Moderating or closing comment sections – the Independent Media Advisory Panel report

trollsWhile I would have wanted to submit comment to Independent Media’s panel on what to do about abusive speech on newspaper comment sections, I somehow missed the call for submissions.

Now that their report is out, and on the understanding that this is a continuing conversation, I’ve offered a few comments on the panel’s recommendations – and the underlying issues – below.

TheMediaOnline’s summary of the panel’s findings seems comprehensive and accurate enough to simply quote, instead of doing the work of summarising them myself:

  • In the interests of freedom of expression, it is desirable to host online comments
  • However, the constitutional rights of readers and members of the public should not be infringed by such comments
  • It would be preferable to moderate comments prior to their publication online
  • Online platforms should be staffed with suitably qualified personnel
  • If effective pre-moderation cannot be undertaken for any particular reason, Independent should consider closing its comments section
  • Independent Media should develop guidelines to define unacceptable speech, which take into account legal and ethical considerations, but should not amount to censorship of differing viewpoints

I’ll not be addressing those points sequentially, and might not even get around to addressing all of them. But the free speech issue is one that does have to be addressed, if only to emphasis an important distinction.

Free speech

A commitment to free expression makes it desirable, rather than necessary, to host online comments. In other words, even if you shut comments down entirely, you are not violating anyone’s right to free expression.

The right to free expression means that you’re not barred from saying something. It does not mean being required to provide you with the platform on which to say it. So, for as long as you can make your point on your own blog, Facebook, Twitter or wherever, your rights are not being violated.

Your opportunities are being circumscribed, yes, but a private entity like a media house has no legal or moral obligation to provide you with an opportunity to comment. In fact, an overall commitment to free expression might mean exactly barring some people from commenting, in the grounds that they provide a chilling effect on the comments of others.

A practical example: if you wanted to have a comment-section discussion on what it’s like to be black and poor in Cape Town, you’d naturally get fewer people who are black and poor commenting if you also allowed white racists to comment.

More problematically: you might also get fewer black and poor people commenting if you simply allowed rich people to comment, in that the target audience might feel some measure of alienation or of being typecast or misunderstood.

I use these examples not to recommend these sort of constraints on comment spaces, but in furtherance of the general point that specific restrictions on who can comment where might, in certain instances, enhance freedom overall. The point is that freedom of expression in the aggregate can sometimes be served by restricting limited instances of free expression.

Legality vs. tone/character

The right to free expression and the extent to which it is (or isn’t) violated is a separate matter from the tone or character of a website. As soon as you allow comments at all, you’re encouraging the formation of some sort of community, and with that comes goals as to what the character of that community should be.

What this means is that even if something is not legally proscribed, you might nevertheless want to prevent it from being said. The Independent report makes much play of the right to dignity in the Constitution, but I’d rather not rest on that, because even if you think the Constitution has it wrong on things like hate speech and dignity, you could still justify restrictions on some speech on your news portal.

You could justify them simply via wanting to have a certain level of discourse on your platform, where you hold characteristic X to be non-conducive to that. X could be excessive sarcasm, or whatever – for example, I didn’t publish a comment the other day simply because it was overly pedantic and argumentative, and added no value to the conversation.

What you choose to restrict and why will be a policy matter for each media house to decide on for themselves, and I make the points above to encourage them to be guided by more than just the law when they deliberate on these matters.

The value of comments

The high-minded rhetoric around why we have comments online (free expression, debate etc.) – at least when it comes from the media houses themselves – is only part of the story, and to my mind a very small part of it.

The value that comments have for them is that eyeballs return to their pages, either to watch the slow-motion car crash of someone being schooled or trolled in comments, or to join in the fun themselves. Either way, you’re on my page rather than a competitors, and ad revenue might increase as a result.

And (we need data here) I’m intuitively completely disbelieving of the idea that there will be a significant difference in traffic if you switch from live, unmoderated commenting to some system that involves comments being posted after a delay of some sort. Of course a delay of days might have an impact, but I doubt that 12 hours or less would.

What to do?

The panel’s report recommends pre-publication moderation, where a) the commenters identity is known to the publisher, even if the comment appears anonymously; b) word-filters flag any potentially offensive comments (for containing words likely to correlate with abusive comments); and c) editorial oversight, where “trained and qualified” editors check the comments before publication.

Step (c) is onerous, and unduly so in not taking advantage of existing mechanisms for knowing who is likely to abuse comment sections and who not. But before I get to the disagreement, let me say where I agree.

Identity: I’m a big fan of people “owning” their opinions, and taking responsibility for them. To put it simply, the fear of reputational harm is one of the ways we are kept in check, and keep each other in check.

