No matter what you think about the man’s work, there’s no denying that Andrew Bolt writes an extraordinarily successful blog that boasts “more than one million hits a month” and “as many as 13,000 comments in a week”. There is no doubt that it’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — blog in the country in terms of readership and participation. The effort that must be required to manually moderate every single reader comment is mindboggling, and it sounds like Bolt does a decent share of it himself (“more than 10 hours of every choked week”).
Genuinely, I dips me lid. However, as Bolt discovered this week, if a single comment is approved that causes immeasurable hurt to one person (especially if that person is a prominent journalist and opponent of the blogger), there will probably be trouble. Here is Bolt on Tuesday:
David Marr has alerted me to a comment which snuck through our moderation yesterday and which abuses him in homophobic terms. I am mortified it got through, and have instantly removed it. I apologise to David and have banned the person who put it up, as I have done with other readers who have made homophobic comments in the past.
There’s really only two possible explanations for how the comment “snuck through” if Bolt himself didn’t approve it: the site’s moderators willingly approved a homophobic and abusive email, or the moderators didn’t read it properly. One Bolt reader claims that another comment pointing out the inappropriate nature of the now-deleted comment was submitted and not approved, indicating (if true) that the moderators were at least aware of the homophobic abuse. No matter which way you look at the incident, it appears to be a failure of moderation due to inconsistent and poorly defined guidelines and practices.
Adding to the comment moderation headache was a segment on this week’s episode of the ABC’s Hungry Beast, which highlighted examples of intolerant and hateful comments at Andrew Bolt’s blog — the sort that any reader will agree are a reasonably regular feature. Bolt’s defence against both of the issues has essentially been this: moderation at his blog will now be more severe, and it’s really unfair to hold him responsible for what his commenters say.
While I agree with Bolt that publication of a comment at a blog does not necessarily indicate endorsement by the blogger, I’m a little surprised that a senior journalist and blogging veteran (a few years in the blogosphere makes you a veteran) is shocked by the realisation that bloggers tend to be associated with the comment threads they spawn. Surely he can’t be that naïve. Bolt’s critics have long pointed out the kind of rubbish that is regularly published in his comment threads and Bolt has long failed to do anything about it, so the sudden hand-wringing and soul-searching comes across as a bit disingenuous, as does the attempt to blame only “students”, “leftists trying to cause michief” and “nutters”.
Consistent with the fact that bloggers are somewhat associated with their commenters, the way they manage those commenters is crucial. If only a couple of lone comments among thousands contain hate or intolerance, they can probably be safely ignored as their outlier status speaks for itself, but if strong themes of these attitudes develop across multiple long comment threads, a blogger’s silence can be deafening. (Again for the record, I’m not suggesting that Bolt’s silence indicates endorsement.) In these circumstances a prudent blogger must either respond specifically to comments, opposing any unsavoury sentiments, or use moderation to filter out the stuff they’d rather not have published on the same page as their own words.
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Bolt claims that his reasonably lax approach to moderation has been in order to “[give] voice to many people who have long felt shut out of public debates” and “allow as free a discussion as possible”. Unfortunately for Bolt, his habit of denying voice and free discussion to those who hold views opposite to his own only feeds into a possible perception of his implied endorsement of the views that are published.
The person who abused David Marr in homophobic terms might feel shut out of public debate but Bolt disagreed strongly with those views and (retrospectively) denied that person a voice. Fair enough, too. So if Bolt disagrees strongly with the hate-filled and intolerant views held by the kind of commenters highlighted by Hungry Beast, why have those views been published and gone unchallenged?
Once Andrew Bolt has settled on a model for the kind of tone he wants to foster at his blog, News Ltd needs to decide how serious it is about this whole blogging caper. Running a blog means so much more than writing posts, opening up a comments facility, and standing back; the business end of a blog is below the author’s content in the comment threads, and this “wretched week” of Bolt’s is a perfect example of what happens when a blog’s administrators take their eyes off the ball.
If News Ltd believes that every comment on one of the country’s busiest blogs needs to be manually reviewed (and it should) then it must allocate the resources necessary to make sure the job is done properly. As long as News Ltd moderators allocated to the task don’t have the time to properly assess each comment, and/or don’t have an understanding of relevant legal issues, there will be lots more apologies issued. And as long as there are no strict guidelines about what the blogger and parent organisation deem to be acceptable reader commentary, we will continue to see more of the same at Andrew Bolt’s blog.