On this site, there is a tendency for users to answer questions with terse comments. It's especially prevalent for low quality questions which are in danger of being closed.

Recently, I've been noticing a lot of comments that are misleading or downright incorrect, especially on lower quality questions. I want to respond to them somehow, but I see no way to:

  • You can't downvote comments, and existing flag reasons don't apply to incorrect comments.
  • I can't reply in a comment, for two reasons: long discussions in comments are frowned upon and often deleted, and it often takes many more words to correct a misconception than to make one. 500 characters often isn't enough to respond.
  • I can't reply in an answer, because answers should address the question, not its comments.

Since there are no easy responses, and there's no glory to be had anyway (these questions usually quickly plummet off the front page), these comments almost always stand uncorrected. This misleads the OP and gives our site a bad name to anybody who knows their stuff and sees the question later.

How can we deal with this issue?

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    $\begingroup$ Could you give some examples? $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 27 '16 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ There aren't any examples because this problem never happens. Terse, incisive comments are always correct. That's actually the real reason why comments can't be downvoted; it's documented in the secret StackExchange API. $\endgroup$ – rob Jul 29 '16 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @heather I don't want to name names, since it would get ugly and personal. But there are two risk factors. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jul 31 '16 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ (1) If a user's answers' scores are at least 25% negative, all comments are bad. (2) If a user usually writes good answers only in freshman physics things (newtonian mechanics, homework and exercises, electromagnetism), most of their comments on SR or QM or (especially!!) QFT are bad. They are overreaching past their domain of expertise. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jul 31 '16 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand why you can't reply in the comments. You said it's because long discussions are often deleted. But isn't that exactly what you want? For those incorrect comments to be deleted. And if you have more than 500 words to say, write it across 2 comments. Then eventually flag the first comment in the discussion as obsolete or for a mod to delete the whole discussion. Then magic happens. Then the incorrect comment is gone. Problem solved $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 3 '16 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @knzhou i'm completely with you on this one, something needs to be changed to make it more clear how to respond to this! on the other hand i do find that the moderators handle flags that were put for this reason rather well. Without naming names, I have made a point to consistently flagging a particular users comments who tends to post pseudo-answers as comments as "not constructive". $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 4 '16 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Numrok Thanks for the tip! I started doing this too, with good results. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Aug 6 '16 at 2:09

This ties directly into a larger issue with flag that recently came up. The moderators are currently not deleting answer for being wrong because it is not they who should pass that judgement unilaterally, so it seems inconsistent if they deleted comments for being wrong. So there are two options here:

  • The nuclear option: Delete any comment that gives an answer if it is flagged as not constructive, no matter its correctness.

  • Do nothing: Leave answers in comments alone.

Although I belong to the users who leave answers in comments if I'm too lazy or too busy to expand them into a full answer, or because I plainly don't think the question deserves that much effort on my part, or also because some of my comment-like answers have incurred a number of upvotes that are frankly ridiculuous and I don't want my rep to be inflated by giving such effortless answers, I say: Nuke answers in comments if they are flagged.

Comments are for clarifying questions, pointing out inconsistencies, giving reasons for close/delete/down votes or otherwise improving the post being commented on. They are, obviously, often used for other things - making jokes, giving pseudo-answers, debating related topics, and more. Which is fine as long as no one is bothered by those comments. But as soon as such comment bother someone - indicated by a flag - all comments not evidently serving the primary purpose of comments should be deleted, mercilessly and without considering the abstract "value" or "correctness" of their content. The unique quality of the SE model is precisely that it does not allow the free form of forums, and we should not compromise on that.

