News that News24 was shutting down its comment facility ironically saw the online publisher receive a record-breaking number of comments on the day. On Friday, one of the largest news websites in Africa will switch off its comments, a decision that has become almost as controversial as the kind of commentary stories on the site elicited. Glenda Nevill reports on the reaction to the news.
“The decision was a collective one and there was no close call,” says editor in chief, Andrew Trench. “The overwhelming consensus at a meeting of senior staff from across the business – not only editorial – was that enough is enough.”
Trench believes the News24 brand was devalued by comment, which critics have often said bordered on hate speech and was often racist in the extreme. A forum for journalists on Facebook showed even those working in media are divided on the subject. Pragasen-Edwin Naidu said, “Is this not censorship in disguise? Really, the only way to tackle the racism that exists is to let it fester in the open – than have a Big Brother or Sister at News24 deciding what views are suitable?”
Another journalist, Anne Taylor, disagreed vehemently. “You are kidding, aren’t you Edwin? If the comment sections on SA news sites were truly places that allowed for a range of voices to be heard and views to be changed or altered, I could even agree with you. But spend any amount of time in the online comment sections of SA news sites, and you’d realise the more accurate question to ask would be, ‘Is News24 finally shutting down a platform for hate?'”
Dr Musa Ndlovu, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Cape Town, says while the comments were “largely repugnant and racists, mostly against black people” he believe shutting down the space is a “rather extreme decision. Views needed to be strictly moderated the same way editors strongly moderate newspapers’ ‘Letters to the Editor’ section; the views people make on air; in (physical) public town hall meetings, etc.,” he says. “Moderation done fairly is not censorship.” [This was an accusation levelled at News24 on a Facebook page for journalists where debate on the story was vigorous.]
Wits journalism school’s Professor Anton Harber says moderating comments is “only censorship if comments are cut because the editor does not like or agree with them, and they are suppressing other points of view. But there is a difference between censorship and editing. A publisher is legally and morally responsible for what appears on their site, so it is good editing to remove hate speech and other illegal material. It is not good editing to remove your audience from the conversation,” he says.
He agrees with Ndlovu that it is a mistake to cut off all commentary, saying it would make more sense to monitor and manage it. “Audiences increasingly expect to participate and not act as passive recipients of news. Encouraging participation in some form has become integral to building a relationship with audiences,” he says. “Having said that, managing online commentary can be difficult and expensive. International publications are experimenting with ways of doing this – such as favouring those who consistently make the best contributions, or using trusted readers as moderators – and these measures would be more desirable than cutting off all comments.”
But Trench says this wasn’t an option. “Every method and all the resources that we have available were not enough to wrangle this in a practical way. To do so would have required an army of moderators which is simply not an option to us today,” he says.
Ndlovu says he appreciates the pressures of managing a brand and what is said on your brand. “It’s tough. It’s expensive. This is a commercial decision. The reason Naspers (Media24 parent company) is doing well in many respects is because it has always had its eyes on the money.,” he says. “Let’s suppose you ran a business in a capitalist system and competition was tough as it is in South African news market, would you rather risk losing your moderate black and white clients who are the majority for purposes of gratifying a minority that, in most part, speaks drivel?”
Trench, however, says every media organisation applies editorial discretion to what they publish on their platforms, be it print, digital or in broadcasting. “I asked a PowerFM presenter interviewing me if they would allow every person that called the station unfettered access to their airwaves to say whatever they liked whenever they liked. Of course that does not happen. News24 comments have long been subject to a comments policy, which is more restrictive than the constitutional limitations on free speech in South Africa. It is our right to decide what we publish. A US publisher I read recently commented in making a similar decision that the First Amendment does not require him to provide a platform for unfettered speech. I agree.”
Is the kind of commentary we see on South African news sites dangerous? Are we simply not ready to use freedom of speech wisely?
“The danger in South Africa is generalisations we tend to make about or out of a single or set of comments. We tend to view them as if they either represent views of all black people or white people. But people have got to talk and platforms have to be expanded rather than shrunk,” says Ndlovu.
Trench says South Africa is not alone in the kind of virulent commentary spewed by some readers. “It is a global phenomenon that social psychologists describe as ‘deindividuation’ and the kind of thing that happens with road rage incidents and football hooliganism. I think there are few societies who can have civilised debates online or we haven’t discovered the secret sauce to allow this to happen,” he says.
Independent Media earlier this year commissioned a panel of media experts to look into the question of online commentary. At the time, the group’s chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé, said technology and new media had “redefined the way we have to look at and monitor weighty issues in our society such as freedom of speech and the balancing of various rights, such as the right to speak our minds vis-à-vis protection from hate speech”.
Now the group says it welcomes the decision by News24 to close down their comments section, “which is one of the recommendations we have been considering following the establishment of an Advisory Panel in September last year to investigate matters of public concern arising out of hate speech, personal attacks and defamatory statements on the company’s internet websites”.
It said it had “deliberated the important rights enshrined in our Constitution with the desire for a transparent society that holds no truck with racists and bigots who use the hard won democratic space to spew their hatred.
“The company is clear about the fine balance between rights and responsibilities that characterise our democracy. Hence we have given ourselves until the end of 2015 to implement a final solution.”
In the interim, Independent Media has introduced mechanisms to monitor online comments and have closed down commentary which has been abusive. This process has allowed us to anticipate the types of stories which elicit racist and other abusive comments.
The only Times Media Group publication to run comments was BDlive, but that too has now disappeared.
[Story updated at 10.24am to include comment from Independent Media.]
For an international perspective, read:
What does the future of online commenting look like? on World Editors Forum.
World Editors Forum research on user-generated content.
Unpacking court ruling on publishers’ liability for online comments on World Editors Forum.
IMAGE: Matthew Liam Wood, Cultural Magpie
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