The LibDemVoice comments policy: why we moderate & how to avoid us moderating you

There are many aspects of running this site that the LibDemVoice editorial collective actively discuss: which articles to publish and when, which adverts to accept and which to reject — and, most spiritedly, how to define our comments moderation policy.

Until two years ago, we didn’t really have a policy: basically it was a free-for-all until somebody complained, or a lawyer got in touch. Partly in response to the latter — but more especially in response to reader feedback that the comments threads were too often a no-go zone for all but the most thick-skinned — we started to tighten our policy. Disagreement is, has been, and shall always be welcome. With one caveat: that it must, if not actually be polite, at least avoid needless offence.

As a result, I think our comments threads are now much improved: readable but robust. This personal view is backed up by the feedback from our members’ surveys. In our February members’ survey, we asked specifically about the site’s comment threads:

  • 61% of the 570+ Lib Dem members who responded said they read the comments threads often or very often; a further 26% read them occasionally, and just 12% rarely or never.
  • And more than 80% of you said you felt the threads added greatly (40%) or a little (41%) to LibDemVoice; a further 8% said they made not difference, while 7% said they detracted from the site. (The remainder either didn’t express a view or don’t read the comments threads.)
  • Reading through the many comments from party members in our survey, it seems clear the active comment moderation is appreciated: a number refer very specifically to the fact that LibDemVoice comments threads contain intelligent, cogent debate — and dissent — in stark contrast to the unreadably emetic threads on the Guardian, Telegraph and Mail sites.

Here’s the analogy that Mark Pack and I have used over the last couple of years to guide our comment moderation policy… that the comment moderator should aim to act as an effective chair of a public meeting would, ensuring everyone has the right to speak, but resisting those speakers who want to hijack the meeting for their own purposes, or to shout others down.

Our comments policy is published for all to see here: LibDemVoice.org/comment-policy. In reality, it is impossible to define exactly the moderation process, as so much can depend on context — for example, something strongly worded in the context of a 50-comment-thread of robust debate may be fine, but if it’s completely out-of-the-blue on a 3-comment thread perhaps not.

The reason we take moderation seriously — other than to ensure robust debate doesn’t tip over into naked aggression which deters readers from contributing — is that I believe (and I think I speak here on behalf of our editorial collective) we should see the comments as an integral part of the content of the site. To do otherwise, to view comments as an irrelevant add-on, would be to disrespect those who take the time to contribute to the threads.

And as editors we all of us take quite a lot of effort to uphold the quality threshold for contributors’ pieces. We reject very little, but we do more frequently ask for re-writes to ensure they’re the right kind of tone/length/fit for LibDemVoice. It seems to me, therefore, quite fitting that the site should respectfully and flexibly apply a similar expectation for comments ‘below the fold’.

The comments sections of websites reflect on their host — I know I think much less of Comment is Free, Guido Fawkes, Telegraph Blogs for having pretty much unreadably unpleasant comments sections. What they doubtless regard as freedom, I think coarsens public debate. Those who prefer invective and abuse are welcome to ply their trade on those sites, where it appears to be welcomed. Or of course to start their own site.

So I’m all for us having some basic minimal standards, advertised publicly, to which we ask people, for the benefit of the whole community, to stick. And stick not simply to its letter, but more importantly to its spirit.

There is one simple way never to fall foul of comment moderation: be polite. Robust is fine, too. But you’re more likely to persuade by virtue of reason than by SHOUTING or trading personal jibes. And I make no apology for the fact that LibDemVoice is trying to promote a more civil and constructive public discourse on the web, to ensure this site remains true to its founding motto that it’s ‘Our place to talk’.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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36 Comments

  • It seems your comment policy is weighted towards comments which support your worldview, not only that, you tolerate offensive comments when they are directed at non-Coalition politicians, particularly senior Labour MPs. Your treatment of Ed Miliband is often so partisan that it naturally arouses strong comments in response, but only those critical of Miliband make it through the filter.

    Furthermore, some regular commentators, particularly Tabman & Simon Shaw are routinely rude, dismissive and offensive but are never sanctioned.

  • Simon Bamonte 17th Mar '12 - 3:18pm

    It seems, to me, the commenting and moderation policy is not done in a fair manner. Some people often get off-topic and personal posts past the moderators while I’ve posted on-topic but disagreeing posts and am constantly moderated.

