Making a virtue of moderation

Rob Marcus is paid to keep online chatrooms free from libel and bullying. He tells Ian Burrell the secrets of the job

Rob Marcus is no musclebound, bowtie-wearing lump, but, strange as it may seem, this new media entrepreneur likes his customers to think of him as a bouncer.

He earns a living by overseeing the chatrooms on websites for a clientele that ranges from Heat magazine to Liverpool Football Club and the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. “The analogy I use with clients, to take them into the real world, is that we are a bit like bouncers, and if we see somebody causing trouble we will eject them, though it’s not our job to prosecute them or to see them banged up,” he says.

Marcus is director of Chat Moderators, one of the leading proponents in the field of monitoring the comments made in the forums of busy websites, attempting to protect his clients from being sued for defamation. The company recently stepped in to remove libellous postings from the celebrity magazine’s site heatworld.com after users had made separate unsubstantiated comments regarding the footballer Ronaldo and the actress Scarlett Johansson.

He first had the idea for the company after being hired as a consultant to a children’s website and finding that no moderation service appeared to exist in the market.

“There’s no way of knowing when someone logs in if they’re a kid or not and whether what they are saying is appropriate. Kids do bully each other, swear if they’re allowed to, and say inappropriate things. You need someone there to check the stuff,” he says.

From there Marcus began working with the then social networking trailblazer Friends Reunited, and with the Cabinet Office, which operated a particularly volatile site. “Politics is hugely polarising. It’s not like having a discussion about azalias, although you’d be surprised how argumentative even a weather board can be. With politics you get people with entrenched opinions and the potential for personal abuse, race relations issues and defamation is rife.”

The Friends Reunited site, meanwhile, ran into problems with the teaching unions as users reminisced over their schooldays. “You had people publishing things like ‘Do you remember when the PE teacher used to whack us on the arse with a cricket bat?’ The site quickly found the teachers’ unions jumping down their throats saying ‘We’re going to sue you.’”

Marcus now employs a staff of between 40 and 80 moderators, working for clients that include Bauer Media, GMTV, Panasonic, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Health and Transport for London. Chat moderators spent a lively 12 weeks overseeing the discussion boards for the talent show Pop Idol and recently took a contract with Sony that required Marcus to recruit teams of Finnish, Dutch, Swedish and Italian moderators, something he could only achieve in London, he believes.

But in the financial downturn, many discussion boards are being left ungoverned, says Marcus. “It’s because of the economics. There’s no software that can do this job; people can insult each other without swearing or use swear words when nobody is being abused. So this is a people job and people are not cheap. We pay people a proper wage for their time, and if you’ve got a very busy site with lots of content and want to check it all, it can be an expensive business. Some companies have said, well, let’s just not moderate.”

As you’d expect from someone with a vested interest, Marcus argues that this is a false economy, not just because of the risk of being taken to court but because an unmoderated site can degenerate into a poisonous environment, which drives away traffic from a site. Marcus recalls discussions with the team behind the ill-fated sports newspaper and website The Sportsman after its chatroom became dominated by bullying users. “We argued that they didn’t need these discussions but they disagreed and the result was that a clique of 20 or 30 idiots, who were rude and cliquey, ruined the discussion forum for thousands.”

A chat forum, says Marcus, is like a party, and the owner of the site is obliged to be present. “If you had a party at home, would you not be there? The first people that arrive at a party would expect to be greeted and shown where the drinks are, have someone take their coat and introduce them to people.”

And to have someone chuck the troublemakers out. “They might go to another online discussion or social networking medium, but that’s not our problem,” says Marcus, returning to doorman mode. “We are hired by a client to look after their activity.”

Such a policy is essential, he says, if visitors are to make multiple visits to a site. “Why should anyone come back to a site again and again? If you want repeat traffic then social media functionality can be very attractive to people as long as they end up spending time with people who aren’t abusing them or trashing your brand.”

It’s that fear of the brand being criticised that stops many media owners from hosting discussion boards at all. “The biggest barrier is that people are scared of what happens when people say nasty things about them. I say we can manage that. If they’ve got legitimate complaints or if they make unreasoned rants we will deal with those in different ways. I tell the client it is your environment and if the users don’t like the rules they can go somewhere else.”

He encourages clients such as Sony to take part in online discussions wherever possible, particularly when there is conflicting advice about company products in a discussion thread.

His own moderators must be “meticulous”, he says. “We need people with good judgement, an eye for detail and capable of following specific instructions. It’s not the kind of job where you just sit down and read some stuff for a few hours.”

Although the Defamation Act makes no distinction between libels in print and online, Marcus says judges are taking the view that site owners cannot prevent illegal postings but should act to remove them at the earliest opportunity, especially if a libel has been brought to their notice.

If a libel still slips through, Marcus’s company will take responsibility for his clients’ sites. “They don’t hire us and then have to carry the can themselves,” he says, though he has taken out professional indemnity insurance to protect his own firm from being destroyed in the courts. “I’ve never made a claim and we are in our ninth year,” he adds.

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