The Guardian newspaper has announced a new policy for comments on their online publications worldwide (UK, US and Australia). If the article relates race, immigration and Islamophobia, the publications will not open its online comments section “unless the moderators knew they had the capacity to support the conversation and that they believed a positive debate was possible”.

The executive editor of the publication Mary Hamilton said: “We want to host conversations where there is a constructive debate, where our audience can help us broaden our journalism with their expertise, their knowledge, their considered thoughts and opinions, and where they can use our site as a platform to make connections with the world and with those around them.”

The Guardian is the latest publication to take a step to control the vitriol that often goes in the name of public discussion online. Other news sites, including Reuters, CNN and the Chicago Sun-Times, have abandoned comments altogether or heavily restricted them. Still others, such as the New York Times, pre-moderate every post.

We know from moderating our Facebook page, where the publications are coming from. Often, our briefings and posts against online racism and religious vilification become platforms for people to spread more vitriol and hate speech. (Recently, we shared a briefing on the unbelievable responses we received on Facebook to our post on Holocaust denial). Instead of reading and reviewing our argument, some users start posting hateful and offensive comments, which perpetuate the exactly the hate speech we are combating. Moderation of the Facebook discussion by our small paid staff and few volunteers can be taxing and, sometimes, overwhelming. We have, on occasions, postponed posting on certain subjects because we weren’t sure that we would be able to moderate our page. We also ban users who do not heed to warnings, are intent on sharing hate, are trolling, or are obviously linked to hate groups, and we make no apologies for it.

OHPI’s stand is clear. Yes, the government allows us freedom of expression. But that does not mean that all speech is constructive and adds to public good. In fact, hate speech can do the opposite. So it is up to each organisation to decide whether they want use their platform for public good or public harm. If they don’t, eventually the governments will have to step in, just as Germany has. We applaud the decision taken by The Guardian, and urge Facebook to also give Page admins the ability to choose when to open and close discussions on the page.

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