    For example, in this thread, https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-what-message-would-scrapping-the-50p-rate-send-27643.html#comments, Simon Shaw makes a rude, off-topic personal jibe by bringing up something said ages ago from a completely different thread. This was allowed by the moderators. He often does this as well as comes across rather rude to anyone who he disagrees with.

    Yet yesterday I posted an on-topic but critical response to an article about party tactics. I disagreed with the author when they stated “LibDems have let nobody down in government.” I was on topic and tried to be as polite as possible while expressing my anger. Yet my post never made it past the censors.

    From reading this site on a daily basis, it seems those who are positive, agree with the coalition and toe the line often are allowed much more leeway in being off-topic, rude and personal while those of us who are angry with the coalition and direction of the party in general, yet try to be polite and on-topic are more heavily and severely moderated.

    In short, I still do not feel the moderation is fair and it almost seems as if the moderators have “favourites” and are more likely to give party loyalists a wider berth than those of us who disagree with the party’s current direction.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Mar '12 - 3:55pm

    Good policy and good reasoning.
    You guys should take over the Lib Dem Facebook page too!

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '12 - 6:47pm

    Looks good to me. Have you thought of adding approval buttons to each comment – like they have in many newspaper websites? A simple way that people can record whether they agrre or disagree with a comment ?

  • Daniel Henry 17th Mar '12 - 7:36pm

    Agreed with Richard.
    Approval buttons would allow us to highlight posts that make particularly good points.

    I think Conservative Home have something similar.
    It’s good to give newcomers an idea of how much a particular post speaks for Lib Dems in general.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Mar '12 - 7:36pm

    PS. Like the whole “log in” thing.
    Look forward to it being extended to the mobile site too! 🙂

  • Nick (not Clegg) 17th Mar '12 - 7:49pm

    A couple of my attempts at commenting this morning resulted in the screen going blank apart form a caption saying “You are posting too fast, slow down” What was that about; has it happened to anyone else?

  • my personal opinion from experience is that moderation has sometimes been excessive and to a degree biased.

    I have been placed on auto-moderate for things that in my opinion have not breached forum rules,

    I have never been abusive towards another user

    I try not to go off topic

    And I do not use abusive language.

    I have however been somewhat critical of the party, but no more so than some users within the actual party who are anti coalition.

    I have found it extremely difficult and frustrating to engage in debate sometimes, when my comments are placed on auto moderate and it sometimes takes hours for the comment to be released.

    I totally understand and respect that the editors of this site do so freely and dedicate a huge amount of their time to this site.

    I think a far better system to the Auto-Moderate would be, to automatically sensor offensive language. And to give posters a 3 strikes and your out rule for ANYONE who breaks forum rules, Liberal Democrat Members Included.

    I have been personally insulted and felt as though I have received personal attacks from other users, some of whom are councillors for the party and i see no evidence of these people having their posts “sanctioned” in any way

    So for a site to be truly liberal there should be no biased towards any person.

    On the whole though, I think LDV is the most constructive of debating forums

  • @matt. I am in exactly the same situation, re. this site, as you. I voted LibDem at the last election and I have admired Liberal/Liberal Democrat policies and politicians for decades. I still support the LibDem ‘ideology’ that I voted for in 2010. I have never (I truly believe) badly insulted anyone in my comments nor used bad or intemperate language. I am on auto-moderation. I have concluded that the reason I am automatically moderated is because of the political opinions that I have expressed here. I do not support the Coalition, I believe that Nick Clegg is not the best person to lead the party, which I fear is heading for an electoral disaster. I will not, on current evidence, be voting LibDem again. I wonder if that makes me either unique or dangerous?

  • I too find the moderating policy somewhat absurd.

    I have been treated thus so when using intemperate language but have really been the first in the thread to do so. It hems though that there are certain ‘protected’ posters who are immune to sanction. For some examples I refer you to g’s post above.

    Of the two mentioned the second is infinitely more prone to abusive comments to other posters

    This is a aLD member’s site so they can do what they want. I just think that they should listen and not bury their head in the sand as much

    The best example of this has been the ridiculous use of by-election polling data to say everything is rosy in the garden ‘Lib Dem’ – ridiculous use of data but the only response to pointing this out is abuse!

