My comment policy: I’m a dictator

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

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:

  • Libel
  • Hate speech
  • Doxxing
  • Spam

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.

No more.

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:

She is absolutely right. (And she is also a brilliant blogger, FYI – check out her blog RedheadBedhead and follow her on Twitter)

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.

It’s exhausting.

So: this is the new comment policy. I still aim to publish as much stuff as possible, but here are my two key rules:

  1. Don’t treat me, my guest bloggers, my regular commenters, or anyone who has commented respectfully, like shit.
  2. 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. 

15 Comments

  • Ay None says:

    I for one welcome our sexy overlord.

    When I started on the internet, in the days when social media meant a text-only bulletin board on a Unix server reached via telnet, moderated spaces were the norm. People might gripe, but many of those BBSes were hosted on university servers and so there were rules that had to be adhered to.

    And now, having seen the difference on places like Twitter, I’m even more in favour of moderation. It doesn’t stifle discussion, it encourages it, because people actually have to contribute to the conversation rather than name-calling.

    If you regularly find your comments don’t make it through, take a moment to consider that you might just be being an asshole.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “If you regularly find your comments don’t make it through, take a moment to consider that you might just be being an asshole.” Haha, awesome =) This pretty much sums it up. Thank you Ay None!

    • Stabbity says:

      If you regularly find your comments don’t make it through, take a moment to consider that you might just be being an asshole.

      Ahahaha yes! I’ve had a few slow learners on my blog but eventually they seem to figure out where they’re not welcome.

      I’m a comment dictator too and I’m just baffled by people who seem to think they have a right to say whatever they want on *my* blog. You don’t get to come to my blog and leave jerkass comments any more than you get to come to my house and shit on my carpet.

  • Clive says:

    Absolutely spot on! I have a much smaller blog than yours, but still feel the responsibility to ensure that any comments which are published meet my own definition of fair and respectful. I use WordPress, and my default comments option is set at requiring me to approve a new commenter, but once I’ve done that any subsequent comments automatically appear on my blog. Of course, I always have the option of removing them, but luckily my small circle of regular readers can be trusted not to be offensive or illegal.

    I did receive an offensive comment recently – I started by posting on mental health issues (mine) but now post any old crap that comes into my mind. Someone decided to abuse me and mental health bloggers in general, and I went through a similar thought process to the one you describe. In the end, I took a screenshot, and turned it into the basis for a post. The comment itself never made it to my blog, and I’ve since blocked the offender. I’m glad you don’t get much negativity, but it might be worth thinking about my approach – I felt a lot better for it!

    Finally, even if this is too long for you to approve as a comment, I’d just like you to know I always enjoy your posts. I can’t claim to read every one, but those I do are always interesting and thought-provoking, which is what a good blog should be, isn’t it!

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hey, thank you so much – and sorry to hear you’ve been dealing with horrible commenters.Mental health topics do seem to bring a lot of nobheads out of the woodwork – especially people who think they know best and/or have little understanding of how tough this stuff can be. I’m glad you found a way to deal with it that was helpful for you rather than adding extra stress!

  • OdysseusRex says:

    Hey, I’m more of a free speech absolutist than you but there’s no way any blogger has any obligation to lend me their platform to pontificate on.
    As long as you say what your policy is (which you’ve just done) so everyone knows where they stand, you’re all good.
    Carry on

  • SweetTheSting says:

    This is so true. If people want total freedom to publish their own negativity, they can launch their own blogs (and take the legal steps necessary, or the potential trouble if they don’t bother.)

    I’ve always found your comment sections interesting and generally enhancing to the posts.

  • All hail the dictator. Good on you, it’s your house so it’s your rules. No-one has a right to gob off in your house and you have the right to sort them out or silence them if they do.

    I love this post as it’s so thought-provoking and bang on the money. In the UK an Englishwoman’s website is her castle.

  • Discrete reader says:

    I’m not a blogger (yet) but I’ve dealt with this issue on my face book page. Someone will leave a comment disparaging someone else or a discussion deteriorates into something less than civil. I’ve decided that at the end of the day it’s my page and if what I see makes me unhappy it’s going to get deleted. while we are on the topic of “free speech” I want to mention how much I love people exercising their right in the US to their “free speech” and then getting all upset when the comments they make have consequences. Blog on!

  • Midlands Man says:

    This post is why I keep coming back to this blog. It takes a really serious issue, and uses real life experience to explore the moral, ethical and practical implications.
    I don’t use Twitter or Facebook, but I do read some online newspaper comment threads, and I have come to the conclusion that the only place I get real value is in content which is intelligently curated and discussion which is actively moderated. So – praise for the Guardian, the BBC, Washington Post, and this blog, and don’t trust the rest !

  • New to this says:

    Agree with every word! I hope your new policy frees you up, even if just a little, for the more important things in life (i.e. everything) xxx

  • This has been my policy all along, with absolutely no qualms whatsoever (strange thing is, i thought i had taken it from you :).
    In addition to the ‘you don’t get to insult people in my house’ I would add that ‘you can have all the free speech you want on *your own blog*’.

    As for the anxiety and adrenaline rushes which come from moderating trolls, i would suggest that each blogger find one or several other bloggers to pool resources and do cross-moderation (i moderate your comments, you do mine, so that noone has to deal with dog barks that sound like personal attacks).

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Of course, everyone moderates comments at least a little, if only to keep out literally illegal content. Sites with no moderation whatsoever tend not to last very long as functioning enterprises.

    But beyond that minimum level, sites that are judicious about what comments they allow are naturally more pleasant places, with a much more rewarding level of discussion, than those with a more ‘free for all’ attitude. I suppose the price you pay for that is a slight loss of spontaneity, and of diversity of opinion, with the most extreme positions blocked out; but then, who *wants* to be in a place where every other comment burns with furious invective, and you have to argue with trolls with atrocious views and repeat the most basic points over and over? If I wanted that, I’d go on Twitter.

    Personally, I’m very much pro strong moderation, because I try to put thought into my comments. But if you write a careful, considered comment, and it appears next to someone else’s illegible screed full of racial slurs, what’s the point? If you don’t moderate comments, you’re saying you don’t value my comments any more than that guy’s. Might as well just become a spambot.

  • Aaron says:

    I liked this a lot! What I thought was especially interesting was that it could be said about any blog, anywhere, regardless of the fact that yours tends to cover themes that will occasionally raise strong feelings. It’s a good example of how, in a new environment, we have to make new rules, or articulate old rules, differently.

    I’m no lawyer even for the UK, let alone the US, but from what I do know, you do a very succinct job of highlighting the differences. One post from an American I saw a few years ago (on Twitter, I think) said ‘Free speech doesn’t mean I have to give you a platform to say what you want, it just means the Government can’t arrest you for saying it.’ (Which of course is not entirely true here, but like you, I think that we’ve got the balance about right between prevention of hatred, and encouraging debate.

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    Just want to give this 356,762 hearts. Thanks for putting so much thought and effort into us!

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