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Online, Churls Gone Vile

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

One of the unique qualities of Internet discourse is its freewheeling, no-holds-barred nature, where passionate arguments are often accompanied by some choice expletives and a virtual finger in the eye.

But what happens when the talk turns ugly, racist and violent?

In recent weeks, some of those who post comments on the conservative blog Little Green Footballs have said they wished that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had succeeded in what the Gitmo prisoner says was a plot to kill Jimmy Carter. And some who posted comments on the liberal Huffington Post have expressed regret that the suicide bomber at a military base in Afghanistan failed to take out the visiting Dick Cheney.

No corner of the Net is safe from this bile. The Washington Post's Web site has been grappling with a surge in offensive and incendiary comments.

The really gruesome stuff represents a tiny minority of those online. But is there a way of policing the worst stuff without shutting down robust debate?

The comments about Cheney at the Huffington Post included: "You can't kill pure evil." "If at first you don't succeed . . . " "Dr. Evil escapes again . . . damn." Founder Arianna Huffington wrote that "no one at HuffPost is defending these comments -- they are unacceptable and were treated as such by being removed."

The comments about Mohammed and Carter at Little Green Footballs included: "Can we furlough him -- just so he can realize the Carter plot? Please?" and "Even this schmuck had some good ideas."

The site's founder, Charles Johnson, wrote on Little Green Footballs that such comments "reflect only the opinions of the individuals who posted them" and doubted that they "rise to the level of hatred that showed up in Arianna's readers' Cheney-related comments."

Some conservatives and liberals seized on the incidents to denounce the other side, but no conclusions should be drawn from wack jobs on the fringe.

Since last summer, washingtonpost.com has allowed registered users to post comments on any news story. A recent report about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who said the slow recovery of his city was part of a plan to change its racial makeup and leadership, led to a number of offensive or inflammatory remarks:

"Some Black politicians are [expletive] idiots." "IF a white MAN were to speak as you do, you'd look for a lynching party." One person described Nagin as a racist and a women's sanitary product.

Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady says he does not have the resources to screen the roughly 2,000 daily comments in advance. He has one staffer deleting offensive comments after the fact, and banning the authors from further feedback, based on complaints from readers. Brady plans to devote more staff to the process and to use new filtering technology.


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