  • I do appreciate that this is a thankless task and difficult to get right. However, I was concerned about the amount of abuse that was allowed to stand about Diana Wallis (she was called ‘venal’ on LDV by another MEP) and yet when someone (not me!) referred to another party member as a “rightwing headbanger” that was censored. I was then censored for querying the censorship!

    Perhaps I will now be censored for telling everyone that I was censored for querying the censorship!

  • Just to correct a mistake in my post which is under moderation (my apologies). The MEP used the terms: “it stinks”, “hubris”, “unprincipled” and “petulance” to describe the behaviour of Diana Wallis. It was another commenter on LDV who used the terms “venal and petulant” about her. All those comments were allowed to stand.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Mar '12 - 12:15pm

    Surely the purpose of the comments policy is to allow some people to believe that they are important enough and persuasive enough to be singled out for special censorship?

  • Malcolm Todd

    I thing you have it the wrong way round. There are some posters here who believe they are important and influential enough to avoid any censorship.

    If you go over to CiF now on the Guardian website, this site is frequently help up for ridicule about its moderation policy. UK Polling Report, run by a self-proclaimed Tory, and ConservativeVoice are rarely criticized so.

    I think the problem is that there is a significant amount of moderation based on criticism of LD policy (someone on CiF says they were banned for ‘consistent negativity’ whilst still an LD member) whilst some people get away with continual personal abuse, which is a right reason for moderation.

  • I think the article from Stephen Tall on moderation is timely and helpful.

    I would like to add my experience of commenting.

    I work in Health & Social Care in a Health Centre and my partner is Senior Nurse working with surgical oncology and chemotherapy patients at the Royal Marsden. As you can imagine, I have strong opinions on the Health & Social Care bill. I am not a Liberal Democrat member at this time.

    Like Matt, I am on auto moderate (it does not make me feel special) . I appreciate that Moderators have lives too, apart from tending to our comments,. I respect the work that goes into the site but it can be hours before a comment appears if it appears at all. It can be frustrating to make a comment on a debate only for your comment to be held whilst the debate moves on.

    If the comment is taken down then rarely do I get an explanation why. Mark Pack did contact me to advise me to ‘play the ball and not the man’, that was a helpful reminder to me,. I never am intentionally rude to any other contributor. I make an effort to be polite, on topic and be constructive even if I am making a critical comment. If my comments are taken down, it is helpful to know why.

    I also try to be civil to the moderator when asking why my comment is still pending.

    Like Matt, I feel that the majority of my comments are not that different in tone to Social Liberal Democrats that are not happy about the direction of travel of the Liberal Democrats. Ignoring debate or critical comments is not helpful, I believe to the Liberal Democrats. It sometimes appears (or feels) that those doing the moderating political position affects whether your comment is moderated or not.

    As Matt says posters should then be warned with a three strike policy and blocked from posting in respect of discriminative language, personal abuse , threatening or offensive language. Discriminative language, personal abuse, threatening or offensive language, should never be allowed and taken down.

    I would amend / add Matt’s idea to a three strikes and then you are on auto moderation for general political comments.

    A preview button, may allow contributors to review their comments and for the house policy to be reiterated.

    All decent sites need moderating, and I respect the LDV moderators for taking the time to do it. I do respect the amount of work that goes into the site.

  • Mark Valladares

    In principle what you say is okay but things I have been moderated for have been because I was trying to debate policies. I have also been told I am not supposed to be on the site as I am not a LD, but as I pointed out I have voted for the party in all but one of the elections since 1987.

    I have also been personally abused by frequent posters on this site but when I respond to this will end up moderated with no sign that the other person involved has been so.

    This idea of a place for LD to talk seems to be – only LD who support the leadership! Those of us who try to challenge and create an edge to the debate are made to feel unwelcome.

    I am one of the lost voters and come on here as I still think there needs to be an alternative to the two main parties. I come on here to try and debate things here and also challenge some of the complacency I see. More and more though I come to realize that the LD are likely to become like European liberal parties – very much more libertarian when it comes to economic and social issues – on social issue I have some sympathy with but the economic side I am very much concerned about. Much more aligned to the Tories.