So I’m supportive of using the “letter to the editor” sort of model where possible – use your real names, which need to be verified in some fashion, unless there’s some compelling reason why you can’t (where the editor must decide on the merits of that reason, remembering, as I said above, that you have no right to comment).

Word-filters: You’ll perhaps get lots of false-positives here, so sifting through the stuff that’s flagged might involve more work than is necessary. But besides this potentially adding unnecessary overhead, I have no principled issue with it.

Editorial oversight: Making this the norm will be far too expensive and time-consuming (of course related issues, but manifesting as two separate problems). It would also be unnecessary, as we already have ways to crowdsource information regarding who can (in general) be trusted to not abuse comment sections.

For example, here on Synapses I use Disqus, as does IOL, Daily Maverick and the Mail&Guardian. I’ve set each post up with fully moderated comments, but I do have the option of specifying that any given commenter be automatically published without going into moderation.

Any of us who dip our toes into comment spaces online know the names of some regulars. Those regulars who are not abusive can be approved pre-publication. Yes, it will take some time and work to determine who is given this privilege, but in the long-run, it would save having to look at their comments each time.

Of course, you’d want some sort of policy for granting this privilege – say, for example, 5 non-abusive comments gives you that status, and the understanding is that it gets stripped from you once you abuse it.

The level of moderation required to afford people the privilege described above is rudimentary – interns, student journalists in university courses, bored college kids etc. could all do it for a nominal fee, and at the same time flag potentially abusive comments for the attention of a “real” editor.

All of the benefits listed in section 7.2 (page 33) of the report can be enjoyed once you have established this sort of “database” of approved commenters. If you wanted to be more liberal about it, and save even more time, someone with a high reputation score on Disqus can automatically be green-lighted.

One could even consider database of trustworthy commenters, shared across media houses that use the same commenting platform.

And as I said above, if someone sins, you simply delete them – here again, the community can be of assistance, in flagging things for an editor’s attention.

I get (real) mail

It’s been very many years since I’ve received a handwritten letter in the mail (not counting letters from the UCT Registrar, who sometimes prefers to record official business on paper, with pen. I’m afraid I have little idea as to his heuristic for deciding when email is sufficient and when pen and paper are necessary, and in realising this, resolve to ask him that question soonest.) It’s probably been at least 10 years since any other correspondence has arrived in this format, though, so I was quite surprised to find this in my postbox at work today.

Seeing as the Daily Maverick has a real names comment policy, and this was intended as a comment to my column last week, I’ll presume that it’s okay to post it here, before briefly responding. I’ve shrunk the images, so in case you can’t read them, the covering letter includes the question:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

This gave me little indication of what was to come, considering that the question is sensible even if (to my mind) put somewhat hyperbolically. The letter itself reads:

Failed attempt to submit to the Daily Maverick, in reply to Jacques Rousseau’s article on culture.

Our ‘sentient and compassionate’, ‘affirming and inspirational’ culture condones ‘oppressive and restrictive’ attitudes towards those it deems ‘inferior and unworthy’ for questioning its orthodox principles.

A paid-up member of this ‘groupthink’ culture is required to:

  • Replace puritanical attitudes to sex with puritanical attitudes to thought.
  • Endorse strident feminism.
  • Support pugnacious homosexuality (see Pierre de Vos’s bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland).
  • Be sceptically deconstructive (see Richard Poplak’s diagnosis of J.M. Coetzee as a substitute for examining his sensible speech at the Wits graduation ceremony).
  • Excoriate the government but sanctify The People, and increasingly untenable position.
  • Curse colonialism, Christianity, apartheid and big business (modish apocalyptic horsemen, past).
  • Lament racism, poverty, inequality, and unemployment (modish apocalyptic horsemen, present).
  • Embrace multiculturalism while proselytising his own.
  • Hound the carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture.

A tall order, but then virtue was never easy.

To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this. I was hoping that typing it out would make it more clear, but I still have little idea whether Ms Vorster thinks I am either a member of this ‘groupthink’ culture, or a campaigner against it, or neither.

It seems that her first paragraph introduces a dissatisfaction with political correctness and groupthink, and that her letter is concerned with some negative effects this culture could have in allowing for unfair judgements against ‘outsiders’. The quoted bits describing culture are plucked from various paragraphs of my original column, though, where some were descriptive, some aspirational, and some facetious. She seems to have read me as describing an actual and extant culture, which I certainly wasn’t. The major point of my column was that we normally can’t be prescriptive about culture, and that it’s as meaningless or meaningful as you’d like it to be. We can be prescriptive about behaviour, though, and if your culture involves harming unwilling participants, I’ve got no problem with saying that aspect x of culture y is reprehensible, and must change.

