The dilemma of moderating comments vs. free speech

A goal of the online team at The Western Producer is to increase reader engagement at and on our social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

As a web editor, one of my tasks is to moderate the comments that are sent in, which is at times not an easy task.

Some comments are easy to moderate. If it includes personal attacks, profanity, or spam, we cut it, while a comment based on an honestly held opinion, whether we agree with it or not, is allowed.

Sometimes this laissez-faire policy can be hard to stick to.

Earlier this week, I placed on our Facebook page a story about how Canadian negotiators may have offered to increase dairy imports into Canada during the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, but then a story commentator went on an anti-GMO rant and posted links to questionable websites.

Had the story been about GMO technology, the comment wouldn’t have been so out of place, but this comment didn’t move forward the conversation about international trade and supply management in any way.

This comment is an example of a dilemma that myself and fellow web editor Paul Yanko often face: should we allow a small number of commentators to derail important debates in our comment sections?

As it stands, we will allow a comment about the globe-Earth conspiracy and how the world is in actually flat. Paul keeps a tin-foil hat on hand for such occasions.

I’m concerned many of our readers and fans won’t participate in our online discussions because a few prolific commentators, who aren’t even involved in the industry, annoy them.

However, the side of me that advocates for free speech believes anyone should be allowed to voice their opinion in the news media comments sections, which are important public forums.

It’s not just the Producer that’s looking for a way to promote focused discussions in story comment sections, which will enable readers to increase their understanding on an issue.

Some news agencies have implemented a Facebook authentication system to try and clean up their comment sections. The idea is that when commentators are anonymous, they are less likely to be civil because there is no chance their lack of tact can come back on them.

Critics of the Facebook authentication method say citizens shouldn’t be forced to have a Facebook account to participate in public discussions, which I think is a fair concern.

Some news organizations have questioned the utility of even having a comment section.

Last week, Sun newspapers told their readers they’re closing their comment sections on most of their online stories because the comments are often filled with “anonymous, negative, even malicious personal attacks, albeit by a minority,” wrote James Wallace, vice-president of editorial at the Sun.

When social media and comment boards first emerged, there was hope that citizens would use them to come together, share information and help overcome the significant challenges we face as a species.

Never before has there been so much information available, and all that is needed to access it is an internet connection and a cheap digital device with web capability. Yet I’m not convinced many of our perspectives have changed significantly since the digital revolution began.

Digital media analysis has described how social media users often seek information and online connections that reinforce what they already believe and ignore information and people that challenges their views.

So our increased reliance on digital media may actually be a polarizing process because there is so much information to choose from, especially if we don’t challenge each other.

Bringing it back to the Producer’s comment sections, if you happen to come across a commentator that claims the world is indeed flat, please feel free to scrutinize their opinion.

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