    The right-wing are happy with the Tories and UKIP is there as well for the disaffected. On the left we have only Labour (and that is if they are left-wing in anything but name) – the LD are now joining the Tories in that crowded rich-centre-right area so there is room for a new liberal left-wing party to come about on the ground you are abandoning.

    I hope that before 2015 you will ditch Clegg and his cabal and change policy – if not I see you becoming a regional, Southern-based party after that. The other option is that you start losing more members from the left who will form another party or perhaps try to ‘subvert’ Labour.

    From this site I really do not think you realize how hated the national party is in the North at the moment – my purely anecdotal evidence from my peer group of educated liberal-left forty-somethings is all I have to go on (but not dissimilar to opinion polls) but from a group of 20 people who have all moved from Labour to LD since 2001, 90% are moving back. My Tory friends are quite happy to stay Tory and, although they love Clegg, would never dream of voting LD – and why would they.

  • Marks response of his moderation position to bazzac is coherent and clear.

    I would like to ask, if you are on auto moderation, how does it happen, who decides it and is it ever reviewed ? It does seem that of the contributors on this thread, who are on auto moderation, there does appear to be a political aspect to it.

    I feel that good debate and engagement is better for the long term health of the Liberal Democrats and contribute to better formation of policy.

  • @MarkValladares

    if you think that it’s a free for all, then you’re probably in the wrong place. We’re set up to be a place for Liberal Democrats to talk – that was our slogan on the banner until recently. And if other people want to join in (and I emphasise ‘join in’), that’s great. But, if people want to just come here and rant at Liberal Democrats (‘you’re all evil and I want you to die’), then I’m not sure I see why we should provide them with a platform. They can, after all, go anywhere else, it’s a free internet, and I’m sure that CiF, or Conservative Home, or Guido, will entertain them there.

    That’s an interesting argument to make given that your comments policy starts with the following:
    We welcome comments from all our readers, whether you are a Lib Dem or a supporter of other parties, or none at all.

    Clearly you do not welcome comments which are highly critical of the Liberal Democrats. This is fine, it is your site, and you are free to moderate it as you please. However, you may like to amend the comments policy to make clear that strong criticism of the party is not allowed.

    Further to this, if you wish to make the site a place where Liberal Democrats can talk amongst themselves in public, but the participation of the public is not encouraged, then I’d question the message that this sends out. It makes you guys appear somewhat insular and aloof from public opinion. That is never a trait attractive to the voter.

  • One of the perils of discussing our moderation policy is that quite often people make claims about specific cases, presented as if they’re sure about the claim (e.g. not using caveats such as “I guess that…”) but also getting their statement wrong.

    To pick two examples from this thread:

    Godfrey – leaving aside your occasional comments that have over-stepped the line on personal insults, you’ve often broken our commenting policy on other occasions, such as when you spammed the site by repeatedly posting the same comment across multiple threads, rather than taking care to be on topic in each thread.

    Matt – you have on occasion veered over the line on personal insult, albeit perhaps more in descriptions of Tories than of the Lib Dems! But that’s not the only part of our commenting policy and rather than recap all our previous email exchanges, I’ll just add that it’s great that almost all your comments do now fall within our commenting policy.

    Nick (not Clegg) – to answer your question, I think from the description that our anti-spam software triggered the message as posting high volumes of comments in a short period of time is how spam is often posted. It shouldn’t in theory get in the way of normal commenting, but if you do run into the problem again please do get in touch with details.

  • @Mark Pack. I accept that I have used the same or similar sentences in different threads, but only – I am certain – where and when the those sentences are relevant. With respect, I don’t agree with your opinion that I have made “occasional comments that have over-stepped the line on personal insults”. I often read comments on this site that, in my opinion, are much stronger and more personal than comments I have ever made. [Before retirement I was a Copy Editor for a large academic publisher – I do know the trade]. But, as ‘g’ has said……”it is your site, and you are free to moderate it as you please”. I supported the LibDems at the last election – and long before that. As a legitimate voter, I do not like the direction that the party has taken since the election, and my comments on this site have been in line with that opinion. As with other commentators, I have concluded that strong (although reasoned and polite) dissent from the LibDem’s current behaviour is not welcome.

