college website and discussion forum that has a feature where registered users can block or ignore any commenter they wish and the other commenter never knows it.

    As I said earlier, the point isn’t how the Chronicle website bans comments, it’s why they are doing it.

    DRJ (973069)

  39. I could see or DRJ making one (not sure DRJ will, but can visualize it)


    What’s with this constant picking on DRJ?

    nk (09a321)

  40. nk, come on. You have seen Patterico and I go at it in far greater detail and length. You and I have debated; I objected to a certain word you used in one of your blog posts quite strenuously, remember? And then you rethought that post somewhat as a result. And we’ve mostly been friendly after that. I was banned from this site for one week for personalizing my opinions of others in the midst of debate. You have seen many, many times where I expressed myself strongly with various people; the above is mild by comparison.

    It would be more accurate to say you have a thing for DRJ, presumably because she’s a woman, than to say I treat her differently. But to answer your question specifically:

    “What’s with this constant picking on DRJ?”

    On the merits.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  41. Actually, Christoph, it’s more accurate to say you have a thing for dominating commenters, both here and at other websites, but I’m not interested in playing your game. In any event, that’s not the point. I would appreciate an answer to my question in comment #37.

    DRJ (973069)

  42. “Help me out here, Christoph. What exactly should I apologize for?”

    DRJ, the apology, or update if you prefer (which is something I allowed for in my comment) would be to put aside allusions there is something dastardly about their technology and to remark that, yes, similar technology is used on this very site, albeit with warning given to commentators as I also stated.

    I agreed with you about the inappropriateness of blocking commentators with dissenting views and I did so quickly: See comment 2. However, you or at least the article you linked to seemed to be focusing on the technology used without realizing this is default software behavior in many instances including, apparently, here. So perhaps an update reflecting that fact would provide for a more balanced post?

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  43. I’m not really interested in “dominating” you, DRJ; would that include the numerous instances where I’ve complimented your posts and/or agreed with you?

    I am interested in expressing my viewpoint and making my points. I thought you were too. Or should I allege you wish to dominate the San Fransisco Chronicle?

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  44. Christoph,

    Every statement I made regarding the Chronicle’s use of technology concerned the fact that it was apparently used to stifle political or philosophical dissent. In my opinion, that was also the point of the website I linked.

    I respect that you disagree with my viewpoint, and I’m glad you’ve made your case in the comments to support your view. It’s good to hear different sides of an issue and now we’ll let the readers decide for themselves.

    DRJ (973069)

  45. I agree with your viewpoint. I more or less said that in comment 2.

    Comment 12 happened when I just suddenly remembered my experience and thought readers should know the technology may not have been manipulated or built to order to produce the result it did. I think readers are owed clarity insofar as the software used by SF Chronicle is apparently default or at least similar to that used here and is not necessarily part of their master plan. They may have used it in a crappy way, but people should understand the software’s behavior may not especially have been sought out by them. I thought your post, and the one(s) you linked to, didn’t make that clear to the reader.

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  46. Christoph –

    SFChron is not doing it inadvertently; they’ve even bragged about it. Look at the updates at the original site that broke the story:

    jim2 (4e2574)

  47. Read the updates again, Jim. Topix, a commenting forum software company, bragged about its capability. Prospero, another company, supposedly does the same thing. As the site you linked to states:

    “…I don’t know for sure if SFGate uses either the Topix or Prospero software. “

    Christoph (92b8f7)

  48. Christoph –

    Ah, missed the distinction. Fair enough.

    Before I go off and self-smite head (“D’uh”), has SFChron been heard from on this yet?

    jim2 (4e2574)

  49. THIS BLOG works like that. Sheesh. You nattering nitwits make me sick. Go listen to some Rush Limbaugh and think about how smart you are. GRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

    TCO (625d97)

  50. Christoph –

    Any reactions to the recent news on this from SFChron?

    jim2 (92c692)

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