The issue of user-generated content (UGC), and whether to pre or post moderate it (or leave it well alone in the absence of a complaint), has long been discussed from a legal point of view.
However, a recent ruling and subsequent blog post from IPSO has highlighted the issue in a regulatory context.
For those who are signed up to it, IPSO regulates “everything which is within ‘editorial discretion’; meaning anything that editors have control over, such as stories and features, rather than advertising, for example”.
So where does UGC on a news website fall? Is it content over which editors have ‘editorial discretion’? The answer from IPSO is “yes”.
Whilst IPSO recognises that most publishers do not pre-moderate comments on their websites, they have the ability to do so, which means that once a comment has been brought to a publisher’s attention by a complainant, the comment is subject to IPSO’s regulation and the provisions of the Editors’ Code apply.
The most recent IPSO ruling on the issue, which prompted the IPSO blog post, concerned a complaint brought against oxfordmail.co.uk.
The article on which the comment was posted was about gun ownership in the Thames Valley. The comment which was the subject of the IPSO complaint was posted by an anonymous user and said that knives should be banned in the UK, “[e]specially ‘dangerous knives’ like the one used by the refugee BLM [Black Lives Matter] supporter who murdered three and injured three more members of the LGBT community, in a Reading park last month following a BLM rally”.
The complainant complained to the publisher through the complaint facility on its website, by Facebook message, and by an email to the editor. His complaint was that the statement was inaccurate because the police had confirmed in a press release that the attack was not linked to the earlier BLM rally, or to the movement or organisation.
According to IPSO, it notified the website of its involvement some three weeks after the initial complaint had been made, and some five weeks after that, the publisher removed all the comments on the article, prevented further comments from being posted, and banned the user who posted the comment.
So, when did the publisher’s obligation to take care over the comment’s continued publication begin? The committee found that at the latest, the obligation began once the publication received IPSO’s initial email. As the comment continued to be published for another five weeks, the committee found that the publication “had not taken care over the accuracy of the published information” and Clause 1(i) had therefore been breached.
The committee went on to find that the comment contained a significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1(ii).
But how should corrections which relate to UGC be published? It was acknowledged that when the inaccuracy related to UGC, it might not be appropriate to publish a correction on a corrections page or column in the usual way.
In this case, it was decided that the IPSO adjudication should be published on the publisher’s website homepage, as well as the adjudication headline and link being added to the bottom of the article on which the comment was made.
So, what does this mean for publishers?
From both a legal and regulatory point of view, this should not necessarily change a publisher’s existing approach to the pre and post moderation of comments. However, it does mean that once a complaint is received about UGC on a publisher’s website, it should be dealt with according to the requirements of the Code.
But on a cautionary note…..
From a legal point of view, if you moderate the UGC on an article by removing a comment which has been the subject of a complaint, you could be taken to have post-moderated all of the comments posted on that article. And what that means is that you could be assuming legal responsibility for the comments which you have not deleted.
With that in mind, if you delete one comment on an article, it is worth considering deleting them all. The very last thing any publisher should do is become legally responsible for material written and posted by non-journalists.