Domen Savič: Abolish the comments!


by: oli

Written by: Domen Savič, an Internet freedom activist from Slovenia


New media law proposal raises more fears and doubts than hopes for solving the current issues. The new media law is not being problematized only because of its proposal for the new Slovene music quota time (air time of Slovene specific music on TV and radio airwaves), which has already been question by both the experts and the general public, but also because of the way it touches the media online.

Who is responsible?   

In the Slovene media law bill (Official Gazette RS, n. 110/06 – official consolidated text, 36/08 – ZPOmK-1, 77/10 – ZSFCJA, 90/10 – decision. US, 87/11 – ZAvMS in 47/12) the following text is added to the article 18’s third paragraph:

»The editor is also responsible for the content of the comments and other audiovisual material posted by the readers. The editor must form and publish a set of rules for comment moderation. Comments not in accordance with the said rules must be removed from the website as soon as possible. «

The issue of who is responsible for user generated online content has been present for the past 10 years, ever since we’ve enabled the audience’s participation in online debates via various channels (comments, social media and other means). The problem lies in the stark contradiction of the regulation and the proverbial openness of the web.

Western media has been questioning the meaningfulness of the comments below the online articles for several years now. One of the arguments put forward by Reuters on why they shut off comments on their website was that “much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums. But a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher.”

“People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown,” chimed in New York Times and “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” warned Popular Science.

The western media outlets prefer to shut off the comments section and therefore does not have to worry about comment regulation or publication as all. In the past a certain Slovene media tried to oversee the comment section by enforcing a rule of mandatory registration – users who wish to post a comment must be registered with a (user generated) user name. Other media outlets wanted an even stricter procedure – they connected a user name with the subscription number thus connecting the user to a tangible name and address. Finally some media outlets introduced the pre-approval process and put a strain on the moderation team – all comments were proofread and only then published.

Then the case Delfi vs. Estonia happened. The European court of justice ruled that the Estonian media website Delfi AS was responsible for the racist and insulting comments on their website, posted by an anonymous user. The media owner was responsible even though the comments were removed as soon as the media owners were made aware of them.

Why does the media »need« the comment section?

In theory, comments sections on popular online media platforms provide a place for an open debate. By communicating with their target audience, allowing the free-for-all participation and therefore promoting the values of democratic system, online media outlets let the audience share and co-develop public opinion. There is however a more practical reason to it – the advertising and its financial benefits.

Certain media outlets perceive comments as one of the main visit generators and sell that fact to the advertisers as well. SEO “experts” claim that comments are essential for traffic boost, seeing that the users are more interested in the debates going on in the comments section than the article itself.

In theory that might be true but in practice comments section on media outlets is not a place for an in-depth debate, it is mostly used for venting frustrations, passing time and using foul language. And even though said misbehavior might attract more clicks, the quality of said visits is very low and useless to the advertisers.

Shut off the comments!

I find the debate about the new media law bill proposal, especially the part about the comments on online media outlets pointless.

In this day and age, as opposed to let’s say 10 years ago, online user have tons of various channels on their disposal for expressing their opinions. I find the notion that by shutting off the commenting privileges we are restricting the freedom of speech, excessive. If on the other hand commenting was the only way to express an opinion, it would be an entirely different story.

Today a person can share his or her opinions on various different social media platforms, websites and blogs, there is really no shortage of platforms available to people with an opinion.

Slovene information commissioner, opposed to this new bill proposal, stated that “we must not overlook the importance of online communication and exchange of opinions and must therefore look for alternatives”. The supporters of this new bill proposal on the other hand claim that the changes and with them the limitation of online commenting will lead to diminishment of hate speech. I find both statements irrelevant. We will not diminish the hate speech, we will simply just remove it from the public eye.

The media outlets themselves evaluate the meaningfulness of comments based solely on the economic gain or loss (is this bringing us any money or not?). They need to know and I’m hereby letting them know that it is not worth it, the comments are not making your online media worth more. Even more, comments lower the value of the article and drive the readers away from your news site. It turns out not everybody is interested in the never ending debate of who won the second world war happening in the comments section regardless of what the article is really about.

Comment section is completely and utterly dysfunctional. Its existence is based on opportunistic gains and having a debate whether they should be shut off or not and how that would diminish the free speech is in my opinion irrelevant. It will not get us anywhere, very much like online user-generated comments.