Announcing Mumbrella’s new comment moderation policy

Mumbrella content director Tim Burrowes explains why we’re raising the threshold for published comments on Mumbrella - but will not be banning anonymous contributors

In the coming days, you may notice that the number of published comments on Mumbrella drops.

Previously, we’ve worked on the basis that unless there’s a reason not to publish a comment, it deserves to see the light of day.

Under our new moderation policy, we’ll only be publishing comments that we believe are worth our audience seeing.

I’ll explain what that means in practice later in this piece.

It’s the latest change in what has been more than a decade of evolution of our policy.

After Mumbrella launched in late 2008, for the first two years we allowed comments to be published instantly. I moderated away those that were offensive or libellous after they had been published.

It worked while we were new, and had what felt like a small, defined community.

But then in late 2010, after publishing our first 45,000 or so comments, there was an incident that forced a rethink.

By then our audience had grown, and we were overtaking longer established competitors.

I wrote a news article about the appointment of a CMO at a big brand.

Overnight, somebody posted a hostile comment, purporting to be one of this CMO’s new colleagues. I soon heard from the person in question that it wasn’t from him; it was trolling.

When I checked the IP address of the commenter, I discovered it appeared to have been posted by one of our rivals in the trade press, presumably trying to get us into trouble.

We decided that the libel risk for us was too big, and switched to pre-moderation. The way libel law works in Australia is that the publisher is potentially liable for every comment.

As I explained in that December 2010 announcement:

Life is never boring when you run a big site where comments are not pre-moderated.

However, I’m reaching the point where each morning is becoming a little too stressful as I log on to find out whether somebody posted a horribly libellous comment overnight.

I am, for now at least, opting for the quiet life – and switching to pre-moderation.

Of the 44,564 comments we’ve had over the last two years, the vast, vast majority have been absolutely fine. Unfortunately, it will be one of the tiny minority that gets us into trouble, and we’ve now grown to the size where even a minority of malicious comments is a meaningful number.

Recently, we’ve had a run of comments from people pretending to be somebody they’re not, or making untrue claims about another person or agency. In too many cases, this seems to have been motivated by people looking to hurt rivals, rather than having a basis in truth.

So unfair as it is on those who simply want to have an uninterrupted conversation, I’m closing the ability to post unscreened comments. The alternative is even more unfair to those who come under attack – and indeed leaves us exposed to legal risk too.

The first comment on the post summed it up: “Nasty little fuckers aren’t they?”

It was hard to disagree.

A year later, as we approached 70,000 published comments, I addressed the question of whether we should ban all anonymous comments.

It came after an ineffective attempt by The Communications Council to raise its concerns over comment moderation policies. The Comms Council had attempted to put together a round table of the trade press publishers. I agreed to participate.

But the pow-wow at breakfast place Bill’s in Sydney’s Surry Hills was postponed at the last moment, because one of our rivals – I don’t know which one – cancelled.

Then Comms Council CEO Daniel Leesong abruptly departed, and we never heard from them on the topic again.

But I’d still given thought to whether the disadvantages of anonymous comments were beginning to outweigh the benefits. As I wrote in November 2011:

In all honesty, I remain somewhat agnostic on the issue, although I do lean slightly in one direction. Had the meeting taken place, I would have argued that denying users anonymity because of the actions of a minority was probably not the answer.

However, I was, and remain, open to persuasion.

But over the years, I’ve felt increasingly less enamoured with our comment thread.

A year later, in October 2012 as we hit 100,000 comments, I asked our audience.

To be honest, I think I was asking for their blessing to turn off comments altogether. As I summed it up at the time:

At its best, when we get intelligent, reasoned debate and explanation from people who know far more about the topic than us. I believe that a big factor in Mumbrella’s success when we launched into a crowded trade press landscape nearly four years ago was the comment thread. It wasn’t a big part of the plan, but letting people easily comment became a big point of difference.

Even when we switched to pre-moderation a few months later because of legal risk, it remained powerful.

It’s at it worst when people get too angry, too abusive or too stupid. My heart sinks when we get mindless attacks on ads that probably come from rivals. Or mindless, and irrational, praise of average ads probably coming from the agency that created them. Fair to say that advertising work is what tends to bring out the worst behaviour in the comment thread.

But the sentiment from our audience was not to outlaw anonymous comments.

Which is one of the issues we face. When you’re in the room with the agency bosses, they tend to be the ones who oppose anonymous commenting as they’re often the ones whose organisations are being talked about. But as individuals, they each get one vote among a wider industry audience of perhaps 70,000 in Australia. And that wider audience is our first constituency.

So how to respect the bosses’ views without disrespecting our wider audience?

One step we took was to explicitly publish community comment guidelines, which we did in 2011, with some updates over the years since.

Essentially, the rule was that comments should discuss the issues, and not be personal attacks.

As we put it: “While we have no wish to create an insipid comment environment, we think there is merit in considering how our actions affect others.”

But of course, one of the issues is that people cannot see what we choose not to publish. And the defence of our comment thread – “you should see what we don’t publish” – just sounds weak.

