Roy Greenslade reports on an interesting debate about comments on blogs and articles.
"During my City University lecture on Monday I was extolling the joys of participation between journalists and readers in the new digital environment when several hands went up. The students were amazed at my largely benign view of the opportunity the net has provided for people to post comments on newspaper websites.
A couple of them who had worked for the online sections at The Guardian and The Times reported that hundreds of commenters sent in abusive messages that they found revolting. Aside from the vulgar stuff, they also thought many of the contributions wholly inappropriate, offering nothing of value, whether to the paper or to the audience. Many simply abused other commenters, trading increasingly infantile tit-for-tat insults for hours on end."All true, of course. Even sensible, serious blogs such as the excellent Harry's Place can get swamped by commenters who are gratuitously rude, obsessed with single issues (eg Israel, the Muslims) to the point of tedium and simply won't shut up.
It is tedious and depressing and, as Greenslade points out, creates a significant problem for site owners.
"Now Shane Richmond, communities editor with telegraph.co.uk, has touched on the same problem. He was recently warned about the burden faced by the BBC in moderating millions of comments every day. So, he asks, why moderate at all? First reason: the legal risk of unmoderated comments. He explains: "As a publisher we are legally responsible for what appears on our site. We can argue that we don't read the posts, or that we always remove things when a complaint is made or publish a disclaimer denying responsibility for the content of the posts but, though those may mitigate against damages, we can't dictate our own liability."
But he concedes that "moderation is a burden, and a costly one." Then again, the costs of non moderating could, potentially, be higher still in the case of defamation. He quotes Jeff Jarvis, who has argued: "Libels laws are outmoded and increasingly dangerous, for they threaten to chill and silence the voice of the public."
But he also quotes media lawyer David Price who says: "You are liable for what is being published, so the only responsible thing to do is read the comments before they are published.""There is a divergence of views about this among online publishers, some of whom have received legal advice that 'notice and takedown' is sufficient to remove any legal liability. I guess the courts will decide at some point. But premoderation, as advocated by David Price, can be costly and time-consuming; it also has a deadening effect on the speed and spontaneity of online debate.
Greenslade has a sensible suggestion - make commenters post using their real names. I've never really understood the online tradition of using a pseudonym and I'm sure anonymity contributes to the abuse and triviality that infests so many comments boxes.
My hope is that this is simply a phase that a relatively new medium is going through and that over time, the stupid and offensive comments will start to melt away. My fear is of a series of expensive lawsuits for large online publishers, that will make them think twice about the point of having comments boxes at all. The ability to debate with other users is one of the internet's great virtues, and something that sets it apart from other media; let's not chuck it away.