This blog post has nothing to do with free speech. The comments on this blog are not – and will never be – an outlet for anyone to speak freely. There are lots of reasons for this, and because I am obsessed with transparency I’m going to explain my comment policy. On my blog, I’m a dictator. Other blog owners and companies that run websites are dictators too. If any website owner tells you that their site is a platform for your free speech, and that you will never be censored, they are mistaken. Here’s why.
My old comments policy: publish if possible
From the time I started this blog until… oooh, around November 2016, I would always err on the side of publishing comments if at all possible. I would very rarely delete – comments would only get removed (or, occasionally, edited) on the grounds of:
- Hate speech
Where comments were overtly critical of me or what I’d written, I’d usually engage to make a counterpoint, and then apply the ‘reasonable bystander’ test: would a reasonable stranger who stumbled across this discussion have enough information to make up their mind or find out more? If so, end of my engagement. Any more shitty comments or nonsensical rebuttals could just sit there beneath that discussion, likely not changing anyone’s mind.
This policy worked up to a point, and broadly these are still the rules I apply. Notice anything about them though? They do not put free speech – or a commenter’s right to express an opinion – front and centre. Other things come first, for good reason.
Free speech, libel and hate
If you live in the UK, you do not have the right to free speech. Not in the way most people interpret it, anyway – the right to say whatever you like without consequences, based on the (incorrect) assumption that words alone have no power. I’m a firm believer in the power of words – if I wasn’t then there’d be no point in any of this *gestures vaguely at blog*
The lack of a right to free speech confuses Americans I chat to sometimes on Twitter or in blog comments here. “I have a right to free speech!” they proclaim, forgetting that I have boring legal responsibilities that conflict with that.
In the UK, we have stricter libel laws than the US. They’re a hell of a lot better than they used to be thanks to the Libel Reform Campaign and the Defamation Act. UK bloggers still need to be careful about what they write, though – particularly where something implies wilful negligence or criminal activity. We also need to be careful when moderating comments. I am totally cool with having an open section at the bottom of blog posts where people can share their thoughts, but I’m not cool with letting people potentially libel companies who might sue me.
On top of this, the UK also has laws that cover hate speech. Your speech is not actually free in the UK if what you’re doing is trying to stir up hatred of a group of people. Personally, I think this is a good thing, but my opinion is basically irrelevant here: it’s illegal, and if someone does it in my comments they will get deleted and potentially reported as well (I’ve never done this but as yet I’ve never needed to).
On top of this there are the rules on what your ISP will and won’t let you publish, technical mechanisms like spam capture software (which means sometimes comments get lost in forever in the spam queue), and other boring reasons why your comment might not make it to the page. This is true of most blogs. I don’t know if you can host without an ISP – presumably you can on the dark web, but even then you still have the spam issue to deal with. The point I’m making is that every site owner will have some form of comment management – no one just lets you spaff whatever you like onto the page. So the question becomes not ‘should I moderate comments?’ but ‘how should I moderate comments?’
What exactly do you have a right to?
Let’s talk more generally about free speech now, and assume that there is a right to free speech – by which I mean ‘freedom to say whatever you like without legal consequences.’ You don’t have this right, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that you do.
Do you have the right to speak freely anywhere? Clearly not. If you leave an angry comment on my blog I can’t demand that in retaliation I’m allowed to exercise my free speech right in the middle of your living-room halfway through your next birthday party. But you don’t even have the right to the same space or platform as the original discussion. If you and a group of friends start loudly bitching about me at your birthday party, I don’t get to demand equal time and attention to defend myself – you’re still within your right to throw me out of your house.
Do you have the right to my time/labour in sharing your view? Again, no. This blog gets quite a bit of traffic, and as a result leaving a comment on here gives many commenters a much wider audience than they’d get elsewhere – including some on their own blogs. For that reason, when people give constructive/useful/thoughtful/interesting criticism, it’s valuable not just for me but for other people that I leave it up. It’s also sometimes useful for me to share critical disagreement, so I can get more opinions and think further on a topic. But every single comment – each read it gets, each share, each reply, is to some extent a product of my time as well as yours. Time to write this blog and promote it, build up that platform, moderate the comment queue, check for libel/spam and other things… these things all take time. They take effort. They require judgment. They take work.
That labour is not a right. Even if you did have a right to free speech, it wouldn’t mean that every individual was compelled to put time and effort in to making your views heard. If people genuinely had a cast-iron right to free speech in the way that angry commenters think, it would be illegal to moderate blog comments at all. Not only that, but bloggers would all be compelled to have a comment system – one that was regularly checked to make sure that all comments could be approved, and everyone could say what they want.
Thankfully, I am not a government, so I don’t have a responsibility to give anyone ‘free speech’ any more than they have a responsibility to let me lecture them in the middle of their living room. There are many rights that governments should work hard to protect, but which individuals have little to no responsibility for. Your right to healthcare and housing, for instance: I can help by paying my taxes, but I probably can’t be expected to put you up in my own home or perform emergency surgery on you. You do, I think, have certain rights to freedom of expression – those are important and should be protected. But as with all rights they have limitations, where they may conflict with the rights, needs and responsibilities of other people.