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    $\begingroup$ What kind of false modesty is this? Why should you not want to increase your rep, however ridiculously out of proportion it may be to the effort? If you don't want your terse answers to over-inflate your rep, you can post it as a Community Wiki. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 30 '16 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this. The simple solution is to follow the guidelines: comments are not recommended for answering questions. Nota bene that the minimum length for answers is quite brief. A terse, one- or two-sentence answer that is correct is perfectly acceptable. $\endgroup$ – rob Jul 30 '16 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ As John Duffield comments above : Who is going to judge the value or correctness of comments? Are we going to subject them to voting as we do questions? If there is no justification for deleting incorrect Answers, why should we delete comments - just because we don't like them? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 30 '16 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil: no one is going to judge that in my proposal - I'm saying delete all flagged comment-answers regardless of correctness. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Jul 30 '16 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ I'm terrible for leaving answers as comments, but even I agree that any comment-answers flagged should be nuked. I accept the risk I take when I foolishly answer in the comments $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 4 '16 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil wrote: "Why should you not want to increase your rep, however ridiculously out of proportion it may be to the effort?" - because an increase in rep, as an end and divorced from its cause, is of no value to him? $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Aug 5 '16 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AlfredCentauri : If he does not value it, why should he care if it increases? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Aug 5 '16 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil, if I don't value debt, does it follow that I shouldn't care if my debt increases? $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Aug 5 '16 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AlfredCentauri : That is correct. But if you do care if it increases then you obviously do place a value on it, albeit a negative value. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Aug 5 '16 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand. The question is about comments that are incorrect, yet this highly voted answer is about the completely orthogonal issue of comments that should have been posted as answers. And I fail to see how deleting comments that should be answers could possibly be beneficial to the site. Surely, the best situation is that an answer appears as an answer, the second-best is that it appears as a comment and the worst (assuming the answer is correct) is that it doesn't appear at all. Going from 2 to 3 makes the site worse, not better. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Aug 9 '16 at 0:30

This answer addresses the case where a comment is valid as a comment - that is, it's attempting to improve its parent post, not to answer the question - but it's simply wrong.

The preferred way to deal with incorrect comments is to respond with a comment of your own. Now, you made a fair point about why you might not want to do that:

I can't reply in a comment, for two reasons: long discussions in comments are frowned upon and often deleted, and it often takes many more words to correct a misconception than to make one.

but here's an easy way to solve both problems: write something like

This is incorrect because (short summary reason). If you'd like to discuss this further, we can do so in [chat].

And if the original commenter then ignores your invitation to chat and tries to respond in another comment:

As I said, we can continue to discuss this in [chat].

and leave it at that. If you don't actually want to get into an argument, that's fine; you can take the discussion to the chat room and respond once or twice then give up. Heck, you don't even have to follow it up in chat at all. (In that case, you could use wording along the lines of "the place to discuss this is [chat]") The point of making this comment is not to actually start a debate. The point is (1) to show that there exists a counterargument to the original comment, and (2) if the original commenter does want to argue their point, to remove that argument from the wrong venue (the comment section) and put it in the right one (a chat room).

