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Deleting Comments Doesn’t Kill Free Speech

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Recently, there have been a number of newspaper articles in the Kenyan media on homosexuality and the rights of LGBTQ people, specifically whether their rights should be enshrined in the constitution. Now, given that the gay scene in Kenya has been very much underground, and because there are a great number of people who hold strong religious convictions, comment on various boards and forums has at times descended into flame wars between those who wish to keep things as they are, criminal penalties and all, and those who would like to see more tolerance.

As an editor at Kenya Imagine, I get an email for each new comment on an article. We have had a couple of recent pieces on homosexuality, from both sides of the debate, and users have also submitted blogs posts to air their own views. The comments that have come in have been, for the most part, fairly balanced, but some were nothing but vitriol. We deleted them.

At an editors’ powwow last week, we tried to pin down the Kenya Imagine “vision,” or principles which would guide our running of the site. We wanted to be a forward-thinking, modernising forum where our users could engage in open and honest debate. All very well, so how did that sit with deleting comments we didn’t like the look of? To put it in the most simple terms,  by signing up and agreeing to the terms and conditions, which include the proscription of hate speech, our users had allowed us to. Our house, our rules.

On other boards I have seen users who have had their comments deleted complain that they’re being censored, or that their right to free speech is not being respected. Usually, moderators don’t bother explaining why, as that would just hijack a discussion and take it off-topic. But the users complaining might be better off re-educating themselves about the rules of the board or forum they have signed up to. To protect themselves from legal action, many administrators reserve the right to edit or remove comments, and will usually outline what sorts of comments will and won’t be tolerated. At Kenya Imagine, we will not put up with hate speech, so anything along the lines of “Throw them all into the sea!” was consigned to oblivion.

This may seem like refusing to listen to an opposing view, but it is not too difficult to stay on a moderator’s good side. There is a difference between wishing or inciting violence against people and voicing your opposition in the strongest possible terms. One approach will probably get a disagreement, the other will get a deletion or banning. People are free to hold whatever opinions they please, and to articulate them, provided they can stick to the rules they have agreed to. Deleting infringing comments is less about censorship and more to do with  enforcing the standards that have been outlined. Rephrasing the same sentiments that got deleted in another way that makes the same points would probably be OK.

One of the boards I belong to can look lawless, especially when certain topics are discussed. There is swearing, name-calling and multi-thread trolling on an epic scale. Some people have personal grudges that go back years, and others are single-issue posters who only turn up if their pet topic is being discussed. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be very well moderated, but this is because we’re mostly left to regulate ourselves. Nevertheless, when a topic or comment could get the site owner into trouble, or if there is a flagrant breach of the board’s rules, a comment will be deleted, occasionally with a reminder of the relevant rule which was broken. Break enough rules and the mods will ban you without notice.

It’s entirely up to owners how they decide to manage comments on their websites, and they have the right, some might say responsibility to make sure that their policy to comments is consistent, no matter how contentious the comments. People who get deleted may grouse that they’re not being allowed to have their say, but if they tried to make the same point using different language, they would probably find that the comment was allowed through. And if they are still dissatisfied? Well, they can always set up a blog or website of their own. Then there would be nobody to stop them.

[Image by Roland]

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