RICHARD STEPHEN AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3013

Council Meeting: MARCH 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Misleading
Social Media

Overview

[1] Richard Stephen complains about the decision by Radio New Zealand (RNZ) to publish two articles on Facebook and the content of the consequent comments made by members of the public. As their headlines suggest, both of the articles deal with the New Zealand distribution of vaccines against Covid-19: The race to immunise a nation: Preparing to vaccinate NZ against Covid-19 (19 January 2021) andCovid-19 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine: New Zealand government gives formal approval(10 February 2021).

[2] The complaint can be framed under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters. The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

[3] The content of the articles is not in dispute. Rather, Mr Stephen is unhappy aboutRNZ’s decision to publish them on Facebook, where articles are open to comment from readers. He believes the comments were not moderated properly. Mr Stephen has provided a number of the comments made on Facebook in relation to each article. In essence, these range from a general support for vaccines, to concerns about the speed of the development of the Covid-19 vaccines, to calls for ‘all the information’ to be provided and accusations of world-wide conspiracy.

[4] The complainant suggests that, while he is cognisant of freedom of speech this is not absolute and these comments are full of anti-vaccination misinformation and falsehoods. They are likely perpetrated by bad actors with the aim of manipulating and frightening people. RNZ’s neglect of the comments section in relation to these articles has the effect of allowing misinformation to spread freely. Overall, he suggests thatRNZ has breached a duty of care to ensure that misinformation that harms people is combated.

The Response

[5] RNZ begins its response by querying whether the Media Council Principles apply to comments lodged on a Facebook page. It also notes that Facebook is technically the publisher of the comments on its webpage and it has joint responsibility withRNZ. We address this point below. RNZ notes that publishing material on Facebook puts it in something of a dilemma.RNZ has to “balance the requirements under our charter to share information of extreme public importance and interest, in this case with respect to the pandemic, with what can be a deluge of coordinated comments posted by a host of different interest groups.” Making this more difficult are the “notoriously useless” moderation tools provided by Facebook.RNZ did not have the option of disabling the placing of comments on these stories.

[6] RNZ notes that the comments page in relation to the first article was moderated and that it is not sufficient that someone disagrees with the concept of a vaccination or being vaccinated forRNZ to remove such comments. RNZ has a social media policy (published on Facebook) and it reserves the right not to post comments for a number of reasons.RNZ also filters comments before publication against a number of check words. This enables some vetting of comments before they appear online. It also has a team that can delete some comments that are not caught through the vetting process post-publication and this happens as soon as is reasonably possible. [Therefore we take the view thatRNZ can control to some extent the content of comments on Facebook]

[7] RNZ did moderate the comments on the first article and is confident that it removed any that were in breach of its policy. Given the general nature of the complaint it is hard for it to comment on this further.

Complainant Final Response

[8] Mr Stephen’s final comment addressed the jurisdiction point and notes that ifRNZ publishes an article on Facebook, it will know that many comments will result. Those comments will only exist because of the publication of the article. GivenRNZ has a social media policy and will remove comments in light of it, this suggests that it accepts it has responsibility over comments. He also suggests it is difficult to reconcileRNZ’s comments that Facebook provides ‘notoriously useless’ moderation tools with its suggestion that users unhappy with the comments should complain to Facebook. He also disagrees withRNZ’s suggestion that it monitors Facebook comments adequately, again noting that many of the comments made in relation to both articles post straight falsehoods. While he concedes theRNZ’s social media policy looks generally fair and sensible, he notes that it does not address harmful misinformation, disinformation or “fake news”, nor does it discourage users from knowingly or recklessly spreading such content.

The Decision

[9] The Media Council’s Statement of Principles identifies its scope as extending to the online content of, among others,RNZ. We consider that where publication online provides a vehicle for user generated comments, those comments are the responsibility of the media outlet that invited them. As noted by the complainant, this is implicitly accepted byRNZ in light of its social media policy and the fact it filters comments before publication and reserves the right to further moderate comments post-publication. This can include removing them. Therefore, the Media Council takes the view thatRNZ can control, to some extent at least, the presence of particular comments on its Facebook page, even though it cannot remove the ability to comment altogether. The Media Council acknowledges that platforms such as Facebook also have a role in the ongoing discussion about online moderation. However, this in no way absolves RNZ of its responsibilities under the Council’s principles. Both the decision to post an article to Facebook and the content of any resulting commentary can be reviewed in light of Media Council principles.

Posting the articles to Facebook

[10] The Media Council’s view is that posting these articles to Facebook was within the editorial discretion ofRNZ. The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is clearly a matter of great public interest, as is the roll out of vaccinations in response to it.RNZ could have refrained from posting these articles to Facebook in light of the type of comments they were likely to prompt. However, the importance ofRNZ reaching as wide an audience as possible in the circumstances of this pandemic is clear. The Council accepts that posting articles to Facebook has a role to play in this dissemination.

The comments themselves

[11] With regard to comments regarding the safety (or otherwise) of the Covid-19 vaccines, the Media Council notes that as with other public debates, such as the fluoridation of water or climate change, the efficacy or risks associated with vaccines is one in which strong opinions and views are held by both sides, each of which can point to matters supporting their case. The Media Council has consistently said that it is in no position to rule on disputed matters of scientific fact.

[12] More difficult, however, are some of the other extreme opinions reflected in the comments. In light ofRNZ’s stated ability to post-moderate comments the Media Council expresses surprise that some of these extreme comments have not been removed. As stated in one version ofRNZ’s comments policy “We will remove anything that is obviously ‘fake news’”. In the Media Council’s view, at least some of the comments are likely to be captured by this aspect of the policy and ought to have been removed.

[13] Nonetheless, while the Media Council considers that the approach taken byRNZ in this instance does not reflect best practice, it does not uphold the complaint. The Council acknowledges the difficulties faced by publishers, such asRNZ, who are required to make difficult decisions in a constantly evolving and incredibly dynamic environment. While poor resourcing would not excuse a publisher from failing to maintain its publication in accordance with the highest professional standards, the Council notes the daunting scale of the task of moderating comments, particularly in circumstances where comments can be made long after the media cycle has moved on. These issues are new and finding the right balance will be difficult. Public debate often elicits extreme responses. The Media Council is conscious that it lacks a full understanding of the practical options open toRNZ.

[14] Many, although it is accepted, not all, readers will bring their own knowledge to what they read and be able to recognise the extreme nature of some comments. While there is a risk that extreme comments will mislead or frighten some readers this must be balanced against the positives that accompany the increased ability for the public to comment on, and engage with, matters of extreme public importance. At this stage of the evolution of these new types of public engagement, the Media Council would prefer to work alongside publishers to develop principles rather than rush in and pronounce on the curation of comments in such a difficult environment, which is still not fully understood. There is a need to balance freedom of expression and the benefits of public engagement, against the risks associated with some of the extreme opinions that are evident in these comments. Achieving a principled but practical balance should be seen as a work in progress.

The complaint is not upheld

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

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