I especially want to emphasize that our reluctance to hold discussions in the comments is not a reason to avoid responding to comments. Yes, extended comment discussions are frowned upon, but one or two rounds of back-and-forth commenting do not count as an extended discussion. What does make an extended discussion is when you have several rounds of comments and it shows no signs of stopping. And even if you do get sucked into a discussion, it's not really that bad. Nobody gets punished for that. The worst that happens (or some might say best) is that the whole comment chain gets moved to chat or deleted - which, in fact, is a roundabout way of getting rid of the original, allegedly incorrect comment.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel that the advice here does not much address the real problem of new, less expert users absorbing misinformation from short, confidently toned, incorrect comments which are difficult to debunk without taking a considerable amount of time and writing a full answer. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jul 28 '16 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank, what new, less expert users absorb is not within our span of control. Indeed, a perfectly correct comment may be misinterpreted or taken out of context by new, less expert users. Finally, the OP's question is "How should we deal with incorrect comments?" and not "How should we deal with new, less expert users absorbing misinformation from comments". $\endgroup$ – Alfred Centauri Jul 28 '16 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank I disagree. I think a response of "No, that's wrong. (short reason)" is quite effective at preventing people from absorbing misinformation from the original comment. It's not 100% effective, of course, but nothing is, and we have to draw the line somewhere. I think this is a reasonable place to do it. And the backup tactic of forcing the whole conversation to be migrated to chat handles some fraction of those cases where a simple followup comment doesn't work. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 28 '16 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ "Nobody gets punished for that. The worst that happens (or some might say best) is that the whole comment chain gets moved to chat or deleted". IMO there is someone who gets punished in directly: the person who asked the question. i feel like wrong comments or pseudo-answers at comments often obscure the actual question. personally when i read a question with a comments battle i often just don't bother thinking about the question. $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 4 '16 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Numrok I meant to exclude that sort of thing by using the word "punished", but anyway, I agree that's a problem. That's why we aggressively delete comments which are flagged or have outlived their usefulness: they do distract from the original post. Dealing with this requires liberal use of comment flags. I don't think there's much more we can do without a major change to the comment system, but that's not up to us. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 4 '16 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ i completely agree, just to clarify: i think the moderators are doing an amazing job in dealing with flagged comments. But I think the flag reasons could be slightly adjusted/better explained to prevent the image "and existing flag reasons don't apply to incorrect comments" (from knzhou's question). $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 4 '16 at 12:37

I am aware that this is not a solution, especially for stubborn users, but a friendly comment to the point of "you are misleading/mixing things up/wrong here" will still work wonders for a number of the more reasonable users. Your own comment can then easily be deleted by you after you've achieved your goal. A bit of a hassle, though ..

Apart from them, in the flagging options for comments, I see both "unconstructive" and "other". Isn't especially the first one useful for exactly that? A misleading short pseudo answer is unconstructive and depending on the way the people who have access to the flag queue handle this / interpret this, this could be an easy way to get rid of those, would it not?

Apart from that, dmckee's suggestion could prove useful because people might be discouraged from giving pseudo-answers in comments if they see them deleted. Thus, the overall amount of pseudo-answers (and thus the wrong ones, too) might decrease.

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    $\begingroup$ The main issue here are, in my view, actually just a few users who post a lot of misleading comments. $\endgroup$ – Danu Jul 28 '16 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I did not want to get personal in any way and I want to try to avoid raising the "ban people" flag - even though I do see the wisdom of adressing that issue at some point $\endgroup$ – Sanya Jul 28 '16 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ In my above comment, I meant to start with "The main issue here is that there are, in my view, actually [...]". $\endgroup$ – Danu Jul 28 '16 at 20:39

I've noticed many "answers" in the comments that weren't posted because they wanted someone else to expand it, etc. However, I haven't noticed incorrect answer-comments. I was going to say adding down votes to comments seems best, but it almost seems like encouraging it, because they now have the same options as answers.

I think what would be best is to post another comment asking them to post it as an answer. If they don't, you could post the answer under "community" and down vote it (and then flag the comment for deletion, delete your original comment, etc), because really, the policy is to not use comments for answers. When a comment-answer comes up that is correct, encourage them to post it as an answer, or do so yourself (expansion might be necessary).

Along this line of thought, maybe comments should be restructured so people don't post comment-answers. What that would entail, I don't know...probably a Meta question for another time. =)

That's just my two cents.


Per a discussion in chat with DavidZ and EmilioPisanty, what if there was a flag queue for non-moderators (maybe users with 15k+ rep) that covered all comment flags. Another flag for comments would be added for pseudo-answers, and these flags would also go into this same queue, therefore allowing either the original finder of the pseudo-answer to fix it, or 15k+ users to fix it. Then the system could down vote or up vote as the answer's content entails. I posted this (at Emilio Pisanty's suggestion) as a feature request on the mother meta here. Please up vote this feature request if you think this is a good idea.

