Why the Independent Media panel on reader commentary disappointed

The panel advising Independent Media on its handling of hate and other objectionable online reader commentary has recommended that these newspapers start pre-editing all online reader commentary or close it down.

This is worrying. It will cost significant money to pre-edit all this material, so management will be tempted in these tough times to shut it down – which would be a retrogressive step.

Besides, pre-editing worries me, as it closes down the space for conversation and debate rather than targeting the seriously problematic material.

The panel was set up by company chair Dr Iqbal Survé who was concerned about the amount of hate speech and other offensive material in the readers’ comments on the company’s news sites. It seemed somewhat over-the-top to have a six-person team to go through such an elaborate process to set policy on a standard media issue. But this might have been because Dr Survé wants to take firm action without evoking even more of the hostility he has faced in the media world.

And it seemed strange to put together a team without anyone with much frontline experience in handling this problem. Just two weeks ago, there were two international experts in town discussing how they have grappled with this issue in England and Germany – James Lamont, managing editor of the Financial Times, and Anita Zielina, formerly of Stern – both of whom had fascinating and important ideas on this front. It seems that the panel did not hear what was being said by some of those on the cutting edge of this global debate. A pity.

In short, the panel recommended that the company:
– adopts a narrow definition of unacceptable speech which takes into account local conditions
– appoints internal moderators to vet all reader comment prior to publication (rather than cleaning it up afterwards)
– that all commentators be required to register to ensure that are accountable for their views and do not abuse anonymity
– that if this proved unaffordable, it would be preferable to close down commentary than allow it to continue uncontrolled. The report indicates that this was a majority, and not a unanimous view of the panel.

I am with them on the narrow definition of what should be considered unacceptable. There needs to be great care to avoid the temptation to remove what is merely controversial or even offensive.

And I can (reluctantly) accept the requirement for commentators to register. Anonymity does sometimes allow difficult things to be said which need to be said, but it also makes it too easy to dish up hate speech or defamation.

I believe it would be in the interests of open debate and discussion to avoid pre-editing, but rather have moderators who can move quickly to remove material which crosses the line and even blacklist repeat offenders. Readers’ help can be solicited to make this fast and efficient, as can technology.

But if the pre-publication moderators have a light touch, focusing only on the truly problematic material, then the temptation to be too controlling can be avoided.

I am worried that the panel has opened the door to Independent – under pressure like all newspaper groups to cut costs – just closing down commentary, or closing most of it down, as this is contrary to the spirit of open and free exchanges of views on the internet.

But what concerns me the most is that they have proposed only a defensive policy, rather than a positive one which would embrace the value of user participation in online discussion and debate. Perhaps this is because they were asked to come up with a strategy to deal with hate speech, rather than what would have been a more progressive attempt to encourage and enable good, valuable and rich reader engagement.

There is both a moral and a business case for a more positive approach. The moral case is that we want South Africans to be active, participative citizens and this involves engaging in public debate, even if we don’t like some views.

The business case is that every site needs to work on its “stickiness”, its capacity to keep its audience involved so that they stay with the site. And participation is crucial to this.

A site without reader commentary would be a step back towards old media rather than embracing the interactive, participatory power of new media.

Lamont told of times when the FT had simply closed down comment sections when they were abused. But he also spoke of the value of the online conversation and the need to find ways to highlight the good, intelligent, informed and useful commentary, and isolate the rubbish. And Zielina spoke of ways of embracing readers as moderators and recognizing and encouraging those who offered worthwhile commentary – and not just homing in on the negative.

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