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Dealing with a plague of fake and offensive comments

The European Journalism Centre

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"I'm not a popular prime minister. I probably would have been more popular, if I was leaking to the press, initiating positive polls and paying comments agencies to post flattering comments about me."

These words, from Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel, are from a 2007 speech which, not long after, received the immortal nickname the 'Talk Back Speech'.

In Israel, the term 'talk back' refers to comments left by readers at the end of web articles, features and blogs. In recent years talk back has become THE political arena of Israel.

Commercial agencies take advantage of talk back by writing promotional comments to further the interests of their clients. Apparently, Olmert was not using the services of such a company.

Research by Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, has determined that the internet does not change social structures; just emphasises them.

One could say that commercial comments agencies are just PR companies adapting to new media rules. According to Yon Feder, the editor of Ynet, one of the biggest news websites:

"During election days, we receive thousands of comments praising this or that party or leader. It is usually ridiculous. We catch it quite fast and delete them."

In the comments landscape of Israel, commercial comments are just part of a wider picture. A bigger issue lies in the language and meaning of talk backs. Usually, they are very offensive and violent, to say the least.

It seems that the left wing has lost ground when it comes to comments. It could be a non-issue if we were talking solely about comments, but it is a major issue when leaders and the public treat these comments as the authentic voice of the people, as Olmert's speech shows us.

Is talk back a true mirror of Israeli society, or just a small group that is active on the web? The answer is unclear.

Comments could be seen as the finest example of freedom of speech. What is more democratic than being able to express your opinion anonymously about everything in the world.

But do these comments depict the true dynamics of society? Ofri Ilani, the former web and science correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper, doesn't think so:

"One can see the comments as a direct democracy that gives an authentic expression of the public's opinion. But we cannot forget that the vulgar element affects the message. If someone wants his voice to be heard over thousands of other comments, he has to express a radical and simplified opinion. Very few commentators will suggest an intelligent view on the subject matter. Most of them just prefer to write 'Hit them hard!' or something of that nature."

The philologist Rubik Rosenthal says:

"In periods of wars in Israel, the violent aspects of the comments increase, and the right wing celebrates its total victory of the web. Very few people who do not hold right wing views take part in the comments arena."

The more traditional point of view will see these comments as the updated version of the city 'forum', where opinions are expressed in a spontaneous and floating stream of thought. But in Israel it long ago got way out of control, as Feder from Ynet testifies:

"Our website receives between 12,000 and 15,000 comments a day and publishes only 6,000 of them. News items about bombings, for example, produce much more emotional and usually not very educated comments. Our aim is to remove the mean ones.

In the early days of the website, our position was very liberal and we published almost all comments. But then we comprehended that violent comments have become a very dominant culture in our website. We realised that if we continue to allow offensive comments to be aired, we practically encourage the violence in Israel."

Comments are a natural result of the combination of traditional journalism and new media. But while journalists are working with traditional tools and ethics, such as collecting information, working with sources, investigating misdoings and standing personally behind their articles, comments function in a world with no rules - in Israel at least.

An offensive comment can expose someone's personal details, post a public figure's address or state an unpleasant fact about someone else. While journalists function under the assumption that they can be sued for misleading information, the commentators are free to write what ever is on their mind.

There is no specific law dealing with offensive comments in Israel. In a couple of cases an Israeli court was asked to interpret the law regarding offensive comments. During the last case, in 2009, the judges decided not to allow the disclosure of a commentator's identity, and by that shaped the legal approach as a quite tolerant one. The judges wrote:

"Despite the drawbacks of the web's anonymous character, one should see it as a derivative of the Freedom of Speech and the Right to Privacy."

In the States, for example, the law states, since 1996, that website managers are legally responsible for the content displayed on their websites and that they must regulate information published in a way that will prevent profanity and slander. While publishing an offensive comment holds a legal risk for the website, deleting it does not. Consequently, in the States it is easier to delete a comment than to publish it. This is a less democratic move, of course, and a very cautious one, but the fact is that US websites are less 'infected' by offensive comments.

European websites, at least news sites, are also less harsh than Israel. This is because different laws apply in different countries, but also thanks to a smart managing system.

At many British and French websites, such as the Guardian or Le Figaro, a registration process is required in order to comment on an article. This action allows the website management more control over the person on the other side of the screen (an email address is obligatory). And it helps in another way too: when one has to sign up to comment, one thinks twice before posting.

Another way to reduce talk back issues is to put comments on a different web page, so one must click in order to see them. This action narrows their exposure, allows them to be longer and gives the comments sphere a debate-forum feeling, rather than a market place.

Another difference between Israel and the rest of the world is a semantic one. The Israeli term 'talk backs' signifies something different from comments. To talk back is to express an opinion rather than to discuss it. To post a talk back is like spraying an anonymous graffiti on a public wall and then running away to the darkness.

This article, by the Israeli journalist Netta Ahituv, was first posted by the European Journalism Centre.

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