Comment moderation makes me miserable
My previous rule was that I would let through most comments, only stopping those that were outright hateful or potentially libellous. I used to work myself up into huge panics about appalling comments, worrying about censorship and my responsibilities, considering every angle, running through possible scenarios where I just deleted the most hateful sentence in a comment and published the rest so I could rebut it – it was ridiculous.
To say it had no benefit is putting it mildly: it was actively harmful to me. It meant I spent longer worrying about comment moderation than I did writing blog posts. I would cry and squirm, forcing myself to push ‘approve’ on someone’s opinion about how truly appalling I am. Because, hey! I don’t want to be a censor! I literally sat here tying myself in knots justifying someone else’s right to make me feel like shit. Telling myself off for not smiling gaily and welcoming someone who wanted to tell me how awful I am. Then as I was steeling myself to click ‘approve’ (which I pretty much always did) on the comment that made me feel less than nothing, the same person would appear in the moderation queue saying something like ‘oh I see you can’t cope with disagreement, eh? Good to know that you approve of censorship and you’ll delete anyone who disagrees with you, like a DICTATOR.’
And I would be upset some more, and then I’d approve them all, and then I’d be unhappy again. Repeat cycle. It was fucking exhausting. It made me miserable. And here’s the kicker: I don’t even get that many of those comments! I am extraordinarily lucky – the vast majority of people who comment here are wonderful. They are thoughtful and considerate. They raise points I may not have thought of before, they engage in interesting discussion. They disagree or critique me with respect and kindness.
I had great commenters, a sensible moderation policy, and I defaulted to publishing as much as I possibly could without getting into legal trouble. And yet still some people would be angry. Still they’d treat me like shit. Still, in the name of ‘free speech’, I was expected to put time and effort into making sure these people had their voices heard.
We are all dictators
The dictator comment is right. I am a dictator. We are all dictators in our own spaces, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. I have always had the power to delete comments – or edit them for typos, or even change them just for fun if I fancied it. I also have the responsibility – both legal and moral – to delete certain things. All blog owners have this responsibility too.
This post has, perhaps ironically, been sitting in draft for a fair few months. Having written it, and laid out my thoughts, I got immediately nervous that posting it would mean a deluge of angry ‘free speech’ commenters. So as ever I have ummed and aaaahed and not actually got round to posting it. But I was reminded of it today by a tweet from JoEllen Notte:
Reminder: I moderate the fuck out of my comments. My site is my house and you don’t get to be a raging asshole to me or other people in my house.
— JoEllen Notte (@JoEllenNotte) November 20, 2017
Inspired by JoEllen, and to celebrate my finally getting round to publishing this post, I’m going to try and make myself a little bit happier by explaining the key rules that drive my comment policy now.
This is me publicly and transparently telling you that I will always be a dictator on my own blog. As I will always be the boss in my own house – you don’t get to walk in and tramp muddy footprints all over my carpet, then yell ‘freedom!’ when I ask you to wipe your feet. So on my blog you don’t get to come into the comments, call me a bitch/pimp/abuser/cunt/whatever and demand that not only do I let you continue, I actively put in work to ensure that you can keep doing it.
New comment policy
‘Dictator’ is a useful analogy, but the actual fact is more straightforward: I’m a publisher. I have a responsibility for what I publish, and I am bound by laws about what I can and can’t publish. That includes comments as well as blog posts. On one hand it means I have a responsibility to not delete comments that disagree with me – that would give readers a false impression of consensus on a topic where there’s anything but. On the other hand it means I have a responsibility to consider how comments might affect people. Doing the latter takes time and work. I have to moderate all comments. I have to push them through the queue. I have to consider, before publishing, the boring legal issues. And finally there are some comments which mean I have to go through that cycle of panic/worry/nerves/misery and get up the courage to hit ‘approve’ on something that tells me I’m a terrible human being.
So: this is the new comment policy. I still aim to publish as much stuff as possible, but here are my two key rules:
- Don’t treat me, my guest bloggers, my regular commenters, or anyone who has commented respectfully, like shit.
- If your first ever comment is negative (not disagreeing – negative – along the lines of ‘boring’ or ‘fuck you’ or ‘I’m so disappointed, GOTN’), then it is going in the bin. Partly because it’s like arriving at a party and announcing ‘this SUCKS’ the second you walk in the door, and partly because I just don’t like it.
If any of that bothers you, please feel free to take it up with the management, which is me. Management will refer your complaint to senior management (me), who will then consult the boss (again, me).
I’m a dictator, and I always have been, and as nearly all blog owners will be – whether they admit it or not. You can choose to leave our parties, but we’re still going to own the room. We live here, after all. So it hopefully won’t surprise you that we get to make the rules.
I’m going to end this with a thank you to the amazing people who add to this blog with insightful, thoughtful comments and advice. The minority of people who want to be giant bellends are vastly outnumbered by caring, thoughtful folks (who challenge and question me as well as support me sometimes). Please don’t take this post as a rant about comments in general: I think they’re an incredibly valuable part of this blog, and if you’ve been reading for a while you, like me, will probably get little bursts of joy when you see familiar names chipping in with ideas or thoughts below the line.