If it wasn’t for her covering letter, where she refers to reading my columns “with pleasure”, I’d have no problem interpreting this letter as a rant against lefties, and an appeal for less wishy-washy tolerance of various cultural norms. Because this seems to imply that she thinks me an ally. Fair enough, I might say as a general response to many lefties, in that I hate the soft relativism of not making judgements as much as some of you might do. But then, this doesn’t need to be accompanied by an endorsement of bigotry, as Ms Vorster seems to be demanding when referring to my colleague Pierre de Vos’s “pugnacious homosexuality” and his “bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland”.

Mulholland deserved all he got from de Vos, and more (though I preferred Rebecca Davis’s response myself). To pick up on a few of the other points Ms Vorster makes, I’ve got complicated responses to feminism, in that we’d first need to agree on what the term means. If “strident feminism” entails pointing out the pervasive privilege afforded to men in society, and campaigning to eliminate it, then I’m a strident feminist myself – even though the need for feminism as a special cause can be interrogated, seeing as this particular inequality could be captured in a general assault on discrimination. But if strident feminism means thinking that “The Rule of Men” informs any potential experience, then we speak very different languages (and, live on different planets).

If Poplak’s critique was flawed, Coetzee would – from the little I know of him – be concerned with the flaws, but nevertheless applaud the attempt at a challenging and interesting reading. As for excoriation, I’m happy to excoriate both or either of the government or the people, depending on which of them do or say the most stupid things while I’m trying to come up with a column idea. Of all the horsemen listed, I don’t like any besides big business, which can be good or bad depending on what it does and how it spends its profits (if any). If groupthink means it’s bad to not like apartheid, poverty and so forth, I really hope that Ms Vorster thinks I’m a victim of it.

I don’t embrace multiculturalism. I embrace the idea that people should leave each other the hell alone, regardless of culture, that arguments should be judged on their merits (with cultural longevity or popularity certainly not counting as a merit), and that if we end up agreeing (“groupthink”) it should ideally be because we’ve all considered the issue, and come to the same reasoned conclusion. Maligning our general agreement on something like anti-sexism as “groupthink” obscures the fact that reasonable people tend to agree on what’s reasonable, for good reasons.

As for the “carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture” – it’s little surprise that these categories are responsible for most of our social ills. For much of white South Africa, those conservative, white, heterosexual men wrote the rules, and the rules are bad ones (because they are aimed at inequality and perpetuating privilege). For much of South Africa, the same is true for powerful black men, who dominate through similar networks of patronage. Are we supposed to be blaming the poor for our misery, or the otherwise disenfranchised?

Back to the covering letter:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

That too many people seem to think that complaining, signing a petition, or Tweeting furiously is going to make any difference to anything. If you have a skill, you could donate some of it to a civil society movement. If you can teach, do so. If you have time, give some of that. If you have money, find a worthwhile charity. That’s the high-minded answer. The more banal answer is that it’s distressing to have the same debates, each and every year/month/day, where (sometimes) it seems that nobody is doing any listening at all.

Covering note Page1 Page2

Opinions on opinions on opinions

First published on The Daily Maverick

Gareth Cliff’s opinion-piece on the nomination of Mogoeng Mogoeng to be South Africa’s next Chief Justice attracted a number of interesting comments. However, it also attracted comments which had little to do with any arguments advanced, but instead appeared to be attempts at disqualifying Cliff from holding any views at all.

“Stick to your day job” was a sentiment that appeared at least twice, alongside some less subtle ad hominem attacks. And yes, we can justifiably wonder about how easily a radio and television personality can rebrand themselves as a public intellectual. But finding such a transition implausible or believing it to be difficult does not make it any less possible to do so – and it is distinctly anti-intellectual to rule out the possibility that sensible noises and words can come from surprising sources.

This sort of reaction would be no surprise to Cliff himself. His open letter to President Zuma attracted 876 comments – many quite hostile – as well as a column by Andile Mngxitama asserting that Cliff was the face of ‘white supremacy’. Sadly, and predictably so, it proved impossible (at least for a white man such as myself) to argue that we could – and should – attempt to separate the arguments from the personalities and politics of racial identity in this case.

My reply to Mngxitama gave rise to the sort of reaction that makes one wonder whether the strategy that Samantha Vice argues for – that white South Africans should refrain from comment on racial matters – is simply a matter of self-protection rather than principle. I don’t mean that, of course – there’s no question that her viewpoint is sincere, regardless of the fact that I believe it to be wrong.

But there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a considered position being dismissed on grounds of your racial identity, or have people calling on you to be kicked out of your university, as SACP Provincial Secretary Khaya Magaxa did following my reply, before you start to wonder whether it’s really worth the bother.

Of course, if all of us who – rightly or wrongly – believe we have something to contribute to these conversations took the more abusive advice of our readers to heart, we’d simply stop trying to contribute. And while some might consider that a blessing, and move on to complaining about something else, others might think that the space for debate and reflection would narrow appreciably, leaving us all impoverished.

There are at least three broad issues of relevance here. The first is something I’ve previously discussed, namely the fact that Internet comment facilities seem to self-select for vitriol and abuse. People who want to express the viewpoint that ‘you suck’, or some more sophisticated variant of that, seem far more likely to jab their index fingers at their keyboards than those who are interested in communication and debate.

Second, it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living though an era in which ideas themselves are not that welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column John Maytham was kind enough to alert me to, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”. Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

And third, there’s the issue of the extent to which any person or collective of persons should be accountable to others in the first place. The triumph of democracy as a political system has perhaps led to a generalisation of the idea that the majority should be trusted – and when you combine this with the previous two points, the frightening reality dawns that “the people” are often revealed as short-sighted and shrill.

But it’s of course not always true that the majority are right, or are to be trusted. We can all get things wrong, and we can sometimes do so simultaneously. To go back to the actual content of the Cliff column last week (as well as mine, and to a lesser extent Ivo Vegter’s), the idea that something like profound religious faith is a concern when discussing the role of Chief Justice is a genuine issue, admitting of substantive debate, in that it is far from obvious that we can wall off certain states of mind and motivations from others.

Yet even if the majority are not always right, feedback from an audience – whether it be a readership or a population of voters – is an essential vehicle for correction in that you can gain significant insight into what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. James Thorpe left an interesting comment on Cliff’s piece (timestamped Wed, 7 Sep 2011 at 09:41), in which this point was made.

He argued for some sort of reader-feedback mechanism here on The Daily Maverick. Apart from the comment wall, number of Tweets, Facebook ‘likes’ and Google ‘plusses’, the editorial staff obviously have access to figures indicating the number of times a page was loaded and which other Internet portals saw fit to link to it. Some may say that this is more than enough feedback – except, as Thorpe points out, we often don’t know what people liked and disliked about the column in question, and readers of course don’t have access to the hit rate and referrer data.

And then, of course, we can ask the question of whether this data is useful to readers at all. Or rather, whether it should be. Again, as mentioned above, does it matter whether a particular column is ranked well or poorly via some democratic process? It might well matter on the level of ego, for the writers themselves, but is providing this sort of facility plausibly an obligation on the part of the publication in question, and would it add value to readers?

While I was initially tempted to agree with Thorpe on this issue, it’s now not at all clear what anyone would gain. Publications themselves should have an editorial position, and publish what they think worthwhile, whether readers like it or not. There is of course a limit to this, in that it’s no good to sacrifice all your readers for the sake of principle. They can be guided in their decisions on what to publish through viewership figures, as well as through comments.

For readers, what you read – whether in the columns themselves or in the comments left – should itself be the reward. Asking for the decision about what to consider worth reading or not to be delegated to others via an additional mechanism could perhaps be an abrogation of the responsibility to form our own judgements, and then, to guide the judgements of the writers and editors, as well as other readers, through written feedback.

In short, I’d like to believe that it’s the case that the free market of ideas espoused by John Stuart Mill can still function in a world where we are encouraged to summarise complex preferences in the pressing of a button labelled “like”, or “+1”. We participate in that market, and contribute to its vibrancy and efficiency, through expressing our views. If they are persuasive, others will hopefully come to share them, and lesser content will be discarded for more substantial contributions.

Likewise, lesser publications might also themselves fall by the wayside if they persist in offering their readership sub-standard fare. It’s not at all clear to me that additional mechanisms for feedback would make this particular market more efficient. However, given the importance of the market in question, practical suggestions for doing so would certainly merit consideration.

The sheer volume of content generated on a website such as this – not to mention all the others we have access to – mean that interesting and potentially important ideas can get lost in the noise. This column, then, is an attempt to highlight that one idea, as expressed in Thorpe’s comment. Do we (humans, rather than The Daily Maverick) need to hear more opinions on opinions, and if so, what should the mechanism for allowing this look like?

Offensive comments on the interwebs

Originally published on the Daily Maverick

As I’ve said before, Nicholas Carr is wrong to think that the Internet is making us stupid. But to hear all of my arguments for this, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a good few years. By 2014 or so, I’ll either have finished that thesis, or have somewhat refuted it by no longer being able to construct a coherent sentence, thanks to excessive exposure to the numerous distractions available on the interwebs.

Despite my conviction that he and others are making false claims regarding the long-term effects of our reliance on the Internet for communication and acquisition of information, much of the evidence I have before me this morning can’t help but make me sympathetic to his thesis.