Independent Media recently announced steps to deal with inappropriate online comments by users on its websites. The move by its executive chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé, was prompted when one of its writers became the victim of cyber-bullying. TheMediaOnline interviewed local role players about the growing global problem of online defamation and hate speech.
A column by Survé, published on 25 August, probably voiced the frustrations of many online publishers. “I was really ashamed that our platform could be used to say the kind of demeaning things that were said about Kine [Dineo Mokwena-Kessi],” he wrote, referring to a column by a 16-year-old girl, who wrote about Cape Town being a difficult place to live in for a young black girl.
“When people hide behind the anonymity of pseudonyms, they feel they can say the most vile things about people, without having the courage to publicly own up to their comments,” wrote Survé.
His comments came after a columnist Eusebius McKaiser criticised “anonymous bigots… hideous trolls” who should not be given the “oxygen of publicity”. He pointed out that although our freedom of expression is a Constitutional right, there are “moral limits to free speech”.
To prove his point, McKaiser referred to some of the user comments to Mokwena-Kessi’s writing, which included: “Just bloody well get OVER your retarded, backward victim mentality. If you don’t like Cape Town, bugger off to Kinshasa”, and “I’d love to wake up in the morning and not have to see a black face all day”, and so on.
McKaiser wrote: “It is time South African editors, including my bosses here at Independent Newspapers… policed hate speech more effectively online.”
TimesLive editor Reuben Goldberg said his website’s “policing” solution was to shut down the comments section.
“I think the truth of the matter is that everybody has problems; it’s a global issue… we shut down the comments section on the website more than two years ago. Any story published on our website is closed,” Goldberg told TheMediaOnline.
The TimesLive system does allow for post moderation but it has opted to rather allow its readers to comment on its Facebook page, said Goldberg.
“We continue to push people to comment on our Facebook page. It is self-regulating to some extent. Facebook itself has an algorythm that takes out most of the bad stuff; all the rude words are taken out. To some extent, it is safer.”
Also, people are a bit more careful when they are commenting under their own names and not doing it anonymously, said Goldberg.
His colleague at SowetanLive, Razia van der Schuur, said the Sowetan’s website operated slightly differently from that of TimesLive.
“We are a more community-based website, while TimesLive offers breaking news,” she said.
Van der Schuur said user comments were an integral part of SowetanLive. There were various ways to deal with online defamation and hate speech.
“The first step we take is to e-mail [abusive] users to warn them they are abusing the platform and to refrain from doing so.”
If this does not work, the users get banned.
“We also encourage other readers to help us police the system and we reward positive bloggers. It is a whole community system. It’s not just us monitoring it; it is also our readers.”
Vulgarities are removed from the website, depending on the context. For example, a ‘WTF’ would probably be allowed.
“It’s hard to actually ban everything on the site but we do not allow hate speech and direct attacks,” said Van der Schuur. “For the most part, we allow our readers to express themselves.”
The Interactive Advertising Bureau of SA (IAB), which has many online publishers as its members, has often been pulled in to help resolve disputes surrounding online comments.
Andrew Allison, the IAB head of regulatory affairs, said its members subscribe to a code of good conduct that includes acting in good faith and not intentionally and knowingly inciting violence or promoting hate speech and defamation.
“We do get complaints… and when they do come up, we have a dispute resolution and complaints assessment process. We connect the complainants with the publishers,” said Allison.
“But in all the situations we have been able to resolve it amicably. Our publishers are very responsive and co-operative.”
He said he had not come across a situation where a complaint had not been dealt with amicably.
The Advisory Panel set up by Independent Media will report back on its recommendations at the end of October. Its brief is to investigate “matters of public concern arising out of hate speech, personal attacks and defamatory statements contained in comments by the public published on internet sites controlled by Independent Media”.
Those on the panel are media lawyer, Jacques Louw, who will chair the panel; media lawyer Dario Milo, Latiefa Mobara, public advocate at the Press Council; political analyst, lecturer and columnist, Eusebius McKaiser; Karima Brown and Anthony Robinson, chief content and chief technology officers at Independent Media.
* Media24 did not respond to our questions by the time of posting.
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