Column: Online harassment tough to prevent

One of first the steps in my  routine each morning — once I’ve secured a hot cup of coffee — is to check in on the comment sections of our website and Facebook page.

I snoop around a bit to see which stories and videos seem to be resonating with readers and then head over to the moderator page, where the latest batch of comments is laid out in order of their arrival.

We do this several times each day, to ensure that everyone is playing nice or, if not nice, at the very least not behaving horribly and/or creating potential legal problems.

For the most part, we’ve been pretty fortunate in that the people who frequent our site and regularly comment are reasonably civil and stick to the topic at hand.

It’s great to see a lively exchange of ideas and opinions about our stories. We’re even happier when it’s clear that the people commenting have, in fact, bothered to read the whole story before weighing in.

Occasionally, however, things do get a bit personal and the discussion takes a sharp turn from productive discourse to a litany of insults or accusations. Sometimes, it happens so fast, it’s impossible to figure out how or why things went wrong.

That’s what the ‘hide comment’ button is for. And, when things get really out of control, there’s the  ‘block user’ option.

As a final resort, we can close the story to comments.

Often it comes down to a judgment call. Other times, it’s  immediately clear that things have gone way off the rails.

So it didn’t come as a huge surprise to read that a poll conducted by Angus Reid Institute and released last month, shows that one in four Canadians say they have been harassed on social media. Offences range from “unwelcome comments, to vicious insults to threats of violence or worse,” according to those surveyed.

Of course, the nastiness is at its worst on topics that are in any way political.

“The growth of social media over the last decade or so has revolutionized the way people build relationships, but it has also revolutionized the way they tear each other down,” the institute writes in its (cleverly titled) release, “Trolls and Tribulations.”

Things most people wouldn’t dream of saying to another person’s face have become commonplace online.

Some sites are obviously much worse than others — no need to name names.

But what’s really sad is that we’ve sunk to a place where the only practical solution — unless you happen to have bullet-proof skin — is to simply stay out of public comments sections.

An extreme example came to our attention recently, when a Langley man came by to tell us about his experience.

He’d been publicly accused of a heinous crime — really, one of the worst things that can be said about an adult man. It’s a charge he strenuously denies and for which we can find no basis in fact.

Likely, the fact he’d been on the site, tagging and reporting posts he deemed offensive, had made him a target.

He complained and, to the site’s credit, the comment was removed.

However a simple Google search of his name was still bringing up traces of the post, he said.

When asked, point blank, why he would want to take his story public, when the only certainty was that it would draw further attention to the smear on his character, his response was direct: “Because it’s not right.”

That’s true; it isn’t right.

If only that were reason enough for some people to treat others with even a modicum of respect online.

But if experience has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not going to get better, only worse.

According to the same survey, most Canadians are not satisfied with the manner in  which social media companies deal with offensive content.

That’s a tough one. There really is no way to predict what readers are going to say or do, so the only way the handle the situation is reactively.

Simply asking people to behave in a respectful manner clearly isn’t sufficient. That means valuable resources must be dedicated to monitoring the conversation on a day-to-day basis.

It’s why the block user option exists.

And it’s why we will continue to check back several times each day, one hand clutching a cup of coffee, the other poised over the mute button.

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