Saturday, December 28, 2013

SG Social Media Guru: The right way to moderate online comments

In recent months, the issue of internet trolls has been brought to the forefront when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Singapore government's online feedback portal (REACH) will now require users to login with a valid Facebook account. The purpose of the move is to create a "safe space" for online discourse as the belief is that anonymity feeds trolling.
I for one do not agree with the rationale as it is easy to create a pseudonym account. Additionally, trolling is not illegal and there is thus effectively no legal recourse. The solution to creating the "safe space" is thus not requiring users to register, but on how comments are handled.
In my consults with companies on developing their social communications channel, I always point out that just like any communications channel (i.e. a call center), manpower is required to operate and run it. If they are thinking of a hands-off approach, then it would be better not to start.
The best approach to encouraging online discourse is through moderation. The primary role of the moderator is to monitor the online conversations between participants including the content and direction of threads. In the event the tone of a forum becomes hostile and moves in the direction of personal attacks, the moderator has the duty to step-in to defuse the situation by reminding participants of the forum rules. In extreme circumstances, the moderate should hide, delete inappropriate comments and even ban recalcitrant users.
In the context of REACH, the challenge is how to do moderate without being seen as government censorship. My advice would be to establish clear forum rules specifying what behavior is unacceptable (for an example of an Acceptable Use Policy). Then whenever someone breaks the rules, the moderator has the moral authority to step in. In the event that the comment justifies removal, the moderator should remove it but replace it with a "notice" stating that such and such a comment posted by such and such a person was removed because it breached such and such a rule of the forum. By being open about the removal and the reason it was removed, trolls would not be able to claim censorship.
In short, the government's move to require login to use its feedback forum is a move in the wrong direction. The nature of the internet and social media prevents central control and any attempts to try will fail. Comments about the government will now go "underground" and the government will now have more channels to monitor.

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