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When Trump Is Too Profane for Slate’s Comments

How do you keep internet commenting appropriate when the president isn’t?

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on prison reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 11, 2018.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on prison reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Thursday.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It was bad enough when tapes of then-candidate Donald Trump bragging that he had grabbed women “by the pussy” without consent were released during the 2016 presidential campaign. At the time, Slate had banned the word pussy in our comments because of its occasional use either as an insult or in graphic sexual language. But when a major party candidate for president used it to describe his own assaultive behavior toward women, we decided that pussy was essential for commenters to use in conversation of current events and removed it from our profanity filter.

This time, it’s not nearly as simple. In a meeting with lawmakers this week, our racist boor of a president reportedly called El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa “shithole countries,” and in addition to being a disgrace to our nation and to basic human decency, these remarks have wreaked havoc with Slate’s comment moderation.

First and foremost, there’s an issue of sheer volume. We usually have a relatively easy time keeping up with the comments flagged into our review system for profanity or other unwanted content like spam, slurs, or insults. The majority of our commenters understand our policies and work with us, allowing moderators to focus on a relatively small number of spammers and trolls, as well as uninitiated newcomers. But when the president’s use of racially charged profanity makes headlines, we are faced with roughly three times the volume of potentially objectionable content to read through as users understandably seek to comment on the news by quoting it.

This leads to a second, closely related problem for comment moderators. Users should plausibly be allowed to quote the president, but at what point does commenting on the president’s statements become unacceptable, gratuitous uses of profanity? The word shit and variations thereof have long been filtered in our system, and we’re hesitant to remove a word that is pretty universally considered profane. In response, our commenters have resorted to using variations like “$hit,” which in normal circumstances would also be removed by our mods.

In this case, we’ve decided to allow those variations and even approve some uses of shithole itself. But where exactly do we draw the lines? Is a comment like “The $hithole Affair… Great name for a scandal. Sure beats $hitgate,” in bounds or out of bounds? How about “Why do Republicans always come from $hitholes?” or “All this talk of $hitholes keeps reminding me of Vonnegut’s famous drawing”?

What if a commenter agrees with and echoes Trump’s own sentiments? Usually, smearing all African countries as shitholes would be a clear violation of our rules on both profanity and attacks on groups of people. But if the president of the United States has endorsed that opinion, is it now allowable? Are comments we allow permissible today—while Trump’s remarks are fresh in the news—but not next week, once they fade from the headlines?

What we’ve come up with here at Slate is, inevitably, a bit ad hoc. I allowed “$hitgate” as harmless language play related to the topic. I allowed the reference to Vonnegut’s asterisk drawings for similar reasons. I removed the attack on the origins of all Republicans. We haven’t allowed commenters to echo the president’s sentiments directly, although they can object generally to increased immigration and speak in support of his policies. We have yet to set an expiration date for “$hithole,” but we won’t be removing it permanently from our filter, and at some time in the future we will most likely revert to removing all or most comments containing it.

Just as Trump’s presidency makes a mockery of our democratic institutions, his vulgar, racially charged language inflicts upon Slate’s attempts at creating a transparent, unbiased, uniform set of guidelines for commenters. It forces us to react on the fly while being inundated with hundreds of variations on the theme of shit and shitholes, frustrating our readers who are trying to comment on the news and those of us who have been charged with moderating their comments alike.

Even before his pussy-grab comments, Trump was making it more difficult to moderate comments by normalizing racist and sexist remarks, as well as childish taunts and insults. With his denigrating remarks about black and brown immigrants dominating the news cycle, it’s worse than ever.

I hate to say it: Slate comments are becoming a real shithole.