Jan 19 2012

Is Comment Free? New Polis research report on the moderation of online news

Why do we moderate websites? If you are Paul Staines who runs the hugely popular Guido Fawkes website then you interfere as little as possible. If you are The Guardian, for example, you have a whole team dedicated to editing comments. As a reader you pays your money (or rather you don’t because it’s online) and you makes your choice. But the decisions made about moderation matter because news websites are increasingly where we go to debate the issues. They influence opinion among journalists, politicians and the public. So is comment free?

Polis has published a new report by Swedish journalist Sanna Trygg, a visiting research fellow supported by the Swedish media foundation, Journalistfonden, that compares the moderation of news in her homeland with the UK.

Download the full report here

Here is the preface I wrote for the report:

Why is the moderation of comment on news websites such an interesting problem? This paper by Polis visiting research fellow Sanna Trygg explores why we moderate public comment and the effects of different moderation policies. This matters because many people had high hopes that opening up debate around online news would create a better forum for public discussion. We thought that public participation would be entertaining and informative, but above all, that it would create a conversation that would enhance the way we run our lives. In practice, any debate is as likely to end up as a shouting match as it is to turn into some kind of Socratic dialogue.

So what can journalists do to make their comment fields more fertile? Of course, it is perfectly possible not to moderate at all. There are highly successful websites such as Guido Fawkes’ ‘Order Order’ blog where intervention is kept to a bare minimum. The website gets a lot of traffic and some of the comments are funny and insightful.[1] Most are rude, random and predictable. Yet, some would argue that the Guardian’s more highly-moderated Comment Is Free website can also be dominated by the Angry Mob.[2] The point of this paper is not to judge what is the best way of moderating but simply to point out that there is a choice. As with all journalism, you can set your own rules based on your own business model, editorial policy or ethical code.

This paper mainly compares two newspapers that have taken a serious and imaginative approach to reader participation in general, and public comments in particular. The author is Swedish and Polis is based in London so, not surprisingly, the newspapers are from those two countries: the Svenska Dagbladet and The Guardian.[3] [4] Again, the purpose is not to judge those papers’ policies or to advocate a particular degree or style of moderation. Instead, this paper seeks to understand some of the problems faced by the moderators and set them in a wider context that considers the social and political role of online public comment.

We want anyone reading this to get some insight into how moderation works but we also hope that it will stimulate further developments and innovation. As Polis has shown in its numerous events, books, reports and articles, journalism is now networked.[5][6][7]The public routinely participate in the creation of journalism online, which is now open, interactive and connected. Moderation is a vital part of that process. However, it is still a relatively new relationship and it continues to change as the technologies evolve. We hope this paper contributes to that positive process and exchange of views, so we welcome feedback and, of course, comments.

This paper is the first product of a new visiting research fellowship scheme at Polis, kindly supported by the Swedish media foundation, Journalistfonden.[1] It allows a working Swedish journalist to spend a month with Polis at the London School of Economics researching a topic. It has been a highly enjoyable and rewarding experience for all involved. We look forward to hosting next year’s fellow and would welcome interest from anyone in creating similar fellowships or in working with Polis in other ways.

[1] Journalistfonden för vidareutbildning (The Journalist Fund for Further Training)



[1] http://order-order.com/

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/

[4] http://www.svd.se/

[5] http://www2.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/POLIS/home.aspx

[6] Beckett, C 2008 SuperMedia (Blackwell)

[7] Beckett, C 2010 The Value of Networked Journalism (Polis) http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/polis/2010/08/19/new-report-on-networked-journalism-2/

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13 Responses to Is Comment Free? New Polis research report on the moderation of online news

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  5. faultroy says:

