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A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. (DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. (DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)

Craig and Marc Kielburger

Can we have thoughtful online debates without the trolls? Add to ...

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

“Yeah, well you’re a stupidhead!” is the timeless rhetorical tactic used against young playmates when an argument is lost. Most of us develop more sophisticated strategies by adulthood, but the Internet has given new life to slinging mud for a cause.

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Online discussion forums and comment threads have great potential to promote lively, informed debate on the critical issues of our time. But they are frequently overrun by derogatory attacks and hostile, off-topic rants that polarize readers and distract from thoughtful public discourse.

It’s more than just the “trolls” who are enlisted to disparage political or commercial competitors, or to pick apart climate studies and insult researchers online. The national conversation that needs to happen around reconciliation between First Nations and non-aboriginal Canadians has been drowned out online by abusive and racist comments on news articles about the Idle No More movement.

Popular Science recently removed the online comment section from its Web articles, citing concern that “boorish” comments undermine the science by spreading misinformation. Others have banned anonymous participation, and YouTube is reconfiguring to allow users to better moderate comments and bury trolls beneath other comments. Do such restrictions stifle the necessary debate or ensure that genuine contributors are not discouraged from participating? How can we take back our virtual town halls from angry saboteurs?

This week’s question: How can we, as writers and readers, encourage constructive online discussion engaging a diversity of opinions, while simultaneously discouraging uncivil comments?

THE EXPERTS:

Shaheen Shariff, professor of education and digital citizenship at McGill University in Montreal

“Fostering empathy is the biggest challenge of a digital age. Remember the human at the receiving end of impulsive insults before you tweet, post, text or e-mail your frustrations, sarcasm or jokes. Model this for your children. If we could get everyone to stop and think before they post we might begin the journey towards socially responsible digital citizenship.”

Walter Schwabe, chief evolution officer of fusedlogic inc. in Edmonton

“Intense monitoring of comment sections is warranted. If we could voice our differing opinions with respect, all would be fine. Unfortunately, human nature will rule the day, and I fear only extreme measures will yield any substantive change.”

Marie-Claire Shanahan, research chair in science education and public engagement at the University of Calgary

“Pay attention to the comment sections when deciding where to spend your time and subscription money. If there is a moderation policy and you can see the authors or editors interacting in the comments, you will usually find thoughtful conversations to be part of. You’ll also be supporting those working to build places for constructive public conversations.”

Audra Williams, strategist at Townhall Communcations in Toronto

“Online anonymity can be life-saving in some situations: a queer kid who doesn’t feel safe coming out to their parents, or someone who is looking for support in leaving an abusive partner. [Conversely], I’m sure most people have seen a conversation on Facebook (where most people use their real name), turn heartbreakingly vicious.”

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