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Public editor: What to do when online comments get out of hand

Recently I wrote about the heated, lively, but generally respectful tone of comments on a few key stories. Then there are the issues that generate anger, disrespect and at times hate speech.

It seems stories that have racial or religious aspects attract the worst of the trolls. I won't repeat any of them here, but some of the comments that moderators have removed from The Globe's website on the Middle East conflict stories are downright racist. In my view, even some of the ones that weren't removed are unacceptable.

There is always an argument for free speech, and in a democracy a full, and yes, heated debate on matters of policy is a good thing. The Globe and Mail's commenting policy is clearly stated in an Editor's Note at the top of the comments board on each article. It says: "Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed." If you as a reader are offended by a comment you can report abuse to a moderator.

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You can explain why the comment is offensive or you can note that it is obscene or vulgar, hate speech, a personal attack, advertising or spam or a copyright issue. Despite the clear policy, stories on topics such as the Middle East attract the vitriolic. While the comments are clearly the views of the commenters and not The Globe and Mail, there are many actions the organization can take when the comments get out of hand.

It seems clear to me that this is a topic that requires The Globe to step in and control the hate speech.

Starting later today and continuing for the next while, The Globe is making some changes to the comment policy on stories dealing with the Gaza crisis. At the end of each article on the topic, readers will have a chance to enter comments, which will be reviewed by a moderator before being published. If the comments meet our guidelines, they will be published.

Stephen Northfield, Deputy Managing Editor, Digital, had this to say on the issue: "Balancing the worthy goal of providing an open forum for discussion with the need to prevent our site from attracting abusive comments is always tricky, never more so on a story like this that so bitterly divides people. We're examining ways to strike a better balance in our approach."

If you want to send me an email on this or any other subject, please do so at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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