Online debate healthy when we play by the rules
Published 08/04/2013 | 09:00
The number of comments posted underneath stories and articles on our website is a great indication of how popular this method of engagement with, and by, readers has become.
Hundreds of comments are posted on www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk every week.
It's fantastic to see a two-way process where readers of the Telegraph hold us – and each other – to account on an almost minute-by-minute basis.
All this assertiveness comes at a price of course.
It is an unfortunate truth about human nature that whilst the internet can bring forward the best in human nature, it sometimes brings out the worst as well.
Well-meaning commentators can find themselves subject to derisory or supercilious remarks of a very personal nature by commentators cloaked in anonymity.
Play the ball not the man is the golden rule.
This allows contributors to tackle difficult issues and yet at the same time avoid the trap of personalising arguments.
Despite the pitfalls of anonymous commenting, it has its benefits, too.
Many people unused to the cut and thrust of public debate would not post comments in their own name because of the fear of being embarrassed or mocked.
They also have a genuine fear that not being an expert in a particular field means their opinion may not be as valued as it should.
They needn't – it is a well-established legal principle that one doesn't have to be an expert to be able to make a meaningful comment on an issue.
Indeed, sometimes outsiders can shine a fresh light on subjects.
The Belfast Telegraph does its best to ensure online comments are as fair as reasonably possible, and our set of House Rules is available online.
Suffice to say we have various software filters in place to sieve out foul and overly abusive language.
What we can't filter for is crassness, personal abuse or a range of other issues.
It's pretty much the same with blatant sectarianism, sexism, racism and other controversial viewpoints.
Whilst certain keywords can be added to the software, entire philosophies or attitudes can't.
A key part of the website's functionality is the 'Report' button on the Comment section.
This function is not there for readers to weed out comments they don't like – it is for those deemed in contravention of the House Rules.
The problem is that one person's vigorous debating point can be a cruel, wounding or even intimidating put-down to another.
This is not an exact science. Please feel free to use the Report button – but bear in mind that any Comment section must allow room for the cut and thrust of public debate.