Play the Ball not the Man : An interview

As a pair of UNSW students, we unfortunately are limited in our capacity as social media consumers and not producers.  Along with our student focus we felt it was important to also gain insight from industry professionals.  We are lucky to have spoken to a leading Fairfax Media Comment moderator who shared his insights with trolling , moderating and the balance of free speech . It is with great appreciation that we publish what he had to say here:

1) Is trolling a major issue among comments sections at Fairfax papers?

If by trolling you mean vicious offensive comments like those made to Charlotte Dawson, the answer is no. Thankfully, it is not a major issue at all. However, trolling in the sense of trying to stir up debate by making a sarcastic comment (that some think is serious), is far more common.

2) What is the current policy against trolling on Fairfax comment sections?

The current policy relating to trolling is probably best found in these sentences (copied from the guidelines for comments on stories at http://www.smh.com.au/national/guidelines-for-comments-on-stories-20111121-1nqm7.html?rand=1323906006462):

“We realise readers may feel strongly about the issues being debated, however any comments that can be reasonably considered offensive, threatening or obscene will not be allowed.

Do not post material that may incite violence or hatred. We will not tolerate comments that humiliate others based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, mental or physical disability, or sexual orientation.”

And “Gratuitous abuse – be it of the author, subjects of the story or other commentators – will not be accepted. The general rule here is that comments should play the ball, not the man i.e. not attack someone personally but be about the issue at hand.”

The “play the ball, not the man” is particularly relevant. Many comments are rejected because they contain attacks on previous commenters that are too personal and/or too strong.

3) Where would you draw the line between a genuine negative comment and a troll?

I reject many genuine negative comments that do not meet the above guidelines. I generally reject offensive comments, whether by trolls or others. Many comments are borderline, it requires personal judgement to decide whether they should be published or rejected.

4) How do you balance the responsibility of respecting free speech and policing the comments of trolls?

Again, it is a matter of following the guidelines as far as possible and using personal judgement. The guidelines make clear that commenters are restricted as to what they can say. I try to publish as much as I possibly can but I generally cannot do that at the cost of offending another commenter or someone reading the comments (of course people get offended by different things so I have to weigh up, as best I can, what it would be reasonable to be offended by).

5) What are the most drastic measures one can take towards trolls, do you ever attempt to reach out to ISPs or the police to tackle repeat offenders?  

I have never looked at the commenters’ ISPs or contacted the police. I do occasionally monitor commenters’ email addresses if I suspect they are impersonating another commenter or someone else. I simply reject comments that need to be rejected even if a commenter sends ten similar and offensive comments (this is very unusual).

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