Fact-Checking the New York Times

I have a few more points to make in response to Jonathan Dee’s article about me in the New York Times. (Then I’ll drop it, I promise.)

First, one assertion Dee makes is actually checkable:

L.G.F. still has more than 34,000 registered users, but the comment threads are dominated by the same two dozen or so names.

When the NYT fact checker called and asked me if this was accurate, I told him the count of registered users was accurate, but that the “two dozen or so” estimate for the number of unique commenters was probably low. Sure enough, though, the “two dozen” number is what made it into the article.

This isn’t a statistic I’ve ever looked at before, so I didn’t think too much about it at the time; but now that the article’s out and I read it again, I realized that a simple database query could fact-check Dee’s assertion — specifically:

SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT authorid) FROM comments WHERE created >= DATE_SUB(NOW(), INTERVAL 30 DAY)

This MySQL query gives me the count of unique commenter IDs within the last 30 days. Here are the results from several time spans, showing the actual number of unique commenters actively posting comments:

30 days - 836 unique commenters
7 days - 421 unique commenters
1 day - 157 unique commenters

Clearly, far more than “two dozen” people are regularly posting comments.

What about Dee’s claim that “two dozen” of these dominate the discussions? Well, obviously some commenters are more prolific than others (you know who you are), but here’s a MySQL query to summarize the number of comments posted by each unique person:

SELECT commentauthor AS Author, COUNT( id ) AS Number FROM comments WHERE created >= DATE_SUB(NOW( ) , INTERVAL 30 DAY) GROUP BY Author ORDER BY Number DESC

Again, this time span (30 days) produces 836 unique users, but in that group there were 151 people who posted at least 100 comments, and a lot more people who posted at least 50 comments.

So it seems Jonathan Dee’s rough estimate was more than a little bit off.

The other issue I’ll bring up before dropping the whole thing is Dee’s description of the purpose of the “monitor” lizards (there are currently four):

And a handful of those have been empowered by Johnson sub rosa to watch as well — to delete critical comments and, if necessary, to recommend the offenders for banishment.

I explained to Dee and to the NYT fact checker that this description is not accurate, but they still printed it.

This is what I told them, because it’s the absolute truth: the monitor lizards are entrusted with the power to delete comments that are abusive/obscene/trollish, or that violate one of the rules at the top of each thread. I’ve never instructed any monitor to delete comments simply for being “critical,” and if a comment were deleted for that purpose alone I would probably restore it. In fact, I have restored a few comments deleted by monitors, but very few — because the people I’ve given this ability understand the guidelines pretty well.

Here’s an example of a comment deleted by a monitor a few days ago while I was traveling; I restored it as a demonstration of the kinds of comments most often deleted by them.

Most of the comments deleted by monitors are similar to this one — juvenile obscenities and insults. I don’t know if Jonathan Dee considers this “criticism,” but in a discussion forum this kind of obnoxious trolling adds nothing to a discussion but ugliness, and is a turn-off to the majority of sane people.

Another common reason for deletion: if a comment contains a link to a hate site such as the neo-Nazi Stormfront.

Obviously, these aren’t the only reasons a comment might be deleted. There are many gray areas and situations that are hard to anticipate with clear rules, so there’s some necessary leeway for each monitor to exercise their own judgment. But none of them were ever told to delete comments simply for being “critical.”

To summarize: Jonathan Dee apparently made up his assertion about the monitors out of thin air, and made a very inaccurate estimate of the number of regular commenters at LGF.

OK, now I’ll drop it.

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