Free speech under ATTACK! Why Stuff is reining in its comment section

With questions for media swirling about what their platforms get used for, New Zealand’s biggest news site has closed a huge swathe of their notorious comments section. Stuff editor in chief Patrick Crewdson spoke to The Spinoff about why they made the choice.

They say don’t read the comments, but what they really mean is don’t read the Stuff comments.

They’re typically characterised as a haven for brutalising insults, performative sneering and tinfoil hattery. And while that’s all there, it’s not necessarily a total reflection. Sometimes people do actually try to communicate with each other in a vaguely constructive way. It’s rare, but it happens.

But from now on, a lot less of the former will be happening on Stuff. They’ve announced a crackdown on the comments section, with a whole lot of new rules designed to get rid of the assholes. A wide range of article topics – like 1080, vaccinations and the disputed region of Kashmir – just won’t have the comments open anymore. Along with that, they plan to be a lot tougher on where the line that cannot be crossed is. And – in what might seem like an unrealistically utopian development – they even plan to have an ‘editor’s pick’ function to highlight the best, most enlightening comments.

It comes amid demands that platforms change what they are willing to host, in all sorts of ways. Chief among them is Facebook, who have been incredibly lacklustre in their responses to calls around live streaming, and hosting hateful content in other forms. But Facebook don’t consider themselves a publisher in the same way that Stuff does, and it’s telling that media organisations are responsible for moderating the comments sections on their own Facebook pages.

Small sites are also grappling with the balance between the right of reply of their readers, and the rights of every other reader to not read garbage. Kiwiblog’s publisher David Farrar announced that changes would be coming in the wake of the Christchurch attacks, with commenters now required to use their own name for automatic comment approval. Given it’s a place where vile abuse and threats from commenters were seemingly routinely thrown at people (read the comments on, say, literally any article about Golriz Ghahraman) it seems like a pretty good call. But under the announcement post, many of the commenters invoked the idea that it was a free speech and free thought platform, and that their rights were under attack. Is the Stuff situation the same?

We asked Stuff’s editor in chief Patrick Crewdson why he was shutting down free speech.

Why are you shutting down free speech?

Because I’ve been ordered to by the World Government.

Obviously, but was there also previously a feeling that Stuff was obligated to publish the views of readers, and now that doesn’t hold any more?

We’ve always had rules for comments, and before today we were rejecting around a third of the 7000 comments we receive daily. So this isn’t about the era of free speech coming to an end. It’s about our community standards, and drawing the boundary in a different place.

Would these policy changes have happened without the Christchurch attacks?

Some already had. For instance, internally we’d already generated a list of banned topics. But Christchurch certainly focused our attention and spurred us to move faster.

The topics that have been selected for generalised comment blocking include articles about 1080, fluoride, anti-vaxxing, etc. Is this an extension of Stuff’s policy on how to cover climate change? And is it possible that you’re being too broad about the subject matter chosen to not allow comments on? 

Two different approaches, I’d say. For climate change, we’ve said that we accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, and we believe the issue is too pressing to allow the distraction of denialism. But we still allow comments on climate change because there’s plenty to discuss regarding mitigation, adaptation etc.

For 1080, fluoride and vaccination, experience has taught us that comments threads quickly turn toxic. That’s an acknowledgement that we can’t easily host a constructive conversation in the comments section for those topics; it’s not the same as taking an editorial stance on the merit of the issue.

One of the other stipulations is that comments will be rejected if they “just generally aren’t very nice.” Hypothetically, say you had an article about The Spinoff on your site. What would be an example of a not very nice comment that would be rejected?

I feel you’re trying to trick me into being mean to you.

That clause is really a catch-all designed to capture nasty comments that we haven’t specifically called out in another provision. For instance, a comment that says the victim of an unfortunate event deserves it.

Fair enough. When people in NZ say ‘don’t read the comments,’ it’s often understood that they mean Stuff comments. Do you agree that the comment section had become a byword for toxicity and bigotry?

The majority of comments that we approve for publication are fair expression, but it only takes a few toxic comments to taint an entire stream. I don’t think it’s correct to describe the comments section overall as toxic and bigoted but that perception arose because those elements were present, and we have to own that.

Is it possible to have a productive and civil comments section on the internet?

I still believe so.

How much of this is in relation to Facebook also being told to clean up their platform? Is this Stuff looking to signal to the public, and potentially advertisers, that it is a more responsible platform?

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We’re running our own race here. Our decisions were based around serving our own audience, rather than taking on Facebook or YouTube. Their problems with hate speech and vile content flourishing on their platforms are well publicised. The only thing I’d add, specifically in relation to comments, is that we’d love to see Facebook offer more than just rudimentary moderation tools and comment options to page administrators.

Are any jobs going to be lost as a result of this? In the past being a comment moderator for Stuff has been among the least coveted roles in media, will that continue into the future?

If you’re looking for a job with us, you’re going about this all wrong…

But this isn’t about cutting jobs. It’s about changing the character of the community we host.


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