RIP comments: will anyone miss you?

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Earlier this week, South Africa’s IOL News joined the likes of News24, CNN, Reuters and whole host of media outlets in closing its comments section on its online articles. In a lengthy op-ed, Managing Editor Adrian Ephraim explained that Independent Media’s decision was both “difficult but necessary” in light of the fact that some of the “instances of abuse in our comments section [had] become untenable.”

As anyone who’d ever taken a passing interest in the article comments on can attest, Ephraim’s statement about online abuse was hardly unfounded. The comments sections on IOL News frequently descended into flame wars, in which racists, sexist and other forms of hate-speech were regularly employed by posters – usually under an online alias, since that’s how most trolls operate. Just like News24’s BTL opinions.

That’s not to say that posters were all at it, but the abuse was starting to outweigh the debate. It’s also not to say that Independent Media’s online comment section were the only place this abuse was taking place – the websites mentioned above suspended their comment sections on articles for very much the same reasons.

Naturally, the decision by IOL News was met with a mixed response. Many readers seemed gladdened by the decision and said that it was ‘about time’ IOL News took this move while others vowed never to visit the site again, since their voices had essentially been silenced.

Ephraim further stoked the detractor’s ire by telling readers that, “commenting on an article is not a right, but a courtesy afforded to you by IOL.” A lot of naysayers also made the old accusation that, by closing down its online comments, Independent Media was stepping on their basic human right of freedom of speech.

That last criticism is garbage, of course. Closing a comment section on a website doesn’t remove anyone’s right to freedom of speech. They’re free to vent their spleen on a multitude of other sites and platforms – just clock an eye at Twitter, or better yet, Independent Media’s own Facebook page.

It’s like saying that if you come round to my house, bang on my door and hurl abuse at me when I open it, I’ve managed to remove your right to say what you want if I slam the door in your face. I haven’t; I’ve just announced through my actions I don’t feel like listening to you, which incidentally, is a right I have.

Divorced from its visceral invective, critics of IOL Media’s decision could argue that news websites and the like may have something of a duty to their readers to supply a public forum. After all, as discussion spaces become more and more the property of media conglomerates, it feels slightly Orwellian when one of them pulls the plug.

That having been said, IOL Media’s decision to close its comment section – as has been shown – isn’t exactly a groundbreaking move. Tons of news and feature sites have closed their comment sections – VICE’s Motherboard tech site now only accepts readers’ letters, Popular Science is a one way read, even The Verge shut its readers up for a bit – and not all of these closures have been in response to an avalanche of online abuse. Some sites simply attract so much traffic that commentators just become too much of a pain to handle.

In order to prevent the hate-speak situation IOL – and News24 and others – found itself facing, media organisations need to moderate their comments sections. This, naturally, involves hiring more staff, training them up on the site’s terms and conditions and having them work in shifts to moderate the comments a 24-hour news site can attract. This, however, requires a company to put its hand in its pocket, which is a hard ask in media at present.

On top of that, most keyboard warriors and online commentators tend to congregate on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Given the size of their audiences, it makes more sense for media organisations to funnel their online readership to one or two social networks and leave it to the community and the parent companies of those sites to police the comments.

IOL News has done just this and in light of that, its decision to close it online comments in articles looks efficient and clean.