“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is perhaps the most famous endorsement of freedom of speech (broadly misattributed to Voltaire, but fact-checking is a topic for another column) – and one of the prevailing reasons why The Globe offers readers the ability to comment on most articles.
While this principle may sound basic, it’s hardly simple. Freedom of speech is not the same as a free-for-all, and maintaining balance within the comments section can be complicated. The Globe’s community guidelines attempt to provide a framework that allows for differences of opinion, and even heated dissent.
However, it is by no means a perfect framework, and feedback about both the guidelines and the way they are executed arrives almost daily in the standards editor inbox.
At one end of the spectrum, some Globe readers believe comments should be even more tightly moderated, and at the other are those who insist commenters should be able to post whatever they like, and rules or limitations are threats to free speech.
The Globe’s community guidelines exist somewhere in the middle, listing eight reasons why a comment might be removed, including vulgar, racist or sexist remarks; personal attacks, including name-calling directed at Globe staff or other commenters; and libel.
“Many news organizations have had comments sections for as long as they’ve been online. For just as long, many have agonized over the value of the conversations that rage in the space below a story,” Justin Ellis wrote in a 2015 article for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism’s digital Nieman Lab platform. “There’s plenty of debate over the issue, as newsrooms struggle with moderation, the value of anonymity among commenters, and, in some cases, the legal issues that arise from what’s said in the comments.”
That 2015 article, headlined “What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments,” became “one of Nieman Lab’s most-read stories ever.” At the time, several online news publishers, including Reuters, whose wire articles appear regularly in The Globe, as well as the Chicago Sun-Times and The Week, believed that social-media sites such as Twitter (now X) were better suited as venues for community discussions about the news of the day.
In a follow-up to that piece in 2022, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen commented, “just as Twitter isn’t really a substitute for a public editor, social media has proven to be pretty much the opposite of a cure-all for toxic comment sections.”
A Globe community member recently suggested that limiting “prolific” commenters to three posts per story might help to keep the conversation on topic and under control.
“In my opinion, unmoderated comment forums drive away thoughtful, well considered writers,” he wrote, noting that other news sites choose when to open comments. These include CBC.ca, which states: “CBC editorial staff select when and where our audience members can engage in conversation on all our community spaces. Online, we consider many things before deciding whether to open comments or not.”
Similarly, The New York Times allows commenting on “select articles” only, but takes the added step of closing comments in all cases after 24 hours so the moderators’ attention isn’t spread too thin. “This ensures we are able to host a civil comments section on a wide range of articles,” the site states.
The Globe takes the opposite approach, allowing comments on most articles and closing them only when keeping up with the volume of posts that contravene our community guidelines becomes too much for moderators to handle or, very occasionally, as a pre-emptive measure for stories whose subject matter has an established history of attracting comments that contravene our guidelines.
I hear from readers whose comments have been removed, or who have been suspended or banned for contravening the rules. Quite often, and understandably, they’re angry. Sometimes they’re baffled. If a reader believes the penalty was unwarranted, I investigate with the team from ICUC, the community management and moderation company contracted to oversee comments on The Globe website. (ICUC moderates the Boston Globe’s online comments as well.)
This week, a woman was shocked to have had comments removed after four years as a subscriber with a squeaky-clean record. It turned out that a typo in the word “shirt” had tripped a filter for inappropriate language.
Her comment was reinstated.