  • @ Mark Pack

    I accept that there has been the “odd” occasion where I have got over excited on a topic that I am passionate about and over stepped the mark so to speak, However, I have always apologised, asked for guidance from yourself and I do not believe that I have ever engaged in personal abuse towards another poster.

    I fully accept that I am guilty of making the odd lude comment towards an “organisation” as a whole like the Tory party, but I am not going to apologise for that and I don’t believe any right minded person would blame me otherwise 😉

    I do however stand by my previous point of some slight “bias” behaviour in favour of party membership.

    Without naming people, as I do not believe it would be appropriate or indeed necessary for this thread, would you not agree that some people on this forum who hold rather senior positions within the party, i.e local councillors have been extremely “confrontational” and somewhat “antagonistic” in their opinions and remarks towards other users and LDV have turned a blind eye to it, compared to how I or someone like Bazz would have been treated if we had taken the same approach?

  • Barry George 19th Mar '12 - 12:49am

    I would just like to add my agreement to the consensus that Coalition supporters “seem” to be given a free licence to abuse those who have a genuine distaste for this coalition. I have been censored a few times and probably justifiably so. But comments far more personally offensive than I would even dream of writing somehow manage to remain on the site and they are consistently written by a small number of coalition supporters.

    I won’t name names but others above me have done so. Suffice to say that some coalition supporters need to be told that they won’t succeed in driving us away by intimidation and bullying. If anything it makes the argument against them stronger because the only tools these people seem to have is one of persistent Ad hominem attacks or that of attempting to force an entire thread into a pedantic pantomime dissecting the smallest aspect of irrelevant detail that has very little (if anything) to do with the topic of the thread.

    Persistently diluting a thread until the debate no longer reflects the article should (and I believe is) covered by the sites policy. But again it seems to be ignored when used as a debating tactic by coalition supporters.

    I acknowledge that it’s a no win situation for the editors (some group will always be unhappy) and I appreciate the hard work you all do.

  • Mark Valladares, it is my perception that many non-abusive comments I have made about the coalition are not published. I often see comments attacking Labour (and sometimes Tory) politicians for their personal appearance. Even the most relaxed commenting policies acknowledge that it is unhelpful to construct ad hominem arguments, but here it seems that only ad hominem comments against Lib Dems are moderated.

    It also seems that making reference to certain topics, such as tuition fees, or Nick Clegg campaigning on ‘no more broken promises’ are also excluded from publication. It is my perception that being reminded of this is deeply embarrassing to Coalition supporters so the moderators are not comfortable with publication. Perhaps I am wrong, but other commentators above seem to share my perception.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 19th Mar '12 - 9:26am

    Thank you for the explanation, Mark. I’ll let you know if it happens again.

  • john stevens 19th Mar '12 - 10:55am

    I would still be curious to know why my being ahead of the leadership’s reaction to the Prime Minister’s European veto last December was moderated. Is Mark particularly anti-European?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 20th Mar '12 - 7:34pm

    John,

    With respect, I trust that you’re not accusing me of being anti-European? It would make my role as a member of ELDR Council rather unlikely…

  • john stevens 20th Mar '12 - 8:16pm

    Mark, I meant Mark Pack.
    John

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Mar '12 - 8:22pm

    @g
    “It also seems that making reference to certain topics, such as tuition fees, or Nick Clegg campaigning on ‘no more broken promises’ are also excluded from publication.”

    Well, you see, that pretty much proves that your perception is rather distorted in this matter. There are repeated highly critical references published on this site (not only in the Comments but in the posts sometimes) to these matters. I have made a few of them myself; I’m certainly not the only one. If you can’t see those comments on the site, the problem must be your filters, not the site’s.

  • Actually Malcolm, I can say personally I have experienced the same censoring when it came to such topics and criticisms.
    The reason I was given by LDV was because apparently my comment offered nothing new to the debate and I had said similar criticisms on similar threads.

    I don’t want to complain about LDV to much as I enjoy visiting the site and commenting on here, however, I do feel as though the site is very much biased in their censoring towards party members.

    I very much doubt that there is a paid up party member of this site who has ever been placed on automatic censuring even though their behaviour was no different to non-members or trolls as some would like to call them.

    I would like to suggest that comments that are removed or blocked from the site should appear as “comment has been removed due to (XYZ)” that way it would promote transparency and people could see for themselves who and why are being denied their voice 😉

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