“A perverse person stirs up conflict and a gossip separates close friends,” states Proverbs 16:28. That biblical statement is so true, that even atheists agree. What used to be passed around in class on small notes of paper or overheard on community phone lines are now broadcasted through text messages or tweeted through Twitter. Whether you call it cyber bullying or spreading an urban legend, gossiping is still trendy.
One website in particular taking heat for its’ part is Topix.com. The site links news from 67,000 sources to 450,000 new topics. It is a privately held company tied with Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune. According to the site, “Topix is the leading news community on the Web, connecting people to the information and discussions that matter to them in every U.S. town and city….By giving everyone access to the tools to talk – and an audience to listen – Topix redefines what it means to make the news.”
However, suspected abuse of these freedoms caused the creation of another website – ToxicTopix.com. They allege “innocent people have repeatedly reported abuse to Topix about harassment, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, anti-Semitism, attacks on personal and business reputations, and other damage.” According to ToxicTopix, despite being mostly owned by leading news organizations, Topix does not investigate, author nor edit any of its news. It allows anyone access to post anonymous comments in their forums as well. Unlike sites like Facebook, Topix does not require users to give their real name and can use multiple names if they so desire.
Topix was one of the topics of the Today Show on September 28, 2011. In a segment called “Talk of the Town,” reporter Kevin Tibbles did a story on a small community in Mountain Grove, MO where 4,000 residents have gotten into the habit of airing their grievances on the website. One resident calls those who post, “cyber terrorists.”
In the new story, Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, says “It is really important, especially in civic discourse in a small town, to be able to put your point of view across without getting punished for it.” He also says that when a complaint is lodged about someone “talking smack” about another, that they “take care of it.”
The Topix website does explain how to get posts removed from the site by sending a direct link to the content through their feedback system. There, the moderators will review the content for violations of the Terms of Service. However, the Terms of Service, also clearly states, “We have no duty to pre-screen your content or the content of others, but we have the right to refuse to post or to edit submitted content. You understand and acknowledge that by using Topix, you may be exposed to content that may be offensive, indecent or objectionable.” It even goes as far to say, “If it upsets you that the free expression of ideas is often headed and offensive, please do not use Topix.”
In the September 19, 2011 edition of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger featured Topix in a cover story. In the article, Sulzberger also interviewed Tolles where he admitted that the site at one point tried to remove all negative posts, but stopped after noticing that the commentators had stopped visiting the site. He also went on to say that the site received about 125,000 posts a day in forum for about 5,000 cities and towns. About nine percent are screened out for offensive content (like racial slurs), and another three percent (mostly threat and libel) are removed AFTER people complain. To add insult to injury, the site even charged for the expedited removal of offensive comments but stopped after being challenged by more than 30 state attorneys.
Sulzberger also says in his article “Despite the screening efforts, the site is full of posts that seem to cross lines. Topix, as an Internet forum, is immune from libel suits under federal law, but those who post could be sued, if they are found. The company receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commenters as part of law enforcement investigations or civil suits, some of which have resulted in cash verdicts or settlements.”
But what about the innocent bystander who hasn’t posted anything to the site, but is talked about by others? Unless you actually read every post, you may not event know that others are talking about you. To get an idea of the kinds of post commenters are making on the site, the New York Times article gives a few examples where people are called out by name and sin.