    I’ve been looking for some website to discuss the issue of moderation on the internet. It has become very bad. It has become common for all the news media–especially CNN, MSNBC, Discovery Channel, and especially Fox News to heavily moderate. It becomes especially nefarious when one considers specialized moderation programs, such as Fox News Corp’s Disqus Program, for example, that is tied into a number of different sites. These programs are cumulative in the sense that they carry over from one website to the other. There have been thousands of complaints about over moderation. You can see it on Fox News’ website commentors in which they purposefully misspell words in order to attempt to throw off the moderation program. The programs appear to keep a running record of you commentary and one ultimately runs the risk of the Program literally anticipating what you are going to say and literally will not allow you to make comments based on your past commenting history. What is particularly odious is that the programs allow meanspirited racist and pejoratives to be printed, however when one even quotes government statistics, if the program believes that you are publishing potentially inflammatory information, it refuses to allow you to comment. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. To give a concrete example, on Fox News, one can use the “n-word” and publish blatant racist commentary, however if you mention anything related to “feminism,” you are immediately flagged. Why? we really don’t know the specifics, however, I believe it has something to do with the fact that all of these programs are tied into Google that has been aggressively collecting advertising and marketing data to sell to advertisers. And so, you in making a comment, are being heavily moderated while making the same commentary that–for example Fox News On-Air Talent would make. Ultimately this sets up a two tiered caste system of commentary in which those working for the website as journalist and bloggers are able to say things that you as a reader saying the same thing in a different way is considered inappropriate, meanspirited and in violation of the Website’s Commenting Policy.
    For a while, the most heavily moderated website was the Huffington Post. This site consistently violated its own moderating policy. It was actively moderated not by a moderation program, but by individual moderators appointed by HuffPO mgmt. If they felt your comment was to critical–even while both accurate and civil, it was immediately moderated in the most arbitrary manner. Depending on the time of day and who was moderating at the time, one could post, or one would be moderated. And I have noted that HuffPO has lost a lot of readership based on the heavily arbitrary, meanspirited and politically motivated nature of its moderation policy. When conducted in such an arbitrary and unfair manner, this is no longer moderation, but active Censorship and truly Huffington Post was the worst. And today, this continues to go on with the utmost impunity. There is no one that you can file a complaint with, and on Fox News’ website, their moderation policy states that they have the right to do anything they choose at any point in time whenever they feel like it. As a matter of fact, if you complain about it to staff, they will terminate your posting privileges merely for complaining. And so, in the utmost irony, those championing the right to freedom of expression for themselves, are those most vociferous in denying that same right for everyone else.

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  7. It has become common for all the news media–especially CNN, MSNBC, Discovery Channel, and especially Fox News to heavily moderate.

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  9. DumbfoundedByIdiocy says:

    I am a regular commentator on articles in The Guardian and have also been looking for a website where I can leave my thoughts about Comment is Free.

    The fundamental flaw with the idea of CiF, is that it gives the passing reader the impression that, offensive words and phrases aside, comments will be left largely untouched.

    However, the truth is that The Guardian’s CiF section is subject to a heavy amount of censorship – most especially where politics is concerned. It is impossible to know if this is due to MPs and their interns making use of the “Report” function available to highlight unfavourable comments, or if certain moderators within the newspaper’s online staff are being more zealous in their moderating for whatever reason (own political views, fear of antagonising a political party, fear of legal action) or if the Editorship of the paper wish to court a particular figure and are wary of stepping on toes.

    The outcome is that many valid comments are removed, or deleted altogether, with only a reference to the “community standards” that are about as malleable a set of rules as some of the legal laws the newspaper campaign against.

    It is the lack of a sense of a genuine two way dialogue between The Guardian’s online moderators, and its readership, that leads to many of its readers feeling great dismay and alienation from the supposed democratic dialogue that The Guardian claims is at the heart of its journalism.

    If this approach to moderation is allowed to continue The Guardian will inevitably see a gradual decline in the number of visitors to its website, as readers with no chance to voice their opinion will go elsewhere in today’s online media age to have their say. And if the numbers fall, then so will its advertising revenues.

    • Kevin says:

      While not sharing any of the views that the Guardian espouses, I am at least partially responsible for it’s soaraway success as mouse button helps it’s advertising rate. I have enjoyed debating on CiF as I sit behind my desk, and I used to think I brought something of a principled opposition to the party. However, having just been placed on ‘premoderation’ for the third time since Christmas, the game is no longer worth the candle. As you say, there are other outlets. If I ever win the Euromillions one of my ambitions is to buy the Guardian and employ Kelvin McKenzie as editor, but until then, they can do without my click button (and Im sure they’ll be jolly happy about it)

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  12. obat kista says:

    the fundamental flaw with the idea of CiF, is that it gives the passing reader the impression that, offensive words and phrases aside, comments will be left largely untouched.

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