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Write or wrong?

The threat was spelt out in no uncertain terms: “If U dont publish my comment I will sew you (sic)”… 

The reader, let’s call him Joe Bloggs, took umbrage at Times of Malta’s online moderator for deleting two comments he had posted in reaction to a story.

The reason for the red light was simple: the content was libellous, full of vitriol... and was signed off by, yep, a Walt Disney cartoon character.

Welcome to the world of an online moderator, a chore recently described as the “worst job in the world” by a poor soul who sifts through thousands of comments for The Guardian.

Indeed, a moderator’s job can be as thankless as that of a gravedigger’s: there are enough insults posted to make your eyes water, so much misinformation that you want to dig a hole and sleep in it. 

There are enough insults to make your eyes water, so much misinformation that you want to dig a hole and sleep in it

And of course, in Malta, everything – from the traffic accident in Burmarrad to the Eurovision song contest – is laced with partisan comments. Joseph Muscat, Simon Busuttil, and the migrants are (almost) always to blame.

I’d be the first to admit that the naff comments outnumber the reasonable ones by a mile.

So the question remains: why do so many media houses still retain them?

The comments evolved as a way to leverage a two-way communication between readers and reporters. Instead of passively consuming the news, readers could suddenly discuss their views, possibly shape public opinion. The comments have often served as a good source for other stories.

“Contact me if you want to hear my story…” one individual wrote recently in reply to a story about sex abuse. One story led to another via the comments board.

Our readers applaud us when we get it right and slam us when we get it wrong, and this helps us flesh out our journalism. In between the diatribes, you will find the odd witty comment. Any why not?

Media outlets might not openly admit it, but the comments section also drives traffic.

But there are also several problems associated with online comments, to the extent that a number of news outlets have disabled them.

Amid Times of Malta’s average 1,700 daily comments are a potential cauldron of hate remarks, out-of-point barbs… and endless sessions in court.

Many readers do not bother to read the entire story before commenting. Others just bother to read the headline and merely use the medium to taunt others.

Despite our clear comments policy, many still feel it’s a free soapbox on which all opinions – even despicable ones – should be given voice and space.

Of course our moderators (there aren’t many) make mistakes and the persistent trolls do manage to slip through the gates.

We reject around 30 per cent of all comments posted because they are insensitive, out-of-point or because they are legally dicey

I often hear our moderators being accused that they let everything through, a far cry from the truth. We reject around 30 per cent of all comments posted because they are insensitive, out-of-point or because they are legally dicey... sometimes all of the above in one short comment.

Where migration stories are concerned we reject up to 90 per cent because the comments are downright hateful and racist. This is why we have chosen to disable comments from certain migrant stories.

A moderated comment suggesting that migrants should be burnt alive.A moderated comment suggesting that migrants should be burnt alive.

The likes of Joe Bloggs often accuse us of censorship and of restricting free speech when the moderator is trying to avoid a cacophony of inane comments screaming out louder than the one reasonable voice struggling to be heard. We have seen readers come in to share ideas and they end up shaming the ideas of others.

Without knowing they are sucked into an amoral wasteland where only the “fittest” the most vile – and not the more intelligent – survive.

“Why should I bother commenting in a cesspit of misinformation,” one friend recently told me. He might be right, but such a defeatist attitude only provides more poison venom in the fingertips of the misinformed commentators. In other words, many readers with valuable opinions out there are letting the trolls win.

So should media outlets disable the comments section and provide social media as an alternative? Do you think media outlets lost control of a space they’ve provided?

Why should they stop a service intended to give a voice to the public once associated with the local pjazza?

Why should media houses stop uploading thoughtful and constructive comments that make journalism better?

We would like to know what you think about the subject because, let’s face it, the internet is the most annoyingly beautiful space we have created. 

Feel free to comment in the section below. Just don’t threaten to “sew” me if your insulting comment isn’t uploaded.

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