'We're looking for mistresses': How obit site Legacy combats trolling the deceased

Trolls know no bounds, even when people leave this earth.

Legacy.com, a leading obituary site, ends up filtering out 25 percent of its 1 million guestbook comments, either because they’re religious proselytizers or people saying inappropriate things about the deceased. It has even built a homegrown system to catch and delete objectionable entries and employs 85 people (out of a total staff of 200) whose job is to filter comments. After all, you can imagine how the grieving would react to the trolling of a recently departed family member.

“Most people who come to our site come to be positive,” said Katie Falzone, who’s been in charge of screening for 14 years and is now senior director of operations. “That said, there are some people who don’t follow that category.”

By necessity, technology has become a big component of the screening process. Legacy hosts obits for 1,500 newspaper clients in the U.S. and abroad, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News. It gets thousands of messages an hour that it has to sift through. In 2009, when the volume became too big for its human staff, Legacy built a system to automatically catch and delete objectionable entries

Legacy errs on the side of discretion. It defaults to the family’s wishes in deciding what comments are OK to post and what’s not. Today, the system has 30,000 rules to flag religious spam or words concerning matters that families want to keep private, like the deceased’s suicide or drug addiction.

Even otherwise innocuous phrases like “Great news!” get flagged, because that’s not a nice thing to say when someone died. Another area rife with rules: extramarital affairs. “Essentially, we’re looking for mistresses, or people who had a relationship with the deceased who aren’t mentioned in the obituary,” Falzone said.

Flagged comments are automatically deleted or submitted for review by an experienced screener, and the rules are constantly updated. “It’s not the sort of thing you can totally automate, because people can always find new ways to say bad things,” Falzone said.

People are still essential to the screening process. Steve Parrott, Legacy’s CEO, said, the high emphasis on screening keeps the families and site’s newspaper clients happy and helps visitors engaged. In contrast, Tributes, a rival site that Legacy bought last year, left screening to the families and funeral homes, and engagement suffered, he said. “When you’ve got those three main constituents telling you how valuable it is, we have to honor that,” he said.

The screeners — which include retirees, freelance writers, law school dropouts looking for meaningful work — work from home so they can focus, and are concentrated in the morning and evening time periods, when traffic to the site peaks. Screeners go through a timed screening test before they’re hired that’s meant to test their judgment and persistence. Once hired, they go through 30 hours of training before moving to real-life screening. If an inappropriate comment gets through and is published anyway, the system lets Legacy track it back to the screener responsible and monitor screener activity for any pattern of errors.

“It’s very rare, but sometimes we do make mistakes,” Falzone said. “We do terminate people who post inappropriate entries because that’s the core of the job.”

In rare cases, Legacy has recommended that the family close the guestbook to comments, such as in a few cases where the deceased was a criminal who died by electrocution; it was hard to see what would be gained by keeping the comments open. Other areas are grayer. In one case, a transgender person died and the family didn’t recognize the deceased’s chosen gender and closed the guestbook. In cases like that, Legacy can offer friends the ability to create a separate memorial section. “It was definitely a tough situation because there was this whole community that wanted to talk about this person,” Falzone said.

And in some cases, Legacy lets the negative comments stay. Falzone recalled the case of a child who died as a result of medical mistakes, where screeners felt it would be helpful to the family to join a conversation about how the medical system failed them.

If there’s one thing to be hopeful about, it’s that in her 14 years, Falzone hasn’t seen a huge deterioration in the nature of the comments. “Families have the same issues over time,” she said.