I think this addresses some of the concerns brought up in the comments below this answer and concerns brought up in the discussion with DavidZ.

Update 2:

The new feature request is here; I started a bounty on it as it is 3 years old.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know. Asking people to turn their comments into answers has a very low success rate, in my experience. It certainly doesn't work on me. If people aren't motivated to write an answer, they probably won't. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jul 27 '16 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Then you can post it as an answer yourself...some people can be persuaded to do so. If you really want, just copy and paste into a community answer. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 27 '16 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ If by "community" you mean community wiki mode, that's certainly an option, but I do want to point out that when you make an answer out of someone else's comment, there is no requirement or expectation that you make it community wiki. If that other person wanted the rep, they should have posted the answer themselves. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 27 '16 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I know; I was referencing community wiki for bad/wrong answers. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 27 '16 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, I see what you mean. That's okay, but I would personally recommend against posting an incorrect answer in the first place. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 27 '16 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ, the point is to take the incorrect comment-answer and post it as a real answer so users can down vote it like they would a normally wrong answer...to let the system take care of it without doing anything special. As such, it's actually a good thing to post this particular type of bad answer and then have the related comment deleted, because it's easier to show that it is wrong. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 27 '16 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ Good stuff heather. @David Z : who says an answer is wrong? All the downvotes in the world won't make a right answer wrong, especially when it's backed up with supporting references. The real issue here is how to justify the claim that a comment is an incorrect answer. $\endgroup$ – John Duffield Jul 28 '16 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDuffield: heather did, in the comment right above yours, and the comment two above that. heather: yes, I believe I got your point. I think we agree that wrong answers can offer some value by showing readers (by downvotes) that the content of the answer is wrong. If I understand correctly, you consider this value enough to make posting wrong answers, knowing that the answers are wrong, a useful thing to do. Right? It's a reasonable opinion, I'm just saying I don't agree with it. If you care to discuss further, I'd be happy to explain why elsewhere, perhaps in Physics Chat or a separate meta Q. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 28 '16 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ, you sort of have it. The difference is I consider posting a wrong answer important only if it has been given as a comment, where there isn't any super effective way to show it is wrong. By moving these pseudo-answers into an answer, the system shows they are wrong via down votes, without any need for extra features. I would be interested in learning why you disagree with this...it just seems like the best option to me. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 28 '16 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @heather ah, then we do have a significant disagreement. Can you pop into chat now? $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 28 '16 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ, sure, I'm interested in your point of view. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 28 '16 at 14:28

This is an issue on the site right now. For my own part I've started trying very hard not to write pseudo-answers in the comments and I am more willing to consider pseudo-answer as "not constructive" comments than I had been.

Aside: I wrote this in as a comment first. But, I'm trying not to write pseudo-answer so much these days...

Poll (use votes on this post to indicate your feelings): How do people feel about the prospect of mods killing pseudo-answer comments if the same notion appears in an answer (by anyone, not just the author of the comment)?

