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Vestal: Shock seems misplaced over online-comments masquerade

Wed., May 25, 2011

It’s reprehensible, really.

Shocking.

A big shot with the Arizona company that runs Spokane’s red-light photo program has been commenting online. Anonymously.

Or, actually, not even anonymously – dishonestly. Under a name that’s not even his.

I know it’s hard to believe, but what this guy did was go onto websites and sign in under pseudonyms – including one based on a “Star Wars” character – and post self-interested, dishonest, unhelpful, misleading comments on news stories.

Simply stunning. He went online and acted like a jerk under a fake name.

The news has left us all reeling.

Bill Kroske signed in at the websites for the Everett Herald and The Spokesman-Review – and, for all we know, the Chattanooga Free-Press – under names that would suggest he was just a normal, disinterested citizen stopping by for some public discourse and dropping some opinions that just so happened to favor the company he works for, American Traffic Solutions.

The company runs the “Photo Red” programs, the red-light cash cow, and Kroske pretended to be a mythical creature: a regular citizen who likes it.

When editors at the Herald unmasked him the company suspended the executive.

“Unfortunately, he did it the wrong way,” spokesman Charles Territo said. “We believe that you should be authentic and honest when engaging.”

Authentic and honest. Sure. Isn’t that what online engagement is all about?

I thought I’d see what the commentariat at the S-R’s website had to say. One writer called it “deceit,” and referred to Kroske, who went by Obie1 here, as an idiot and a scoundrel. That person goes by “greenlibertarian.”

“Monkeyman” called it fraud.

“Tesseract” said that the people who run these companies are nothing but greedy liars, just like all politicians.

“Woamike” said you could say the EXACT same thing about Obamacare.

“Rosehips” said: “I bet this kind of thing happens all the time.”

I think rosehips may be onto something.

I’m not trying to suggest that the general nature of online commenting – gasbagging for fun under made-up names – is the same thing as what Kroske did – gasbagging for profit under made-up names.

Just pretty damn close. They come from the same hemisphere on the authenticity/honesty map. The avatar/user name/Twitter handle universe. And, full disclosure, I participate in this myself: Though I use my name online, I use a jokey photo on Facebook and Twitter (Yes! Twitter! Follow me! I’m begging you! @vestal13!).

That’s neither authentic nor honest. And I am, in a manner of speaking, trying to sell you something: a favorable image of me, some self-promotion for my writing, the notion that my child is the most adorable little Halfling on the planet.

I don’t like what Kroske did. We have a significant problem in this country with fake populism – monied interests masquerading as regular citizenry. But it was, pretty much, what people do in the place that he did it. He was B.S.-ing in the land of B.S.

We’ve courted and encouraged this in the news business, believing for a long while that this sort of engagement was somehow part of a new model for the craft. Tell us what you think! How’d you like the weather? Should sex offenders be released near schools? Are your children in danger?

What has sprung up, not just at newspapers but almost everywhere, is a blizzard of glib self-righteousness, off-the-cuff expertise, unearned certainty, meanness and mendacity.

Not all of it. Just most of it.

The main thing newspapers have done to foster this is … nothing. Because interactivity is treasured, newspapers, like most websites, allow anyone to get on and sign on as their favorite “Star Wars” character, and say whatever they want about anyone or anything. And up it goes, unedited, unchecked.

Checking and editing would require someone to check and edit.

If you don’t like this turn of events, you are a dinosaur. A naïve-o-saurus. If you suggest that we try – at least give it a shot, futile as it may be – to set standards for identifying commenters, then you are beyond dinosauric. You are crude oil. You are over, man.

If someone goes too far, we’ll take it down after the fact. Or, as in this case, a newspaper might finally check out the comments that came flooding through the open door, to see if they actually, you know, comport with the “rules.”

Kroske crossed the line prohibiting commercial activities. Because he signed on under his real name and used his company email address, once someone started looking, it was easy to figure out.

So: Misdemeanor? Felony? Infraction?

It doesn’t much matter. Online discussion is what it is, newspapers aren’t going to suddenly start vetting comments, and most people who look at online discussions expect them to be mendacious nonsense.

So what’s my problem? I guess it’s the going- through-the-motions of it all. The pretense. We throw open the door to anything, and then act shocked when just anything comes strolling in.

Even when it calls itself Obie1.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him at Twitter at @vestal13.


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