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At first, there was something refreshing and amusing about the talkback. It was part of the Internet revolution in the news media. The talkback, the readers' response format that Yedioth Ahronoth and then Maariv started operating, seemed to be a sort of virtual Hyde Park - a celebration of democracy and freedom of speech. For who said all wisdom is concentrated among a handful of journalists or "individuals of note" to whom a newspaper allocates space, whether on paper or in cyberspace?

However, when Haaretz also opened such a response format, albeit mainly for opinion pieces, and the other sites' talkback formats fell into a generally uniform pattern at the same time, the trend became deeply troubling. It also seems to be straying from its worthy causes. It is not by chance that this format has not been adopted by any respectable newspaper in the world.

While the talkback appears to be open to anyone with access to a computer and modem, a few groups seem to have taken over a large part of the virtual space with the intention of influencing public opinion, or creating the false impression that public opinion is leaning toward a certain direction.

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 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.

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.

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.

This does not mean that there are no interesting, intelligent and even humorous and ironic responses on the talkbacks; but these are quite rare. I do not know what motivated Haaretz to adopt the talkback idea. I do not believe that it has boosted the paper's sales and its income from advertising. Perhaps the purpose was to provide a stage for exceptional opinions, or those that do not conform to the standard and are not reflected in the printed edition.

However, I do know already what the responses to this article are going to be, and which virtual figure will be making them.