I have been receiving mails often about the moderation policy for the comments posted on The Hindu portal.
Let me share excerpts from some of the mails we have received so far. Tamil writer Era Murugan wrote: “The Hindu’s comment moderation process is awful. You want to leverage technology for starting a meaningful discussion with the reader about your editorials or reports. However, when someone comments, it takes a minimum of 24 hours to moderate the comment received and publish it. By the time, the whole thing becomes stale. Appears they have made comment moderation as a part of some employee’s long list of job responsibilities — coming somewhere towards the bottom of the list.”
Another writer — I am paraphrasing the essence of his argument as I cannot reproduce his intemperate language here — felt that the very idea of moderation was akin to censorship and that it curbed readers’ freedom to share their honest opinion without being filtered through a process of selection that could not be free of preference or bias. In fact, it is an important idea for an engaging debate, but the particular reader lost out because of the vitriol and violence in his language.
One of the regular writers to the office of the Readers’ Editor, who had handled the news desk for decades before his retirement, wrote a few weeks ago: “Yesterday I posted a Comment (giving my full name and this email ID) but it did not show up at all. I had seen the acknowledgement that it was received and was waiting for moderation. From my school days I am used to many letters of mine not being published in the papers (just as many were published — the first one was in The Statesman of Calcutta when I had not completed my SSLC) but knowing the volume of mails received and the space available I have never questioned the Editors for not using my letters. Later, in Indian Express, I have been on the Edit desk handling Letters — when I had to make the selection myself. However I am unable to understand this non-appearance of perfectly well written and absolutely inoffensive comments in the online edition where we see all kinds of messages — good, bad and indifferent. Maybe there is what is called a technical glitch! You can never tell! I really don't know how things are operating. But I have decided not to waste any more time in writing online comments.”
Policy on comment moderation
Last April in a two-part column, The possibility of coexistence, I had touched upon some of the principles governing the digital platform and the moderation policy. First let me assure all readers of this newspaper — print or digital editions — that your views are important and there is no desire to shut them out. It is fair and legitimate on the part of readers to expect their comments that are free from malice and abuse to see them up in cyberspace at the earliest.
The Hindu’s webpage opens up nearly 2,500 items a day for readers to comment and respond. The Internet editor explained some of the challenges she and her team face: “Comments moderation is exhausting and continuous — we are not able to clear all comments as fast as we would like to. We get close to 2,000 comments on a normal day. On a day of interesting developments and controversies, the numbers go up significantly leading to a backlog. We have recently been able to highlight comments which are interesting, add new information, etc.” She and her team follow a credible policy: yes to criticism and no to vitriol and personal abuse.
“As the guidelines state, abusive comments, hate speech, personal attacks will not be published. Nor comments under anonymous/generic names such as ‘concerned Indian’ will find a place. We do not take sides and work to ensure that both sides of a debate are heard. All comments are read through completely for hate speech, bias and then published,” she observed.
Towards a robust, quick process
Legacy media all over the world face this question of how to promote a robust and civil online conversation. There is near unanimity that moderation is an essential tool, and not moderating may introduce toxic elements into public discourse. Some major publications have evolved a moderation process that is both responsible and quick.
For instance, The Guardian of the United Kingdom has much more detailed and stringent guidelines for its community of online respondents. Its moderation policy “is a collaborative document, created by representatives of GNM (Guardian News & Media) editorial including the Head of Communities, moderators and editors, together with the Readers’ Editor and incorporating feedback from users and content creators across the site.” As the ground rules are clear for both the comment writers and the moderators, the response time is minimal. This encourages a lively participation.
I propose to initiate a similar dialogue between the readers, editors and moderators of The Hindu to make the process of the exchange of ideas and debate lively, interesting, engaging and free from abuse. I request readers to write in with their suggestions and ideas to make this endeavour mutually beneficial.