But it’s certainly true that our journalists get to see the worst of our industry in the offensive comments and personal attacks that don’t get published, and the distressing anecdotes about management misconduct that are too legally risky to put up.

Over on Mumbrella Asia, moderated from our Singapore office, we were experiencing a similar issue to Australia around the tone of our comment thread.

Plus, each human moderator at Mumbrella Asia was applying our policies slightly differently. And sometimes not rigorously enough.

The Mumbrella Asia comment thread was lively, but at times verging on the nasty.

Without us really realising it was happening, over the previous couple of years, the comments had drifted away from our own moderation policy. We’d been letting through comments we just shouldn’t have. While many commenters were still constructive and insightful, others were using it as a means of attacking the work of rivals. And the more we allowed them to, the more they did it.

For a journalist moderator, removing comments or deleting some of a post, can feel like censorship, and we’d been allowing too much to go through.

It was bothering our GM Dean Carroll and I, because of the ambience it was giving to the site. And – just like in Australia – we were increasingly hearing from contacts that some were nervous about sending in new campaigns if their work was going to be thoughtlessly bashed.

With the previous editor having left the building, it was time for a rethink about comments, but Dean and I disagreed about the strategy we should take.

It was time for a big change for Mumbrella Asia, I argued. It was time to give up on full anonymity. It would be an experiment that might deliver lessons for the bigger Mumbrella Australia site.

We should oblige anybody who wanted to post a comment with us to link it to an email address. We wouldn’t insist they publish their real name, but at least we’d be able to say that we’d asked who they were.

Dean was of a different view. He was concerned that, first, such an approach is misleading – burner email addresses are easy to create, so we wouldn’t really know who the commenter was, we’d just be able to pretend we did. And second, it would create friction for ordinary readers who just wanted to talk about that day’s topic. Was it unfair to make it harder for them?

Dean proposed an alternative approach. Get back to the basics of good, and much stricter, comment moderation according to our own policies – talk about the issue, not the individual; kick the ball, not the player.

And do it much more obviously.

So rather than simply choosing not to publish an offending comment, we would redact the offending part of the comment using the phrase “[Edited under Mumbrella’s community guidelines]”.

One point of this would be to make the steps we were taking more visible, rather than simply opting not to publish the comment. It would show we were actively moderating.

I wasn’t convinced it would be enough, but was willing to give it a try before we went for the nuclear option.

Indeed, I was so doubtful, that I insisted we brief our web development team on the changes I wanted to make so we could act immediately if the experiment failed. In readiness for that failure, Dean wrote a draft of a detailed post explaining why we’d felt forced to take the step. It was headlined “Time’s up for trolls”.

We never published it.

To my surprise (and relief) Dean’s plan worked. As we began to enforce our own guidelines more rigorously and visibly, our readers began to notice. The trolls moved away, and the quality of the comments began to improve.

Indeed, the phrase “[Edited under Mumbrella’s community guidelines]” became such a running joke that it was referenced in an ad for a local brewery.

The copy for the ad, designed to look like it was on Mumbrella, read “For when your client sets a 6pm meeting and you want to tell them [Edited under Mumbrella’s community guidelines]”.

Ironically, by the time we closed Mumbrella Asia last month, I was starting to feel like we’d cracked the comment issue.

Which brings us to the debate in Australia.

You may recall that last June, John Steedman, then acting CEO of WPP in Australia, stepped into the debate with an open letter which we, along with other trade titles, published.

Steedman: Argued that all anonymous commenters are trolls

While the intent may have been positive, it was not in my view particularly well thought out. It equated all anonymous comments with trolling. And described anonymous commentary as “the coward punches of public debate”.

Many sincere people have good reason why they cannot share who they are if they are to comment freely. Particularly those who are not in privileged management positions. That doesn’t make them trolls.

Steedman did not appear to accept that it is relatively easy for the powerful to speak their minds, but not their subordinates.

And those who need to blow the whistle on the industry’s many issues would lose an avenue for doing so. Thanks to the defamation laws, the industry’s #MeToo problem is already too far underground, to focus on just one problem.

The comments that followed tended to back that up, as Steedman’s staff and trading partners rushed to publicly back the man who controls a couple of billion dollars of ad spend.

But of course, nobody who might see their career affected negatively dared put their name to express a contradictory view, although plenty of anonymous commenters did.

Those with privilege often fail to recognise that they hold it.

Another issue with Steedman’s piece was that he was arguing for a solution that does not exist: “If somebody has something relevant to say about any issue, they should be required to log in. It’s a very simple but effective litmus test that means people are only able to post comments they’re prepared to see their name against. This would instantly put a stop to the worst of this behaviour and make all of us accountable for our opinions.”

Which would be great if it worked. But in reality it’s impossible for any publisher to tell the difference between a log-in created by somebody in their own name, and an anonymous troll. Throwaway verification email accounts take two minutes.

The policy represents that followed by fellow trade title AdNews, for instance. But when I tested it, it took me just a couple of minutes to create a fake email account and post my comment.

