The LibDemVoice comments policy: why we moderate & how to avoid us moderating you

by Stephen Tall on March 17, 2012

There are many aspects of running this site that the LibDemVoice editorial collective actively discuss: which articles to publish and when, which adverts to accept and which to reject — and, most spiritedly, how to define our comments moderation policy.

Until two years ago, we didn’t really have a policy: basically it was a free-for-all until somebody complained, or a lawyer got in touch. Partly in response to the latter — but more especially in response to reader feedback that the comments threads were too often a no-go zone for all but the most thick-skinned — we started to tighten our policy. Disagreement is, has been, and shall always be welcome. With one caveat: that it must, if not actually be polite, at least avoid needless offence.

As a result, I think our comments threads are now much improved: readable but robust. This personal view is backed up by the feedback from our members’ surveys. In our February members’ survey, we asked specifically about the site’s comment threads:

  • 61% of the 570+ Lib Dem members who responded said they read the comments threads often or very often; a further 26% read them occasionally, and just 12% rarely or never.
  • And more than 80% of you said you felt the threads added greatly (40%) or a little (41%) to LibDemVoice; a further 8% said they made not difference, while 7% said they detracted from the site. (The remainder either didn’t express a view or don’t read the comments threads.)
  • Reading through the many comments from party members in our survey, it seems clear the active comment moderation is appreciated: a number refer very specifically to the fact that LibDemVoice comments threads contain intelligent, cogent debate — and dissent — in stark contrast to the unreadably emetic threads on the Guardian, Telegraph and Mail sites.

Here’s the analogy that Mark Pack and I have used over the last couple of years to guide our comment moderation policy… that the comment moderator should aim to act as an effective chair of a public meeting would, ensuring everyone has the right to speak, but resisting those speakers who want to hijack the meeting for their own purposes, or to shout others down.

Our comments policy is published for all to see here: LibDemVoice.org/comment-policy. In reality, it is impossible to define exactly the moderation process, as so much can depend on context — for example, something strongly worded in the context of a 50-comment-thread of robust debate may be fine, but if it’s completely out-of-the-blue on a 3-comment thread perhaps not.

The reason we take moderation seriously — other than to ensure robust debate doesn’t tip over into naked aggression which deters readers from contributing — is that I believe (and I think I speak here on behalf of our editorial collective) we should see the comments as an integral part of the content of the site. To do otherwise, to view comments as an irrelevant add-on, would be to disrespect those who take the time to contribute to the threads.

And as editors we all of us take quite a lot of effort to uphold the quality threshold for contributors’ pieces. We reject very little, but we do more frequently ask for re-writes to ensure they’re the right kind of tone/length/fit for LibDemVoice. It seems to me, therefore, quite fitting that the site should respectfully and flexibly apply a similar expectation for comments ‘below the fold’.

The comments sections of websites reflect on their host — I know I think much less of Comment is Free, Guido Fawkes, Telegraph Blogs for having pretty much unreadably unpleasant comments sections. What they doubtless regard as freedom, I think coarsens public debate. Those who prefer invective and abuse are welcome to ply their trade on those sites, where it appears to be welcomed. Or of course to start their own site.

So I’m all for us having some basic minimal standards, advertised publicly, to which we ask people, for the benefit of the whole community, to stick. And stick not simply to its letter, but more importantly to its spirit.

There is one simple way never to fall foul of comment moderation: be polite. Robust is fine, too. But you’re more likely to persuade by virtue of reason than by SHOUTING or trading personal jibes. And I make no apology for the fact that LibDemVoice is trying to promote a more civil and constructive public discourse on the web, to ensure this site remains true to its founding motto that it’s ‘Our place to talk’.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.