On Oct. 24, 2020, a thoughtful reader praised The Globe and Mail’s investigation into systemic racism in Canada’s prisons. It was an impressive two-year analysis by Tom Cardoso using Correctional Service of Canada data showing that Black and Indigenous inmates serve more time under harsher conditions than others.
But the reader, who is a regular commenter on The Globe’s web site, was concerned about some racist and bigoted comments on this and other articles on Indigenous people.
Another recent article by Thunder Bay reporter Willow Fiddler was about the plight of the Neskantaga First Nation, which has had a boil water advisory for more than 25 years and had to be evacuated after an oily sheen was found in its reservoirs.
You might expect more empathy for those trying to deal with the lack of drinkable tap water for children, and yet several commenters complained about the cost of trying to improve the water supply for this remote community. That prompted the same reader to say: “Guaranteed that not one of the nitwits talking about wells and septic systems bothered to look at a map to see where Neskantaga First Nation is located, 500 km north of Thunder Bay and accessible only by air or winter road, or its subarctic climate with a mean annual air temperature of -1 °C.”
And on a recent piece about the Mi’kmaq fishers, one reader wrote in to ask The Globe to reconsider its commenting policy. “Having read and occasionally participated in conversations in the comments, it seems clear that these debates quickly devolve into name-calling and racist vitriol. It’s not helping anyone to offer this platform.”
You wonder if the angry posters read either the main article or the explainer, which showed this was the 21st anniversary of the Marshall decision, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the Mi’kmaq right to fish for a living outside the federally regulated season for a moderate livelihood.
Sympathy and empathy are often lacking in the world of comments and social media. While I have no evidence or data to back this up, it feels as if division, anger, racism and name-calling, especially south of the border, have emboldened anonymous trolls in the past few years.
At The Globe, comments are open to subscribers only and they can be a positive addition to the discussion. Some of the best comment discussions get republished as Globe stories. Readers can disagree and debate, but are expected to do so in a civil manner that doesn’t bully or name call, or worse.
The Globe uses an outside firm, ICUC, to moderate comments based on the paper’s guidelines. It starts with a proprietary Globe and Mail algorithm to initiate a first pass at the huge volume of comments that are posted every day on globeandmail.com. They are either accepted or rejected or further flagged. Rejected and flagged posts are given human consideration by ICUC. Some users will be banned.
If a conversation goes south, that story may be closed to all comments. But even all these controls aren’t always enough. While most who comment are respectful, a small number of trolls can cause damage. And with the ability to have multiple and changing IP addresses, it can be difficult to stop them.
Comments get pretty nasty in articles about politics and sports, too, but it seems to me that increased moderation and more closing of comments should be focused on Indigenous, racial and gender issues.
The Globe is constantly looking at ways to improve the guidelines and use AI to screen out the bad while allowing an open debate. Given the wide range of views in the Opinion section, the comments should also be open to a wide range of views, even on sensitive issues.
But a line is crossed when comments become bullying or racist. If you have thoughts to share on how we can improve our comment process, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share them with those studying this issue.
It’s important that a few active and angry trolls do not affect or deter Globe journalism, which will continue to focus a light on important issues. I leave you with the thoughts of another subscriber, who thanked The Globe editors for a number of recent stories. “The jail one really shows me why I subscribe – to support an organization that does the job of holding all of our institutions to account… . And all the articles on Thunder Bay – that was an excellent decision. So many things to be thankful for.”