If you have something to say regarding news stories about indigenous people, the CBC doesn’t want to hear it until next year. Canada’s public broadcaster has taken what “Acting director of digital news” Brodie Fenlon acknowledges, in a commendably calm, articulate and thoughtful explanatory post, is the “unusual step” of closing comments on indigenous stories. This is intended to be a strictly temporary measure:
We hope to reopen them in mid-January after we’ve had some time to review how these comments are moderated and to provide more detailed guidance to our moderators.
So, Fenlon, why is this overhaul of moderation practices needed?
We’ve noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines. Some of the violations are obvious, some not so obvious; some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e., racist sentiments expressed in benign language).
The guidelines, incidentally, are here. It’s worth noting that they don’t actually say anything about vitriol or ignorance, which is one suspects is fortunate for many commenters. As with most such guidelines, they could be used to justify either a fairly relaxed approach to moderation or a much more constraining, safe-spacey one, depending on how words like “vulgarity”, “insults”, “harassment”, “respectful” and “hatred” were interpreted. Examples of comments that have been deemed to fall on the wrong side of the line are usually more illuminating than the policies themselves, and it’s to the CBC’s credit that they’ve provided some – being read aloud in a tongue-and-cheek style by indigenous staff members, no less. Despite the warning that it might “be a bit difficult” to listen to the comments, however, I thought they were rather humdrum, and not at all the kind of thing that a solidly established national broadcasting corporation (whether public or private) with a certain social responsibility to facilitate the open circulation of opinion should even consider censoring. One assumes, then, that whatever moderation scheme is introduced in mid-January will be pretty damn heavy-handed. Fenlon says that he doesn’t want “violations of [the] guidelines by a small minority” to “alienate” the CBC’s audience, but putting an unduly tight muzzle on commenters might do precisely that.
As Fenlon recognizes, the CBC’s decisions about comments are taking place against the backdrop of a wider controversy about the merits and drawbacks of online commenting in general. To hear some people talk, you’d think the average comment thread on a major news website anywhere in the English-speaking world was a witch’s cauldron of hatred, loathing, ignorance and paranoia. Colin Horgan, in Maclean’s, provides a fair example of this perspective:
Media outlets, and reporters specifically, quickly learned to never look below the line, and to rarely engage with commenters or tweeters, as they are, for the most part, the lunatic fringe. The crazies are easily dismissed, but over time, cumulatively, social media and comment threads, while changing coverage of events, have also altered our interpretation of that coverage. They have worked to undermine the validity of the news media’s voice, ironically all while those very outlets hosted and, by extension, validated them in turn.
The lunatic fringe? Really? That hasn’t been my experience of comment threads at all, and I do peer into that dreaded territory “below the line” on a fairly regular basis. Granted, I don’t see whatever blobs of caustic invective the doubtlessly overworked moderation gnomes may be silently intercepting before they’re allowed to ooze forth into the daylight, but it sounds like Horgan is referring more to comments that actually make it through. Sure, there are plenty of uninteresting comments, and some that are vicious, unhinged, or simply unintelligible, but it’s easy to scroll past those and just read the substantive and interesting ones that contribute information and ideas not mentioned in the hallowed ground “above the line”. Comments in that category are not at all uncommon, from what I’ve seen, and in some cases the comment thread is more illuminating than the article itself – perhaps buttressing or refining the writer’s arguments, perhaps challenging them. Every so often I’ll get to the bottom of an article and find myself wanting to scream at the writer about a glaring flaw or omission, only to find that my exact point has been made in pithy fashion by some astute commenter.
I wouldn’t be surprised if discomfort with being challenged, especially with regard to the zealous and rather dogmatic egalitarianism that is evidently de rigueur among the chattering classes, lies at the heart of the antipathy to online comments exhibited by Horgan and his more strident fellow travellers such as Tauriq Moosa (“like an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol”) and Jessica Valenti (“comments are a place where the most noxious thoughts rise to the top and smart conversations are lost in a sea of garbage”). Perhaps journalists and pundits really are, by and large, a professional clique who have retreated so far into their own subcultural norms and attitudes that a substantial proportion of those of us who exist outside the bubble strike them as a “lunatic fringe” just because we disagree with some of their articles of faith.
Brodie Fenlon, to his credit, hasn’t sunk that far into right-thinking authoritarianism, even noting that “it’s important to provide the public with a democratic space where they can freely engage and debate the issues of the day”. However, he also seems to believe that the space in question mustn’t be allowed to get too democratic if indigenous issues are under discussion. The logical consequence is that some part of the conversation will simply move elsewhere, and it will be largely the CBC’s loss. In that spirit, here are a few recent articles on indigenous issues from the CBC website.
Sure enough, comments appear not to be welcome on any of them. But if you have thoughts on these stories, on commenting arrangements at the CBC, or on commenting in general, please feel free and indeed positively encouraged to post them here – in, y’know, the comments.
Random thought having nothing to do with the rest of the post: There should be a constellation called the Skinny Dipper.