Fostering free speech online…
Have you ever had your comments to an article intentionally deleted by an author on Medium?
Have you ever been blocked from an author’s published content because your comments were perceived as uncivil, critical or unflattering?
Perhaps you were unaware that writers on Medium can self-censor reader comments and block users indiscriminately, without any editorial oversight— regardless of whether such adverse action is justified or not.
Medium even notes that, “Blocking is a useful tool for hiding unwanted content.” I believe this equates to the definition of censorship in the digital and social media space:
- “The suppression or prohibition of unwanted content.”
Blocking content from Medium readers — including users who pay monthly membership fees — is an unfair and biased approach to fostering feedback and enhancing engagement. Do you agree with this assessment?
As a longtime writer and blogger, I’ll be the first to admit it takes guts to publish online and expose yourself to criticism. This is true even when you’re not writing on controversial topics. But it’s especially true when you’re addressing contentious issues head on.
Yet online censorship is the antithesis of promoting a free and open debate. Censorship suffocates diverse views and favors a one-sided narrative that can stray from reality.
There are a confluence of reasons why smart and savvy writers welcome critical comments from readers, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Boosting user engagement and digital/social ROI,
- Attracting new followers and readers,
- Expanding the scope of a topic beyond your current comprehension — or lack thereof — with new information,
- Amplifying the intellectual reasons which motivate readers to take a strong stand on an issue, and
- Allowing writers to gain a greater sense of a reader’s moral convictions and life experiences which form the foundation of their belief system.
Welcoming critical comments provides writers with new insights and fresh perspectives on any given issue or topic area.
There’s inherent value for writers to gain by analyzing and understanding why reader comments are pro or con, legitimate or irrational, and civilized or demonizing.
This helps you grow as a writer by better relating to your audience and, hopefully, establish lasting relationships with readers. Constructive comments also help buttress a mutually beneficial online dialogue.
But some writers take the opposite approach. They trample on transparency by self-censoring reader feedback for frivolous reasons.
Online censorship is dangerous on multiple levels, from moral grounds to editorial decision making. Writers should never be allowed to unilaterally suppress free speech by deleting reader comments with which they disagree.
Medium Should Moderate
Medium says “words matter.” But what about words from readers which an author may haphazardly delete from the comment section?
That’s why Medium management should consider revising the current policy of granting unchecked autonomy to authors regarding deleting comments and blocking users.
Medium should strictly prohibit censorship platform-wide.
Moreover, Medium should serve as a moderator for writers and readers alike regarding comments which an author wants to delete from public view.
Ideally, editors should decide whether to delete comments and allow writers to block readers. And if editors are too busy, then Medium should consider hiring an ombudsman (or woman) to make these important editorial calls.
Censoring opposing viewpoints only reinforces confirmation bias and causes readers to march in lockstep with the prevailing conventional wisdom — as editorial strings are pulled from behind the media curtain.
There are always two sides to every story (usually more). Just ask LinkedIn, which takes a commendable approach in addressing reader comments.
On LinkedIn, writers can’t automatically delete random reader comments. Rather, they must appeal to LinkedIn for a decision via a user-friendly drop down menu on each comment (three small dots on upper right of comment).
LinkedIn has standardized a user-friendly reporting procedure to address complaints by writers who want to delete reader comments.
It’s unorthodox in digital journalism and social media to give users or writers blanket editorial discretion to self-censor comments by readers, especially for trivial reasons.
Any social media manager knows the importance of enhancing user engagement and expanding an online conversation to attract more readers, rather than restricting it.
But, like anything else, there are legitimate exceptions to the rules.
Online harassment, bullying and trolling are never acceptable.
As Medium points out in its own rules for users, such malicious online conduct can be based on race, color, sex, disability, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and other discriminatory factors.
But in other instances there might be a reasonable difference of opinion between writers and readers over what constitutes objectionable comments.
Just because writers dislike or disagree with select reader comments should never be grounds for censorship.
Too many writers are easily offended by reader feedback.
Remember this about writing:
- Professional writers don’t wither like fragile flowers during a storm. They more aptly resemble palm trees which bend and sway, but don’t break, in strong winds.
Real writers rise to the occasion by responding to dissenting views and addressing reader criticism in one (or more) of the following ways:
- Politely thanking the reader for taking the time to reply,
- Rebutting the opposing argument with facts, and/or
- Simply ignoring the reader’s comments altogether.
If a writer can’t faithfully adhere to any of these three options (or something similarly civil), then they probably should not be writing online.
Writers with fragile egos should likely refrain from publishing online if they can’t handle being criticized or subjected to rigorous review by readers.
Arnie McKinnis, a colleague and VIP in my social network, makes the following observations:
- “There are plenty of people who want to shape the narrative — and anything that doesn’t go in that direction is deleted.”
- “I personally believe that my thoughts are my own. And if I’m willing to put them out there, then I have to allow an opposite viewpoint to also be put out there.”
- “Commenting can take on a life of its own and there are lots of people that don’t like the loss of control.”
What’s really spineless is when writers block readers without justification because they just can’t take the heat. This is detrimental to editorial freedom and fairness online.
Whether writers like to admit it or not, harsh and/or inappropriate reader comments go with the territory. This is more pronounced in today’s fluid mobile, digital and virtual Information Age with a polarizing 24/7 news cycle.
Critical comments by readers are part of writing online or anywhere. But there’s an unspoken rule of writers’ etiquette to take the good feedback with the bad — and respond accordingly.
There’s also a fine line separating constructive criticism from the likes of online harassment, bullying and trolling. Writers should not intentionally blur these lines by mistakenly equating one category with the other.
Real writers don’t hide behind their content by deleting and/or blocking readers with whom they disagree. This is unprofessional conduct.
If anything, writers should express humility and gratitude to readers for taking the time to engage with their content, particularly in today’s frenetic era of information overload and dwindling attention spans.
Writers should not cower to criticism by lashing out at readers. Writers should not lower their professional standards by self-censoring reader comments and blocking access to their content.
Real writers stay above the fray.
Are YOU a real writer?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer, ghostwriter and former federal government spokesman. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.