I’m not Spartacus, but I am C Ridron.

My post testing the AdNews moderation system

But there indeed is a problem with the quality of debate, particularly about creative work. It goes back long before Mumbrella even existed. Within this industry, Campaign Brief’s comment thread set a tone which does not exist as strongly in any other English language market I’ve come across.

Agencies rush to astroturf their own work, particularly when it’s not very good.

And it’s hard to tell the difference between a sincere comment on why an ad doesn’t work and a vicious attack from a rival.

So there absolutely is a problem.

But what also began to occur to me was that everybody we ask suggests a different potential solution. However, many of them don’t work in practice or require technology that doesn’t necessarily exist.

It was underlined when we held a round table on the topic at last month’s Mumbrella Media Retreat in Tasmania.

The retreat was conducted under The Chatham House Rule – so I can say what was discussed, but not who said it.

Several publishing executives in the room made helpful contributions about how they address comment moderation. But they were all different ideas.

But when we came back to report to the wider group on the round table’s constructive discussions, all hell broke loose.

It was awful, and perhaps the wider industry in microcosm. Various senior media executives began to shout over each other, and at our staff. It devolved into one or two of the most experienced people in the industry shouting at one of the youngest people in the room. It verged on bullying which was ironic, given what we were discussing.

These, of course, are the people who set the cultural tone of the industry where negative comments are rampant.

Which brings me to today’s policy shift.

After the retreat I stayed in Tasmania for an extended (wonderful, thanks for asking) Christmas break.

I spent some of that break reflecting on that round table. At a quarter of a million published comments and counting, it was a good moment to do so.

I kept coming back to a simple but helpful point made by one of the publishing execs at that round table. We were over-thinking it. The answer lies not in anonymous or otherwise commentary. It lies in how we moderate it.

As journalists, every time we choose not to publish a comment, it feels a little like an act of censorship. So we default towards publication, unless it breaks one of our community guidelines. As a result, we end up publishing a lot of stuff that doesn’t actually add to the conversation and may make it worse.

Why shouldn’t it be more like our policy on guest posts – for reasons of quality control, we decline far more than we publish.

Which feels like the new threshold: does a comment actually add to the conversation in some way?

That means that low-effort posts won’t make it. Poorly spelled contributions would be a sign that not much time and trouble has been taken with the thought.

Essentially, it means a shift from the question being: ‘Is there a reason not to publish this comment?’ to ‘Do we want to publish this comment?’

And that does not mean that only relentlessly positive comments of the type often seen on LinkedIn posts, for instance, will be allowed.

To be clear: while some would disagree, I do not see the role of the trade press to be a mindless cheerleader for the industry or, worse, an apologist for its flaws. The way the trade press (in any vertical) should work is to do its best to reflect the realities of the audience it serves. That means celebrating the best, and agitating for change for the better.

Celebrating the best

The industry’s recruitment problems are best served by making it a better place to work, not by avoiding talking about it.

However, those who criticise or raise difficult issues will need to take the time and trouble to make an intelligent, well thought out point.

And anonymity will still be a factor in our judgement on what to publish. Those who put their own name to it will be more likely to get their comment posted. Those who choose to comment regularly under the same pseudonym will also be a little more likely to see their comment published.

But – sadly – our more random contributions will come to an end. It means that one of the more surreal features of the Mumbrella comment thread – the 307 people who told us what names they wanted on their Coca-Cola bottle – will no longer be as welcome. The same will go for random comments from TV viewers who arrived after Googling a particular show, or polarised political warriors conjured up by mentions of 2GB or Collective Shout.

In the coming days we’ll be updating our community guidelines to reflect the change, but the new policy starts from today.

This afternoon, there’s another industry round table. This time it’s been called by John Steedman.

When we met for coffee after his open letter, I suggested it might be worth trying again to bring together all the trade press publishers – including Campaign Brief, which still appears to have an often-poisonous “anything goes” policy that has always been at the more extreme end of the spectrum to Mumbrella’s. When somebody complains about a comment they think they saw on Mumbrella, it often turns out to have been on Campaign Brief.

Since then, the trade press round table idea has mutated somewhat, with more agency bosses on Steedman’s invitation list than there are trade press.

From Mumbrella, I’ll be attending, and so will our editor Vivienne Kelly. My job as content director is to set policy; Viv’s job as editor is to apply it. So I own our decisions on this policy, even though she was the one who got shouted at last time round.

Viv returned from her holiday today, so today was my first opportunity to tell her our decision, which is why we’re revealing this new policy only shortly before today’s round table.

But, it feels disingenuous to go into that meeting without sharing our new direction, now the decision has been made.

It’s not what those who want a ban on all anonymous commentators will want to hear. But it feels like the one that is most respectful of Mumbrella’s audience.

Ironically, I won’t be able to tell you in any detail how the round table goes. Although I argued otherwise, they have stipulated it should be off the record so that everybody can comment openly. Which seems like quite a good principal to me.

I look forward to reading your (thoughtful) comments below…


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