RAPPLER STRIKES BACK: On the Moderation of Comments

09.13.2016

Censorship? Protection of media's freedoms? Our notes on Rappler's stricter comments moderation policy.

By K.A. Montinola

Rappler rolled out a new comments policy recently, announcing that it is now #NoPlaceForHate, and would be "aggressively deleting crude and disrespectful posts and comments that violate standards of civility.

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Predictably, the decision has sparked a storm of comments, and implementation of the new policy has been swift. 

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The nastiest of comments now purged, there’s still an observable mix of opinions regarding the policy on Rappler’s site. While some comments expressed relief that the comments section would finally be scrubbed of hate and harassment, some were doubtful that there was an objective way to go about it. Others were quick to point out that deleting comments could be construed as censorship.

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One popular sentiment I observed in the comments was the notion that if Rappler’s comment section had become a cesspool, it was Rappler’s own fault for being overly biased.  

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Still perhaps the antagonism goes deeper than the accusations of partisanship. Rappler was one of the first homegrown brands to model their news distribution on social media. While traditional media had to bend over backwards to adapt to the digital age, and work under a cloud of anxiety about the state of news distribution (the belief that newspapers are dying is still prevalent, and not exactly unfounded), Rappler could shine as a beacon for an all-digital news outlet. All-digital, however, does not mean limited to a single site. Today’s landscape demands presence across a myriad of platforms in order to be relevant, chief among them Facebook.

The question of whether or not Facebook is the best place for news deserves its own analysis, but the fact is it’s a big player in the distribution of news, particularly in the Philippines.

Moreover, Rappler was founded on the basis that news could be crowd-sourced and distributed over social media, with the hope of generating discussion. Instead it has had to spend a lot of its time in the comments defending itself, usually against accusations of bias or lack of coverage. 

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To my mind, Rappler’s decision comes as no surprise; in recent years more than one media organization has made the decision to do away with the comments section on their site entirely—the latest example being NPR. Rappler at least still welcomes comments, though the declaration that they are still open to discussion may be a bit optimistic.

Perhaps it is also a question of who is allowed to do the discussing. Is Rappler allowed to express its own views in the comments, or is it simply the space in which people can argue with one another? It's hard to say, in part because Rappler itself also needs to decide. Like all big players in the news business, they thrive on presence and work hard to push out content with speed.

On the one hand, Rappler’s frustrations are understandable. They trace their roots to social media, and they would like to be a place where people can discuss current events. The comments were in theory the ideal place for this. 

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And yet the comments section has arguably failed to really generate discussion; reading through comments—on Rappler and elsewhere—has become more toxic than insightful. It’s much less about discussion than about having the loudest opinion.

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Some of the most vocal comments about Rappler’s perceived bias tend to come from people who appear personally wronged by media, or at least feel that there is something inherently wrong with media in the Philippines. Part of this is the issue with headlines, which I would argue were ‘clickbait’ by design even before news expanded into digital. But even reading through the comments on articles with the blandest headlines gives you the feeling that people feel jilted, like they had some sort of gold standard of journalism in mind that Rappler and the rest of Philippine media flouted. Each post that Rappler puts up, then, has increasingly become a space for people to fling criticism at them, rather than a place to discuss the piece of news.

At this point Rappler can’t do anything right by them: if they do check the comments, they’re ‘censoring,’ if they don’t, they’re allowing netizens to get verbally violent (death and rape threats being common) in a space that bears their name. 

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Comments that complain of bias sometimes substantiate their claims (if at all) by citing Rappler’s Opinion pieces as evidence, which indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how news and media organizations work. These pieces are pretty clearly marked as opinion pieces, as are the sections for ‘Life & Style,’ ‘Sports,’ ‘Entertainment,’ and so on—not ‘News.’

On social media, however, a multifaceted media organization is still a single user. Facebook’s structure simply does not leave a lot of room for nuance, just a single stream of information—thus the appearance of Kris Aquino’s love life given the same importance as the killing of the Lumads, as this briefly viral ‘Rappler burn’ had to address:

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The famed Rappler response was both lauded (‘burn!!!’) and critiqued—some felt that the tone of the response was snarky, even bullying; Rappler has since deleted the response as well as others like it. But what the exchange really shows is that there is a clash of understandings of what news and news distribution is and should be. The same is likely true of the comments section, and perhaps there could have been a public discussion before Rappler concluded that it would simply delete comments. 

So no matter how clearly marked the categories on the main Rappler site are, most people who engage with Rapper via Facebook will not have the same clarity. To Facebook, it doesn’t matter that one is a lifestyle feature and the other is a news report; on a single stream social media feed, content is content is content.  

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There’s far more to say about Facebook, its relationship with news, and the nature of its news cycle—far more than I could cram into one post. But for now the issue of whether or not deleting comments is the right solution boils down a few crucial questions: Are private media organizations obligated to function as public forums on top of being information purveyors? Is the future of news really in the crowd? Is the crowd then meant to be given free rein as to how it chooses to engage and express within the forums offered to it by media? It’s a discussion worth having—preferably without cursing.  

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