The editorial board of News24 has decided to disable reader comments on its online platform as of tomorrow, 11 September. (That date should keep conspiracy nuts frothing for a while.) At the outset, I should say that I myself am not a regular visitor to News24.
The rationale offered by News24 for this curtailment is that the comments foster racism, bigotry, nastiness, trolling and other negative elements. There are various reasons why I think disallowing comments is a mistake—a big one at that. In a nutshell, my view is that the benefits of allowing comments significantly outweigh the downsides.
Whereas some people attempt to argue that this ban violates the constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of speech, I find this line of reasoning unpersuasive simply because there are many other avenues open to readers who wish to comment and, as a host, News24 is not required to provide the means for comments to be aired.
It is true that comments do frequently degenerate into hot pockets of callous spite and disparagement but that’s only to be expected when interactions occur at a distance which affords the participants some safety they would not enjoy in a face-to-face setting. I’m really not convinced that that’s a bad thing; on the contrary, it’s part of being human and indeed it can present something of a safety valve to blow off excess steam. Those who don’t like it are entirely free to seek other avenues of expression. The idea that a blanket ban is warranted in order to preserve superficial social niceties and an appearance of harmony is at bottom a profoundly draconian and deeply flawed precept that derives from an airy-fairy idealisation of what it means to be human.
Some commenters have suggested that News24’s rescinding of its comments facility is driven by kowtowing to the demands of SA’s ruling party. If true, this possibility provides even firmer ground for condemning News24’s reversal because it would then be the result of political pressure for the purpose of further bolstering a burgeoning autocratic bent in the ANC.
But what’s at even more critical stake here is the free exchange of ideas in the most convenient circumstances available. Like other publications, News24 articles are regularly scant on background and context. Readers’ comments often do a fine job of fleshing out these aspects, and what the importance, meaning, consequences and further development of a news article are. The publication itself typically presents a much more fragmented, even disjointed, account.
Moreover, the sharing of views with particular reference to a given article encourages appreciation of other viewpoints and interpretations. People can learn things from each other that they may not learn without a free exchange of ideas being both available and readily accessible at the point where it is most relevant.
These gains cannot be a bad thing, however heated the discussions may become.
Finally, there is also a purely ethical element to consider, namely what it says about an organisation that has shown itself ready to take away what it once freely gave for reasons that do not stand up very well under scrutiny.
I think that News24 shareholders should earnestly ponder whether to dump their stock because it’s sure to nosedive when News24’s advertising revenue inevitably begins to wither as a result of the sudden decline in readership that is sure to come.