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    $\begingroup$ Personally, though, I have no problem with correct pseudo-answers. Since most pseudo-answers are correct, removing all of them seems to be a net loss. I just want to get rid of the wrong ones somehow. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jul 27 '16 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Well, my poll as currently constructed is about getting rid of pseudo-answers that are redundant with real answers. We mostly try to avoid mods judging correctness, so the removal of wrong pseudo-answers should be thrown on the reviewers. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 27 '16 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'm ambivalent on the notion suggested, but I'm very much in favor of removing all pseudo-answers posted in comments, over time. Those that are not already duplicated by answers should be converted to answers, if anyone thinks they're worth keeping. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 27 '16 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Does upvote mean I want mods to kill comments or the other way around? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jul 28 '16 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ Er ... I understood that upvoted mean "Yes, please delete them", and down votes mean "Save the pseudo-answers!". $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 28 '16 at 5:11
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    $\begingroup$ I downvoted. There are people who will claim some comment is incorrect without justification because it exposes some error in their answer. They'll call for deletion, and if you comply you're into censorship, and before you know it you're promoting and protecting pseudoscience. It would be better if people could downvote comments. Note though that even that isn't perfect. All the upvotes in the world won't make a wrong answer right, and vice versa. Ditto for comments. I see horseshit comments with umpteen upvotes. Forgive me if I don't provide an example. $\endgroup$ – John Duffield Jul 28 '16 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ -1. I'm with John Duffield on this - except that I disagree about down-voting comments - simply ignore them! Up-vote correct comments instead... Save the Pseudo-Answers! Save the Answers-in-Comments! Initially I found them inhibiting, but actually they are very useful for me in testing my understanding of the question, and gauging an answer. All relevant comments are valuable, whether correct or not. They stimulate debate, and allow participation without having to risk a hail of down-votes. If we delete incorrect comments, this inhibits users from answering. And it is a form of censorship. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 30 '16 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ @sammy On the matter of censorship. I don't know if you've noticed the occasional pattern of users who get downvoted when they post answers, switch to posting only comments and always, always, always post a followup to anyone who disagrees with them, insisting that they are right no matter what evidence is presented to them. Personally I find it generates a destructive atmosphere. All gate-keeping shuts people down at some level. We're seeking the amount and kind that means people of good will can participate without the site getting eaten by trolls. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 30 '16 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ I can think of at least one person you might be alluding to. However, I do not agree that gate-keeping and censorship is the best way of tackling this "problem". Far more effective to remain polite, "disengage" and ignore what you consider to be bad behaviour - as good parents know. Engaging with and attacking what you consider to be "trolling" and "destructive" only draws attention to it. Moreover, you are presuming that such people are not acting out of good will and sincere beliefs. As a Moderator, you should be patient, fair, and respectful to all - not swift to judge. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 30 '16 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ Stackexchange is not a government. Any argument that contains the word "censorship" should be summarily ignored. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Jul 31 '16 at 4:26

I agree with rob - although I cannot tell if he is being serious or sardonic when he says that "terse, incisive comments are always correct".

I think this is not an issue. Heather asked for examples but none have been provided. There are far more serious issues which need addressing, such as the Homework Policy which almost daily causes rancour among those who don't agree with the Vote-to-Close.

If the Asker does not show signs of being mislead by incorrect comments, I suggest that there is no need to correct them, and it is best to ignore them. Comments do not have the status of an official Answer which has been upvoted by the community. As the Help Centre says, they are "temporary post-it notes".

If you are bothered by incorrect comments, the most constructive response you can make is to post a clearly correct Answer - which does not have to be encyclopaedic. If a terse comment is always correct, this must be even more true of a terse answer. And however terse, it is almost certain to be upvoted if it is correct.

Posting and down-voting an incorrect answer is unnecessary and counter-productive. Posting it as an Answer only draws attention to something which may have been buried and forgotten in a babble of comments.

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    $\begingroup$ Terse, incisive comments are never correct. $\endgroup$ – rob Jul 30 '16 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ @rob : Make you mind up! That's the exact opposite of your comment to the Question! Terse - like incisive - means concise, succinct. Not necessarily rude or cutting. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 30 '16 at 4:36
  • $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil, exact definition: "sparing in the use of words; abrupt." $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 30 '16 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ The correctness of terse, incisive comments cannot be determined a priori. $\endgroup$ – rob Jul 30 '16 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ @rob : What's going on here? First they're always correct. Then they're never correct. Now their correctness cannot be determined a priori. Are they subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? Are they more elusive than Schrodinger's Cat?? $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jul 31 '16 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I am not being terse enough. $\endgroup$ – rob Jul 31 '16 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ @rob : You are being pithy. $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Aug 5 '16 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ @sammygerbil Terse. $\endgroup$ – rob Aug 5 '16 at 3:04

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