The Guardian is currently running series of articles exploring why so many of the comments it receives from readers for publication ‘below the line’ are offensive or are, at best, beside the point or don’t make a point at all [*1]. Apparently moderators remove 2% of contributions which are so offensive that they, the moderators, cannot bring themselves to see them published. The editor herself is the latest to contribute an article [*1] [*2].
Given the low standard of many comments that do get through, one can only guess at the sort of attacks that are removed.
The Guardian’s Comment is free facility exists specifically to allow people to comment on that which they have read online and perhaps engage in a discussion with other readers, or at least acknowledge their presence. It isn’t there for people to vent their anger in abusive remarks which they make solely for their own gratification, at best unaware of the damage done and at worst deliberately to hurt others.
Many journalists have been quoted on the soul-destroying way that offensive remarks wear them down, where abuse is the only literary style of so many people.
Imagine going to work every day and walking through a gauntlet of 100 people saying “You’re stupid”, “You’re terrible”, “You suck”, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”. It’s a terrible way to go to work
Jessica Valenti, Guardian writer.
Even if I tell myself that somebody calling me a nigger or a faggot doesn’t mean anything, it has a toll on me: it has an emotional effect, it takes a physical toll. And over time it builds up
Steven Thrasher, Guardian writer [both *3].
The paper has done a survey [*3] which found that,
Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.
And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
To date, 1.4 million comments (2% of the total) have been blocked by Guardian moderators because they violated the Guardian’s community standards. Most of these are abusive to some degree (they may use insulting language, or be ad hominem attacks) or are so off-topic that they derail the conversation.
However, my concern is the very many lesser comments which are let thorough by the moderators as well as the serious ones the moderators miss. And I must repeat that I, and the Guardian, are only talking about the Guardian’s site, not Twitter, Facebook or the rest.
There is no comment which is incapable of being made without abusing some other person, whether the subject of the original article, its author or anyone else—except, I suppose, comments about offensive language in which it is impossible not to use some of the words, as in the quotation from Steven Thrasher above (as I shall myself be showing later in this piece).
Therefore, if the Guardian believes that abuse is not acceptable (I believe that and I would be most interested to read its justifications if the Guardian did believe abuse was acceptable), the only solution is to adopt a zero tolerance approach to abuse.
Every abusive post that is let thorough by moderators is, de facto, condoned by the Guardian and simply encourages people to carry on being abusive.
So, every abusive post should be deleted by moderators.
By adopting such an approach, the Guardian would not be preventing anyone from making any comment about anything or anyone, it would simply be asserting a convention of courtesy and clarity of articulation.
I understand that all posts are read by moderators so the extra work is presumably just pressing the delete key once per post and some of this extra work could be automated as it will, in part, be based on commenters’ choice of words. I am sure that those with something to say will find a way of saying it civilly while those who use the Guardian’s comment facility merely to vent their own anger and frustration by attacking others will find, in the absence of their posts appearing online, more congenial websites elsewhere.
In time (probably a short period of time), moderators will have fewer posts to read as abusers give up and readers will have a massively improved user experience through not having to wade through vast quantities of dross.
It’s not just the comments that are so bad they have to be suppressed (rightly in my opinion), it is the vast numbers that are mildly abusive or offensive, stupid or ill informed and so on which pollute most of the “debates” so seriously as to make them not worth reading.
The point is that it is the massive amount of low level abuse which is wearing not only on the journalists and other commenters but also on those that simply are interested in the intelligent thoughts of others. This is, after all, the Guardian, not some gutter press title.
The Guardian has excellent community standards by which comments are moderated and deleted if needed [*4]. However, the paper is clearly not enforcing them consistently. For example this comment made in response to an article by Will Hutton [*5]:
Will Hutton is a loon… “hatred of foreignors [sic]”… what an idiot… or a liar who knows better… in Santa Clara County also know [sic] as “Silicon Valley” the last census in 2010 recorded that 43% of the population were born in a foreign country… my daughters’ high school is more than 95% Chinese and Indian kids of immigrants… do not believe what Will Hutton says… he is totally out to lunch…
Hutton had written
Who can best express the cocktail of nativism, hatred of foreigners in general and immigrants in particular, fetishisation of the absence of government and its handmaiden, the ultra-free market, all wrapped up in profoundly reactionary views of women, religion and punishment, that constitutes the ideology of today’s US right? It will be hand-to-hand political in-fighting, plumbing new depths of viciousness and possible physical violence. Thus will America be great again.
In what way do the figures cited by the comment shed light on Hutton’s point? If the insults—“loon”, “idiot”, “out to lunch”—are ones Mr Hutton is, I am sure, capable of rising above, why should I have to read them?
There is a sometimes wilful confusion between moderating to suppress points of view and opinions (which I deplore) and moderating to suppress abuse (which can only be the right thing to do). This has showed up in the comments received to the articles the Guardian has published on this subject.
I am not advocating moderation to suppress anyone’s point of view.
In fact, you could make a case that some of the most pointless comments, however inoffensive, get in the way and could be removed (I am not arguing that here), and, of course as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr observed [*6]:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
In response to a comment of mine, my proposals were accused of suppressing both passionate debate and commonsense. Yet there is nothing whatever in what I have said that shows this. In fact, the contrary is true: I wish there were a lot more passionate debate and common sense! And, in what way is the following “passionate debate” or “common sense” [*7]?
America fuck yeah coming again to save the motherfucking day Yeah!!!!!!
[I reported this comment to the moderator to see what would happen. Nothing.]
The right to freedom of speech is not the right to say anything I like. As I showed in a previous blog, that right is invariably accompanied by the obligation to exercise the right responsibly. If it isn’t, we can kiss goodbye to any hope for a civilised society.
1 Freedom of speech means freedom to speak.
2 It does not mean freedom to say anything I like.
3 Invoking any right presupposes a responsibility to maintain other people’s rights when exercising it: “No rights without responsibilities”.
The truth of 3 determines the truth of 2.
In what I believe is a misguided attempt to be an “inclusive” as it can be, the Guardian is lowering itself to the lowest common denominator when, actually, it should take a leadership position here and seek to raise others to its level, whilst all the time seeking to improve itself.
Commenters will not magically develop manners and civility. Because many of them are acting like small children, they will best be treated as children. Their toy (the Comment is free platform) should be withheld from them until they are willing to play nicely.
[*1] How do we make the Guardian a better place for conversation? (Katherine Viner, the Guardian, 22 april 2016)
[*2] The web we want (various writers, the Guardian, april 2016)
[*3] The dark side of Guardian comments (six authors, the Guardian, 12 april 2016)
[*4] Guardian community standards
[*5] On both sides of the Atlantic, the rise of the right is over (Will Hutton, the Observer, 17 april 2016)
[*6] judicial opinion, Schenck v US (1919)
[*7] comment to Be thankful the US is willing to be our global policeman (the Guardian, 20 april 2016)
> Free speech nailed [blog]
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