Standards Officer Rosemary Douce on concerns about user-generated comments during the current Coronavirus pandemic
The Coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the importance of accurate, trusted news content. Many news outlets have highlighted examples of disinformation shared on social media and messaging services like WhatsApp. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-Committee on Online Harms and Disinformation is particularly concerned about the spread of conspiracy theories around 5G technology and Coronavirus and is appealing for examples of disinformation on social media for an inquiry into disinformation on COVID-19.
Concerns have been raised that comment sections beneath articles in online versions of newspapers – which some claim have included such conspiracy theories and other types of disinformation – are not regulated.
IPSO does regulate user-generated comments under these news articles; as long as these comments have been moderated by the publication and your concerns relate to an issue covered by the Editors' Code. This can include comments under articles on a publication’s social media page where they have shared the article.
While most publications do not pre-moderate comments, those which have been brought to a publication's attention and remain online are considered to have gone through a process of editorial control and are within IPSO’s remit. IPSO can then consider complaints about user-generated material after they have been reviewed or moderated by the publication and where a specific breach of the Editors' Code has been alleged.
Recent complaints to IPSO about user-generated comments have related to articles involving the reporting of sexual offences where members of the public have named victims. Victims of sexual offences are entitled to life-long anonymity, even if the perpetrator of their offence is acquitted or found not guilty. Naming of victims in comments is illegal and potentially breaches Clause 11 (victims of sexual assault).
In a recent example, a publication showed good editorial standards by moving quickly to remove comments from their Facebook page which named a woman. They also put a warning on their page informing readers that the victim was entitled to lifelong anonymity, despite the not guilty verdict, and that anyone naming her could be liable for prosecution.
We have not yet seen a rise in complaints involving 'below the line' comments during this pandemic. However, if you have seen something which concerns you and which you believe falls under the Editors’ Code, you can complain to IPSO.