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News24 comments closure: Why it’s a bad thing

There I was happily going about my day when I saw twitter explode with talk about News24. Being the curious, sometimes nosy, kind of person I am I had to find out what was going on. News24 was closing its comments section.


First I thought “Wonderful”. The comments section on most of their articles was a bit of a mess at the best of times. A lot of unnamed trolls and a lot of hate speech. One can only imagine the moderation nightmare to keep hate speech and racism off the comments on a site that draws as much traffic as N24 does. But then it hit me… This is not, as I first thought, good news…

It may seem to be best for News24 to close their comments section because there is no real value to be found in the comments. It usually degenerates in to a lot of racist jibes that are completely unacceptable. Freedom of speech says I’m allowed to give my views on something as long as I am not breaching the rights of others in any way. By being racist and slanderous the rights of others to be treated fairly is pretty much thrown out the window. Which really is not okay.

But there is far more at stake [RAPTOR NOTE: steak? Who said steak?] here than just a comments section that is full of hate speech. It’s not even about the freedom of speech of the people on News24. It’s more about the rights of all internet denizens everywhere (ok perhaps that sounds a bit bleak but bare with me here).

A few months ago I read an article about an advisory panel that had convened back in September 2014 to discuss this very topic: The topic of commentors on media sites and whether their content needs to be moderated or not. According to the article the following recommendations were made:

  • 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

Now the two points from here that caught my attention back then and popped back up in my mind when I heard N24 was closing comments, are the following two:

  • It would be preferable to moderate comments prior to their publication online
  • If effective pre-moderation cannot be undertaken for any particular reason, Independent should consider closing its comments section

Just those two should already make you sit up and take note. That means everything you post online as a reader has to be pre-moderated by someone. Can you imagine how many people it would take to moderate a site that has hundreds of comments per article? Most sites would simply be unable to meet this requirement fairly and would thus then have to opt for no comments at all. That would absolutely be the worst possible outcome.

Now, to be fair, this was only an advisory panel and these can’t simply be forced upon anyone without going through the right channels, being passed through law etc; but the fact is it’s something that’s been considered at some level.

Fast forward a few months and we have News24 suddenly closing off its comments section <Tinfoil Hat On> could it be due to them seeing something coming? Are they caving before the inevitable? <Tinfoil Hat Off>

But seriously, the closing of N24 comments may simply be due to the comments section being the mess it is, but it does open a door to a very slippery slope. Other organisations have been known to also only respond to members and to delete non member comments even though they are a public organisation (Yet hide under the pretense of being private). Even Reuters, CNN and Popular Science don’t have comments enabled anymore.

Yes they have the option to share news and I guess you can voice your opinion on something like twitter over an article but it makes the conversation disjointed and it really starts to lack substance (From a reader’s point of view who would like to discuss a topic). I mean really, Popular Science? Why disable comments there? It makes no sense.

The fact is the more sites that start following this route the more we are at risk for something like this to become a reality. A reality where it will be required by some law to either pre-moderate or to close comments completely. It’s a bleak future. A great many sites rely on regular readers and those regular readers rely on a community to keep them coming back. This generates income for the sites. That income is key to keeping them going. Having a possibility where comments need to be closed by smaller publications because they can’t police their own site effectively in the comments due to staff constraints? It’s not a healthy future at all. Moderation would have to extend even to things like Twitter as those are “comments” from community members

These sites won’t even be allowed to let the community moderate:

  • Online platforms should be staffed with suitably qualified personnel.

That recommendation, if passed along with all the others, would prevent community mods as it would have to be official, qualified staff.

Let’s face facts. People are downright mean at times. Some online communities are more aggressive than others. These aggressive communities are very difficult to get involved in and are often bordering on unacceptable. Closing comments may sometimes be the only option. But looking at the trend, it seems like this is more a push for a movement of all online media sites to do the same. It’s being made to sound wonderful when in fact, it’s a terrible move towards a policed internet.

Something that no one wants. Ever.

 

Published inOpinionSocietal issues
  • Dutch Matrix

    The issue with News24 comments was: No matter what the article. Hell, it could be Dorothy Black writing about the Dildo 7000 sex toy, the comments would soon erode into a government hate fest. Nothing good would come from the “discussions” held there.

    • Look I agree with that. As I said for N24 it may have been their only option. Maybe. But the fact is, it’s a trend that seems to be catching speed and that worries me (The closing comments thing that is)

      • Dutch Matrix

        If we had decent conversations about the topics written, then yes. It is a travesty. We attack each other on Lagz forums as well, but we are almost civil about it.
        I for one will not miss the comments sections on certain sites. The hate that was aimed at some authors were horrific!

        • Pierre Adriaan Du Plessis

          Lagz forums sounds like a very open minded place. Maybe even copacetic?

        • I think you are missing the point. This is not about a site freely choosing something. This is about a trend starting and a law being passed that REQUIRES the change. Moderate or remove.

          How do you think a site like Lazygamer will survive if regulars can’t comment? Regulars will start visiting the site less. Traffic goes down. Ad revenue goes down.

          That will happen if it becomes a requirement because Lazygamer would not be able to pay to have their comments moderated properly. Their staff compliment is not large enough.

          The same is true for any smaller publication and even worse for people who make their money off of blogs and are the ONLY moderators of said blogs. How will they manage large amounts of comments on their own?

          It’s the trend turning in to a requirement that I’m worried about

          • Dutch Matrix

            I hear you. Is all I’m going to say.

          • awww. No more back and forth? You must be [insert inappropriate N24 style comment here]

  • Alex Hicks

    This is two issues rolled into one – the specific case of News 24; and the handling of comment sections in general.

    News 24 was a special case of massive vitriol. I live in the UK; and so I can comment with some conviction on how the situation is handled here. The Guardian allows comments on only certain types of news posts (like N24’s announcement says they plan on doing). The Telegraph doesn’t allow at all (well -not that I’ve found; I admit I don’t read every article published); not even on the click-bait type articles. The Mirror throws caution to the wind.

    Amazingly, the most commentary; and best balanced is from the Guardian model. Mirror gets a few hits here and there; but it’s almost always vile hate-filled stuff.

    So, if N24 do take the ‘partially open’ view – it could work.

    My concern is the morality of the whole thing. The view that comments need to be moderated sticks in my craw. Along with the throw away line about suitably qualified personnel. Who gets to determine which comments get posted? What is ‘suitably qualified’?

    I’d prefer unmoderated, community policed comment section. Sadly – in N24’s case; the community just let the hate flow – and that’s more of a damning indictment on SA society than anything else.

    As usual – no answers; just more questions.

    • Yeah it’s a bit of a catch 22. Don’t do anything and it runs away. Do something and then you’re stepping on toes.

      In the N24 case something drastic was unfortunately needed. I’m just worried about this trend of not allowing comments. Worried that the “trend” becomes a requirement. Once it’s a requirement the smaller sites suffer immensely.

  • Admiral Chief Returns

    [mandatory tl;dr]

  • Admiral Chief Returns

    I’m glad the comments are gone, too many asshats doing the soapbox tirades

  • I don’t think this should ever be a requirement. If the kitchen’s too hot, get out of it. People who comment in sections, I’d say 99% of them, know what to expect. If you don’t, you will soon enough.

    • Lol. Know soon enough. I think n24 was certainly a shock for some Hehehe