Mail Online, the UK’s most visited newspaper website, is to stop moderating user comments – a move which risks exposing its advertisers and users to inappropriate content.
The website, which attracts 29.4m unique users a month according to the latest ABCE figures, aims to enhance its users’ experience of the site. However, it could open itself up to legal and commercial problems by letting users add comments without moderation.
Allowing user comments online was popularised by newspaper websites and is now used by brands, retailers and even the Government to provide interaction and feedback. The use of pre- and post-moderation of comments is an important safety net to protect brands and site owners from damage.
Mail Online’s move risks creating ad misplacement issues similar to recent incidents when Tesco and Vodafone appeared next to offensive content across Facebook (nma 13 May). The brands appeared beside groups supporting Holocaust denial and controversial far-right party the BNP.
Mail Online, owned by Associated Newspapers, will continue to use an automatic filter that prohibits inappropriate language. But instead of pre- or post-moderation of online comments, as most newspapers use, it will only review comments if they’re reported by users.
James Bromley, MD of Mail Online, said, “We have hundreds of thousands of comments every month. Because of the volume, not all were going up. We want to give people their chance to respond and for it to appear immediately. This improves the user experience.”
Industry specialists have expressed concern about the Mail Online’s move, however.
Rob Marcus, director of moderation provider Chat Moderators, said he was surprised Mail Online felt that relying on users to flag up misuse would be sufficient.
“A swear filter won’t pick up defamation or if the Daily Mail’s brand gets dragged through the mud,” he said. “Also, it could actually harm the user experience because people might abuse each other.”
Mark Trustum, director of ecommerce at Specsavers, which advertises across the Mail’s site, said the brand wouldn’t choose to advertise on a website that contains content that could be controversial.
“Unmoderated user content falls into this category and is a grey area for advertisers,” he said. “It’s vitally important for us to protect our brand reputation and, therefore, as soon as we were made aware of any such content being present alongside our advertising we would immediately ask for our ad to be withdrawn.”
Jenni Convey, head of online marketing at O2, said, “There’s always the risk with user content that our brand advertising may appear next to a comment we may not agree with or like. In the Mail Online example, we would want to understand the controls the media owner is giving to users of the forum so inappropriate content can be reported. If we’re satisfied with the processes then it’s likely we would consider advertising.”
Ben Wood, MD of digital agency Diffiniti, said it wouldn’t place ads beside unmoderated comments. “Advertisers need to be sure they’re in a suitable environment.”
Jack Wallington, senior programmes manager at the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), said it was important for media owners to tell agencies if there are unmoderated comments on their sites.
Mail Online is following Express Newspapers’ lead, which stopped moderating on its Daily Express and Daily Star sites over two years ago and relies on users to flag problems.
Farzad Jamal, group internet controller at Express Newspapers, said, “We have post moderation in the form of our users. They’re very good at reporting abuse.”
Express Newspapers also disables comments on legally sensitive stories.
Pete Picton, The Sun’s online editor, said the publisher pre-moderates all comments on stories. “It’s important for legal reasons and for brand protection,” he said.
Jonathan Dickson, associate director at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, said publishers need to be aware of the risks. “If it feels it can’t manage the volume of comments, I can see some benefit in just ignoring them and using the ‘we didn’t know it was defamatory’ defence,” he said.
Bromley said Mail Online would not allow legally sensitive stories to be commented on. “We recognise there’s an element of risk but readers will be self-moderating,” he said.