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standards editor

In the first week of November, subscribers responded to articles they read on The Globe website by submitting nearly 26,000 comments, or about 40 per cent more than in a typical week. The surge isn’t surprising in light of the terrible conflict in the Middle East; with a war so personal to so many, people have wanted to share their anger and hurt. Some have wanted to point out shortcomings they’ve perceived in The Globe’s coverage. Some have wanted to disagree with other commenters on the record.

By the third week of November, the submissions had levelled out, but remained on pace to top 106,000 for the month – beating the next-busiest commenting month of 2023 (March, with 91,000 comments) by more than 16 per cent.

This increase in the volume and the very sensitive nature of the comments have presented additional challenges for moderators: Not only are they monitoring a significantly larger number of incoming comments, they are also addressing more violations of community guidelines. Readers have e-mailed me to report offensive comments that slipped through the moderation process, while some angrily demanded to know what they had done to merit a suspension from commenting.

So now, although I wrote about comment moderation just two months ago (in a column that, itself, generated 650 comments), there is more to say on the subject.

To address the current increase in commenting volume, and to improve moderators’ ability to watch for and remove offensive posts, as of Nov. 24, commenting on all articles is limited to an 18-hour window. After this window has closed, published comments will continue to be accessible and readable, however no additional comments can be added to that article. Moderators began implementing commenting windows on coverage of the Israel-Hamas war late Nov. 17.

Commenters who have a change of heart (or who spot a typo) after clicking the “Submit” button will continue to have 30 minutes to edit their submission.

As I mentioned in my last column on this subject, The New York Times already time-limits commenting (with a 24-hour window), and allows commenting on select articles only. In contrast, The Globe will continue to allow commenting on most articles as a way of fostering engagement and civil debate. At this time, there are no plans to expand our policy on closing comments, which may be invoked for legal reasons – for example, when a publication ban has been ordered, to ensure protected information is not inadvertently revealed in user comments. We will also close comments when a large number of user posts are offensive, vulgar, libellous or otherwise contravene The Globe’s community guidelines.

In response to my earlier column, some readers posted that they believe the comments section is worthwhile. “Often the comments are an additional reason to read a news story,” said a subscriber with the user name GMO4. “Many of the comments add value to the story. Sure, there are stupid comments or very partisan comments but in general many are thoughtful.”

User JOHNDGREGORY, who opened with a critical observation about the majority of comments – “They are pretty tiresome, with the occasional good points being lost in the dross” – had a positive take on Report on Business commenters, characterizing them as “far more likely to be perceptive and helpful. … I would certainly never allow myself to be persuaded into some investment by the enthusiasm of an ROB columnist before checking the comments to get very informed and subtle perspectives from some successful investors.”

Readers have asked recently how much of the moderation process is automated, so I’ll address that here as well.

It starts with a list of problematic or “banned” words, which is curated and maintained by moderators. Once submitted, every comment is filtered for those words, and their absence or presence guides the commenting platform’s algorithm to publish that submission; publish it with a flag for review; or send it for review without publishing. Only a human moderator has the ability to reject a comment; the algorithm cannot. For privacy reasons, moderators have no access to users’ information, other than their chosen user names.

If Globe editors suspect an article will attract a large number of problematic comments, they can request that it be set to “premoderation” mode, meaning every comment submitted must be reviewed by a human prior to publication.

In both scenarios, your comment may not appear on the site until several minutes after you clicked the “submit” button.

Comments have a 1,200-character limit, not counting spaces, which roughly translates to between 200 and 400 words. That makes the comments a decent forum for getting complex ideas across. Letters to the Editor (another department I receive emails about), in comparison, are strictly limited to 150 words or fewer, so best suited to conveying a single, tightly-focused point.

Unlike the comments section, which offers space for multiple posts that make the same point, the Letters section has a finite amount of space, especially on weekdays. (On Sunday, additional letters are published online only.) So the letters editor seeks to present a mix of reader viewpoints each day, and will curate each day’s letters submissions accordingly.

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