On the Politicsweb comment section

James Myburgh responds to the decision by the Daily Maverick to shut down its reader responses

On Monday the Daily Maverick summarily announced that it would be closing down its comments section, following the example of News24 and Independent Online. Currently BDLive does not have a comment-section, for reasons which are somewhat obscure, and the Rand Daily Mail has not had one since its inception.

In an editorial – on which commenting was not allowed – the Daily Maverick said that it had been driven to this by “a small but significant percentage of our commentators troll our site in order to fling filth at our writers, our opinionistas, and at other contributors and commentators who happen to disagree with their finely tuned Weltschmerz [world-weariness].”

The editorial further complained that the comments section was tarnishing a carefully built brand, and as a result the site would be suspending the comment section “until such time as we can either moderate away those who feel entitled to spew hate speech on our property, or come up with some other solution that fosters genuine engagement rather than reductive trolling.” In its place the site would be setting up “an old school Letters to the Editor column shortly.”

The tone of much of the editorial was rather hectoring. It claimed that in no way was this a curtailment of freedom of speech or a capitulation to political correctness. Those who felt “slighted” by the decision were welcome to bugger off elsewhere:

“But in the meantime, remember this: no one is entitled to post whatever comes into their head underneath a story on a website they do not own and do not pay for. No one is entitled to insult writers or fellow readers under the rubric of some misaligned understanding of freedom of speech. And no one is entitled to be a bastard just because they feel like it. Not in Daily Maverick, at least.”

The reaction on social media by commentariat-types was generally positive and, on occasion, gleeful: The “racists” and the “trolls” were once again getting it in the eye.

There are aspects of this decision that, on the face of it, make little sense. My impression of Daily Maverick commenters were that they were generally moderate and earnest and, given that they were required to disclose their identities, generally quite careful about what they said. If there were individuals habitually spewing bile on the site, or abusing the comments section, there was nothing to stop the Daily Maverick from individually blacklisting the culprits (a process that takes all of a few seconds) as their inflammatory remarks were flagged by the community.

Although the focus of the editorial was on dressing-down the “trolls” and “bastards” and “racists” – who were about to get a well-deserved shove – the truth is that the most of the actual losers of this decision were the site’s decent, loyal and engaged readers who were suddenly being deprived of their voice and their online community. They deserved a better explanation for why they no longer deserved to be heard.

There may well be a point at which an online readership becomes so large that, as with News24, its comment section becomes effectively unmanageable without the application of considerable resources which could be better employed elsewhere. However, it does appear that many of the complaints about “trolls” in site comment sections by journalists and opinion-makers are somewhat self-serving. The reaction that really hurts as a writer is not the explosion of some or other kind of intemperate abuse – that is often just a sign that your missile has hit home – but the responses accurately pointing out the factual, moral and/or logical flaws in one’s argument to the world at large.

Unlike our politicians, who generally learn how to roll with the punches at an early stage, members of the commentariat tend to be of a far more fragile disposition. There are columnists about who, despite dishing it out against others on a more-or-less weekly basis, continue to burn with resentment over a little mild mockery or criticism sent in their direction years previously. Complaints about “trolling” are often a kind of catch-all excuse for (if possible) preventing often very well founded criticism from appearing below articles and thereby throwing a spanner into attempts at influence.

Comment sections manned (mostly) by a well-informed, critically-minded and engaged readership – such as the Daily Maverick had and Politicsweb has - perform incredibly useful functions. While they need tending, and poisonous weeds pulled out before they take over the garden, they do not need to be controlled and directed.

For any editor or contributor they provide excellent and instantaneous feedback, new leads on stories and valuable insights. Anonymous commenting also allows for honest responses at a time when social media has been seized by a ‘seek, find, label and destroy’ mob ethic and even a slightly ill-phrased statement by a person is enough to cost them their job. Such comment sections too are an important corrective against shoddy journalism, racialist opinion-making, and the ubiquitous volksverhetzung in our public debate.

The Politicsweb comment section is an asset both to the publication and South African political debate more generally. It stays.  

The Editor