Editorial: How we moderate online comments

Computerworld editor Sarah Putt outlines the process we follow in moderating online reader comments

On Tuesday July 17 Computerworld broke the story online that Maclean Computing had been put into liquidation. On Wednesday competitor Code Blue made a public play for the company’s customer base and later that day it was announced that Maclean Technology, co-owned by Chris Maclean, had bought Maclean Computing’s assets. On Friday the liquidator’s report revealed that Maclean Computing owes $3 million.

The online articles attracted a large number of comments; on the first article alone there were more than 70. A small number of comments were deleted shortly after they were posted because they fell into the category of being potentially defamatory.

But on the Saturday following the first week of stories about Maclean Computing I went back over all six stories that had been posted because I was concerned that, in the hustle and bustle of everyday reporting, we might have missed a few defamatory comments and I didn’t want them remaining over the weekend. I removed about 15 and closed the stories for comment until the following Monday. I then posted my own comment on each article explaining about the defamation risk.

As editor, the responsibility for everything that appears under the Computerworld NZ masthead is mine, so it follows that how the defamation law is interpreted on our website is down to me – not the law itself; that is the preserve of the courts.

It’s important to note that defamation cases can be costly for publications – the New Zealand courts have awarded damages of over $100,000 in a few cases, after a test case, O’Brien v. Brown in 2001, established that the defamation law applies online.

Defamation must be taken seriously – but so too should the right to freedom of speech.

Of all the topics we’ve covered since the Computerworld website opened to comments more than two years ago, the Maclean Computing liquidation is the one that has attracted the most potentially defamatory comments. So I thought it might be useful for readers to know what process we follow in determining whether a comment should be deleted.

Here are the questions we ask about comments that sail close to the wind:

• Is it defamatory – is it likely to unfairly and significantly diminish the person that has been named in the comment in the eyes of the general public?

• Is it the truth – if the comment alleges an activity has taken place, did it and can this be easily proven?

• Will the company mentioned be able to prove that the comment will lead to a significant financial loss?

• Is the comment expressed as an honest opinion and not an unsubstantiated fact?

• Is the comment an unwarranted/unproven personal attack without substance?

• Is it in bad taste – for example racist, sexist or homophobic?

The standard for defamation in an article, as opposed to a comment, is more nuanced. For example the law allows for something called “absolute truth”, that means anything said in a court or in Parliament can be reported.

I’ve been the editor for more than two years and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked to remove a comment, and it’s rare a comment is flagged unless it is spam. You are clearly an audience that enjoys robust debate.

An issue that people sometimes raise is why we allow anonymous comments. My view is that ICT in New Zealand is a small world, and people can lose their jobs if they speak out publicly, so it’s important that the facility to comment anonymously is maintained, even if it is occasionally abused.

However I think a comment in which a person has put their name carries more weight (and if it is a well known person I’ve been known to contact them and check they posted it).

Finally, we encourage reader comments on Computerworld because they add greatly to the understanding of the issues in our industry.

I often say to people when I’m interviewing them for a print story – first the article will appear in the print publication and then the fun bit will happen. We will post it online and find out what the readers think.

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