Last week, we uploaded a story about a horrific traffic accident in Sliema, which was captured on CCTV. Within minutes, the story elicited scores of online comments - some were objective, others perfect fodder for conspiracy theories, the majority written by readers who became judge and jury.
One reader blamed the local council for the accident, another concluded that since a foreigner was driving a car then he must have been drunk. A third roared: “if a woman was behind the wheel, then it must have been her fault”. And my favourite: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was to blame because the buck stops with him!
The value of online comments divides public opinion as much as our eternal political rivalry.
Some think online comments do nothing more than provide a platform for hateful trolls and out-of-point debate, sitting beneath the articles like eczema, throbbing with vitriol. Too often, comments are libelous, misogynistic, racist and brimming with outrageous claims. The comments boards have served as a means for trolls to get a static space with a built-in audience where they post comments they probably would not express offline.
Some think online comments do nothing more than provide a platform for hateful trolls and out-of-point debate. Some think they can help build a community which isn’t passive
Some feel they're a legitimate tool for democracy in the 21st century, an important role in shaping public discourse and gauging opinion. They can help build a community which isn't passive, speaking on a forum below the space occupied by the story. They could potentially give journalists further information or insight to their stories.
In reality, there is no clear-cut answer in a fast-changing online world.
We were recently at the receiving end from some quarters because we removed the comments facility for three kinds of reportage: court reports, specific accidents, and migrant-related stories. We have closed off comments for the odd story we might feel is nothing more than a magnet for trolls. I understand it is a debatable decision, but it's one I fully take responsibility for.
We have long agonised over the value of the conversations that rage in the space below a story. Are they really adding value to the story? Are the same trolls poisoning the forum and warding off more reasonable readers? Is it worth wasting so many resources to monitor the comments? Most importantly – where do you draw the line with what many describe as 'freedom of speech'?
We face daily abuse from some who feel their comment was unfairly deleted. Yes, I admit, some of the complaints are justified. We all make mistakes but they are not dictated by the “agenda” we are often accused of.
At Times of Malta we receive an average of 1,500 comments a day. That's a lot for the size of our country but not surprising for Malta's top news website. We delete around 20-30 per cent of all comments posted as they are in breach of our Comments Policy.
We have done our utmost to make sure commentators are using their real name. We have done our utmost to eliminate fictitious names (you'd be surprised how many Walt Disney characters have taken to commenting online). But as much as we try our best we know there is no fool-proof system.
We're well aware that comments draw more readers in, but we do know that they put some off. We are aware about the disconnect between a vocal minority of readers as opposed to the (more informed?) majority.
We have decided to stop comments on most stories related to court because we were seeing a pattern where the accused was almost always accused of being guilty well before the judge had started contemplating his sentence. Many readers are even willing to suggest the form of punishment to the accused, more often than not in the form of torture or deportation.
Stories related to traffic accidents were often rife with conspiracy theories. If a motorcyclist was killed in a traffic accident then it was his fault for opting for two wheels, according to some commentators. If not, then it was almost certainly the fault of the car/wall/pole he crashed into. We felt it was unfair that an army of commentators is adopting the role of traffic experts and police… if anything out of respect for the victims.
With migration stories the reason was simple – we had reached a stage where a good 90 per cent of all comments were outright racist [i.e – illegal] or at best xenophobic. We do not want to be guilty of joining the bandwagon of hate against vulnerable people – there are enough online forums to do that.
We often hear: that's the internet. Learn how to deal with it. We don't believe Times of Malta should provide a platform for misinformed or intentionally misleading internet trolls.
Many think we should go one step further and remove comments altogether. This is what organisations like Reuters and Bloomberg have done. Others like the BBC and The New York Times open the comments boards to very few stories every day and for a limited time. It's tempting to say that comments are more trouble than they're worth but we want to receive the odd diamond-in-the-rough insight and this is why we are keeping the rest of the comments section open.
But it's about time we start prioritising legality, solidarity and quality over so-called 'free speech', a claim often cited and misinterpreted by the loudest (and vilest).
Just as we shape our social lives in physical space, we can shape our digital space. By eliminating comments for three genres of stories we feel we're doing our little bit.
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