The perils and pitfalls of allowing, and moderating, online comments

Sky News this week has pulled the plug on its news discussion boards because,

Although the boards were very popular, a small number of people had hijacked them and reduced the level of debate to meaningless abuse.

At Sky News we welcome robust debate about the news, but we want it to be of a high standard. I am afraid that too often on the discussion boards threads which started intelligently would degenerate into mindless name calling.

Sky is far from unusual in facing problems over how to keep online political discussion from degenerating in that way. For some, of course, such degeneration isn’t a problem – it’s called free speech. There is a difference though between people having free speech in the sense that they can set up their own blog, website or forum and saying that no rules (other than staying within the law) can reasonably apply if they voluntarily choose to take part in the one that you are running.

In my experience, especially over on Liberal Democrat Voice but also seeing the forum threads on many other political sites, there is a very wide range of views as to what sort of rules are acceptable. The rule of thumb I find useful both there and here (and, more importantly given the way people’s internet habits are changing, over on Facebook where blog content is imported) is to approach moderation the same way a good chair would approach chairing a public meeting.

Giving people a chance to have their say is right up there at the top of the list of objectives for chairing. Alongside it are other considerations like trying to give lots of people in the meeting the chance to have their say: the free speech of one person shouting down whatever anyone else says infringes the free speech of all the others also wanting to talk.

Relevant too are factors such as the tone of the meeting – whether it is one that encourage more people to participate or puts them off.

Although as I said people’s views vary greatly along the spectrum from anything goes to tightly enforced civility and relevance, those nearest the anything goes end of the spectrum are often by far the most vocal in their views and often express them in a way that strongly suggests they don’t appreciate quite how many people disagree with them.

Or, as the editor of Comment is Free, Natalie Hanman, put it,

I hear the calls for less moderation – and I’m sure our moderators, who do a very difficult job and work extremely hard in the face of often strident criticism and little thanks, do too. But I also hear the calls for better, more interesting, more informed, more respectfully passionate debate on our threads.

That quote and the Sky story I picked up from an excellent post over on Martin Belam’s blog which is well worth a reader not only for his own perspective but also for the wealth of other relevant links in it.

6 responses to “The perils and pitfalls of allowing, and moderating, online comments”

  1. Some very sensible thoughts there – especially the shouting down aspect.

    One thing I’ve noticed is when a site is under-moderated, you’ll get self-appointed would-be moderators emerging, who are almost inevitably the least appropriate people to moderate any forum.

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