On new media: Online Communities and Free Speech

This is the second of a series of posts re-fashioned from the notes I made at  news : rewired, a digital journalism conference hosted by Journalism.co.uk at City University, London. (My first post, on the changing role of the BBC, is here.)


Almost all newspapers several years ago turned their Op/Ed sections in print into discursive forums online, allowing readers to comment and exchange views with each other and the newspapers’ journalists.

Yet these online communities vary in nature, specifically with regards to their level of “moderation” by those in charge.

Jessica Reed, an editorial assistant on Guardian.co.uk’s Comment is Free (CiF) and a speaker at the conference, said that comments posted on CiF articles are often radical and ranting (the chat room alter-ego having now had a good decade to develop).

Part of her job is to remove comments deemed offensive. With 30-40 articles per day commissioned and published by CiF (alongside those originally written for the print edition) and sometimes hundreds of comments per article, this process takes time.

Robin Hamman, head of social media at Headshift (a social business consultancy), put forward comment/tweet “curation” as an alternative to CiF-style “moderation”. On his personal website, Cybersoc, he simply picks the five best tweets in any given discussion and publishes only those on an embedded Twitter feed. He is more like a museum curator, chosing and arranging the best exhibits, than a schoolteacher trying to catch snatches of bad language in the playground. 

The way Hamman treats tweets is the reverse of how CiF treats comments, and it seems suited to his smaller, more subject-specific site. If Jessica Reed adopted Cybersoc’s method I suspect CiF commentors would feel excluded and eventually stop contributing to conversations that they no longer felt were open.

Kate Day, Communities Editor of The Telegraph, put forward yet another solution. She does not “moderate” comments posted on My Telegraph – a readers’ blogging site, set up about two and a half years ago – but instead responds to individual complaints and removes inappropriate comments once they have been flagged up by a reader. Apparently the Daily Mail has just started doing the same on its website.

This method is less labour-intensive and, Day believes, strengthens the community of readers who feel they are being heard. And if no active, “moderation” decision is made then The Telegraph cannot be seen to condone an offensive stance.
Or that’s the theory. In reality, publishing the views of those other than their paid writers is a tricky business for media organisations. The line between commissioning (and finding acceptable) and publishing can seem blurry to readers.

In theory, any reader should be able to start a My Telegraph blog. But when the British National Party’s London Assembly Member Richard Barnbrook decided to exercise this right Day was faced with a “difficult decision”. In the end she decided to let him blog. 

In his second post, titled “Blame the immigrants”,  Barnbrook wrote:

“I have had enough of political correctness. I have had enough of people being afraid to actually say what they really want to say. Yes … it is the immigrants. The real crime is on the streets, and it is the young people who are being attacked every day now by knives and guns. Most of it is being done by immigrants or by the sons of immigrants who have been protected by a despicable government desperate for the Ethnic Block-Vote.”

The blog post was picked up my Media Guardian, among others, and The Telegraph responded this statement:

“Our readers are entitled to their opinions and, within the law, they’re entitled to publish them on the My Telegraph blogging platform. We believe our readers are intelligent and discerning enough to avoid the content they dislike and report that which offends. That doesn’t mean the Telegraph necessarily endorses their opinions nor promotes them.”

The post has since been removed. Whether this was the decision of by Kate Day or Richard Barnbrook himself, I am not sure, but it does reveal the ethical problems inherent in censoring a community of free speakers.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on January 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “On new media: Online Communities and Free Speech”

  1. thanks for ure info….. if u want to read article about online comunity plese visit to my site indobox.co.cc . indobox.co.cc is a power of article in the world

  2. Who controls the controllers?
    A big brother nannism pretending to care for the “best” of citizen is far from the Voltairaian ideal fighting for the right of oppossants to publish. How much intellectual immaturity is showing in censuring lobby plotting manipulative “netiquette purity “?
    Instead of glossing up the playground of the media cafe late society with sound good noises, introspection of the own narscistic carrerism put upon real challenging critical journalism would be a progress in a failing neoliberal system willing to repress millions for the temporary mind comfort of few.The posturing arrogance of those who rant about those who “rant” is showing in a sad way.What an inner value insecurity.
    Citizen Democracy is something else than product placement.

  3. […] each with their own niche (cf. my posts on “citizen journalism” and online communities). That’s why people talk about the internet being […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: