Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

The Moderation Game

UPDATE : See this latest post on the Mail website : Is there no lower limit to the depravity of these odious people LEO McKINSTRY: Sorry not to join the liberal wailing: heroin traffickers deserve to die

Yesterday morning I was dismayed to be waking to the news that Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, had been executed in China after being convicted of drug smuggling.

There will be plenty of reaction to that news – this blog is not primarily about his execution, but around the way in which comments on on-line articles and blogs can be manipulated to give false impressions of public opnion.

Before I come to that though I’d like to say that I was a little disappointed that people in the UK seemed to make such a big issue of Akmal’s bi-polar disorder. I’m sure it’s an issue the Chinese authorities should have discussed – but let’s be absolutely straight about this – it would be just as wrong that he was executed irrespective of his mental health.

In the UK we don’t execute people. We haven’t done for 45 years. Prior to that a capital sentence has effectively not been available for crimes other than murder, for almost 150 years.

So to execute someone for drug smuggling – a crime which would only attract a relatively modest prison sentence in the UK  – is absolutely outrageous. It’s barbaric in the extreme, and reflects very poorly on the nation of China – who still have a large number of capital offences, including the making out of false invoices to avoid the paying of tax Capital offences in the People’s Republic of China (something to think about if you’re one of the British musicians who routinely ‘smuggle’ expensive guitars back from the US).

As I say – outrageous and disgusting.

Let me back to those comments though …

I read an article on the Mail’s website : Akmal Shaikh: Vigil for death row Briton due to be executed in China at 2.30am on Monday 28th December, and clipped the web page.

However as I write, the link to the article, is no longer valid, but the links to the comments now link to this page : Gordon Brown leads furious outcry as China executes British drugs mule by lethal injection

The article has changed somewhat – now reflecting the fact that Akmal has now been executed by lethal injection (although the URL seems to indicate that this was by firing squad which the report clearly does not say).

The “death row Briton” is now “British drugs mule” which doesn’t sound quite so nice, and Gordon Brown’s protests to the Chinese appear to be the major focus of the new story, but all in all this is. to be fair, a very balanced article – as the original one was. It’s acknowledged for instance that there was “cross party outrage” about the execution – and Mr Shaik’s mental problems are presented as fact. There is extensive coverage of Mr Shaik’s family background, of the campaign by Reprieve to try to overturn his conviction, and lots of coverage on the barbaric execution practices of the Chinese government  – all done in a professional, and fairly objective way.

Then we get to the comments.

Well the first one I read on the revised story says :

“Sorry but he had it coming”.

Which is actually somewhat tame compared to some of the others :

“if he is a drug smuggler he deserves to be executed never mind thee.s mamby pambys (sic)”

“Gordon Brown urging China to give a reprieve makes me sick. That just about sums him up. Look after the interests of low life scum while the country is collapsing around his ears. Lets count the days until we get rid of this idiot.”

(I guess that reader missed the paragraph where David Cameron supported Gordon Brown’s intervention)

“Let him rot he deserves it !”

Let’s have a closer look though – the comment about “thee.s mamby pambys” was dated 26.12.2009 – that’s actually three days before this article was supposedly published, and two days before the article which I read – which does make one wonder which article the responder thought he or she was commenting on.

Most of the comments have very little sympathy for the executed man. Many of them have been “rated” up or down – with some of the most vehement comments getting 900 or so positive ratings, whilst the ones with the lowest are – yes you’ve guessed it – comments which question the wisdom of executing Akmal.

But let’s remember

“The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.”

So this must be genuine public opinion that’s so overwhelmingly in favour of turning back the laws on capital punishment to the mid 19th Century.

Well no, because the comments “have been moderated in advance”

This of course means that the Mail decides which comments go up, which don’t, and actually could well mean that it decides which scores are allowed on the rating system – though they don’t say that.

What makes me suspicious about this, is that when I checked the site on Monday, there were only 60 odd comments, despite the story having been there for many hours, and despite some of the comments being rated by 500+ viewers – which to me indicates a very heavy censoring of the likely number of comments which came in, and if they’ve been edited, it seems clear that they’ve been edited very heavily to favour the pro-execution comments. This I deduce from the cross party consensus in revulsion at the execution which the article itself reports – there simply MUST be far more people objecting to the execution than was presented then.

A few days later (today) we then find that the number of comments jumps dramatically to well over a thousand, but remember that usually the visitor can see just a selection of the “newest” comments – which are obviously moderated so that the selected few are shown; the “oldest” – which were obviously moderated in the same way; the “best rated” – which tends not to change much, the oldest nastiest comments tend to be the ones; and the “worst rated” – ie. The ones that show any glimmer of a dissenting voice.

This is steering the view presented of the comments coming in in a particular direction. Very wrong in my opinion. It’s manipulative and untruthful.

And of course the mail still claims that the comments don’t represent its own opinions.

If on-line news source have any integrity they should publish details alongside the comments they show – showing how many comments are received, how many were rejected, the reasons they were rejected for, and a permanent link to the article which the comments were originally submitted in response to. It’s not acceptable to publish a comment that was a response to one article, as if it were a response to a later revision – it is dishonest.

I will return to the issue of comments on this site again – there are some serious issues at stake – and though I have (again) picked on the Mail to illustrate one aspect of these problems, they are by no means restricted to that publication.

I’ll be doing some thinking in the meantime – I wish some of the comment moderators on various websites would do the same.

December 30, 2009 - Posted by | news, politics | , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. Everything is filtered through a lens of bias and frame of reference. If we visit smaller blogs with no affiliation to the media, the owner has the right to publish or delete commentary at will. The only way to ensure that what one has to say becomes part of the public record is to blog themselves.

    Comment by Renee | December 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes it is – but surely it’s only reasonable to own up to our bias – I’m certainly not pretending I’m not a Labour supporter for instance. Yet the mail claims that the comments aren’t representing its opinions, but would seem to be manipulating them to present a version of its opinions which are too extreme to present in the context of the main articles.

      If you look at a site like Slashdot for instance (a mainly techy site) many articles get literally thousands of comments – impossible to read all of them, and this must presumably be the case to an even greater extent for organisations such as the Mail and the BBC – it must be possible to select comments to skew the picture of what is being said to almost any point of view – which is fine if you own up to it – but if they pretend that they are presenting a balanced selection it’s very dishonest.

      Thanks for visiting

      Comment by northernheckler | December 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by turgaymegrel: The Moderation Game – Yesterday morning I was dismayed to be waking to the news that Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen,… http://su.pr/1doIZO

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments | December 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. 150 years, well a German spy was shot at the tower for spying. You can still be executed in this country but of course only if you attack the Royals or the government.

    But this mans mental health has everything to do with it, other country laws has to be taken into account, was this person sane enough to know what he was doing.

    But for god sake China will kill you for a lot less then being a drug mule

    Comment by Robert | December 30, 2009 | Reply


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