Why newspapers need to close their comments sections

Imagine you are stuck in traffic.  By the side of a road is a billboard that changes it’s message every five minutes.  You glance over at it and read this:

“Some claim. One race in Canada should not have to work for a living. That this race should receive millions in funding without accountability. That the elite of this race should be allowed to defraud their regular people.  How can anyone support this? How can anyone slam Conservatives for not supporting this like the NDP/Liberals?”

How would you feel?  Would it make you angry?  Would it make you happy?  Would you wonder how a message like that – containing three of five common racist assertions against First Nations peoples, got put up on a billboard for thousands to see?

The billboard is by the side of a road, and the person who has written that has done nothing to warrent the eyeballs that are staring at it. They didn’t pay for the space, they haven’t had their comment fact checked for accuracy.  They haven’t even signed their name.  It appears that no one even cares if it is hate speech.

And then what if a headline on the billboard declared “Join the Conversation!” and had an ad attached to it? Would you feel like there was a conversation to be had?  Would you wonder who was profiting?

This is exactly what comments sections on newspaper web site are.

The above is an actual comment from an anonymous poster that has been allowed to stand in an article about how the Conservative government refuses to make legislative changes to Bill C-45, which is what the Idle No More movement has been protesting.

As a practitioner of real conversation, it drives me crazy that the Globe and Mail among other outlets invites us to “Join the Conversation.”  What happens on newspaper websites is not a conversation.  It is shrill hit and run racism, unsubstantiated opinion, outright lies and conjecture.  It is often targeted personally (the comments against Teresa Spence and Shawn Atleo in recent weeks have been shocking) and  it cheapens the idea of conversation and free speech and poisons the environment of public service for those who wish to enter it.

The fact that newspaper comments sections are moderated matters not at all.  I don’t believe newspapers are doing society any favours by allowing this kind of discourse to happen.

I am not advocating for a restriction on free speech.  What bothers me about this is that anonymous posters are using the reputation of newspaper to get views on their comments.  These posters have done nothing to warrant thousands of people reading their vitriol.  So why do newspapers cultivate market share, and then allow this stuff to stand?  Money?  The longer you linger on a page – and outrage is a cheap thrill – the better the bottom line.  Pandering to the basest forms of rhetoric works for papers.  No matter how much newspapers disclaim the opinions in their comments sections, the fact is that by providing thousands of readers per comment the are enabling hate speech and giving it a wider audience than it would get on its own.

But this stuff absolutely destroys the calibre of public discourse.  Those of us that are part of Idle No More or who have been advocates for progressive solutions to First Nations issues spend all of our time addressing myths and not creating substantial proposals for change.  And when we do table substantial proposals for change, we are met with contempt by mainstream society and policy makers, who often repeat the lines that are propagated in comments sections.

So here’s what needs to happen.  Let free speech thrive in it’s own free market of ideas.  Newspapers should close down their comments sections and invite people to join the conversation by creating their own blogs where they can publish their opinions as much as they like.  If the opinions have merit, they will get a following.  People can invite comments on their own posts.  If newspapers want to actually foster conversation, they should convene large World Cafes where human beings can meet each other face to face and share their opinions without hiding behind anonymous pseudonyms.

in the absence of that, newspapers surely must see that they are complicit in the falling standards of civic discourse.  Has it come to this, that the only stream of revenue for newspapers is link baiting and outrage?  Responsible journalists write the articles and anonymous Canadians provide the juicy violation of media laws that bring in the page views and therefore the revenue.  I wonder if anyone has the steel to change this.



  1. Before I put forth my points of why I disagree with the specifics of shutting down comment boards of online media outlets, let me say something else first.

    As a non First Nations person, the Idle No More movement has provided me with hope that I thought I had long given up on. The movement is a light in the surrounding darkness.

    Our economic and political systems are destined to fail. I’m confident that a majority of Canadians would disagree with me on this and the ones that might agree do so only on an intellectual level and not emotional one.

    If Canadian society as whole, and by extension the developed world in general, does not embrace and champion the principles and ethics of the Idle No More movement, we only hasten our demise. By embracing Idle No More and putting its ideals at the Centre, only then do we stand a chance to avoid a collapse of all that we hold so dear.

    Why I disagree with your position of shutting down comment boards:

    The creed of objectivity has killed the news. No one sees their own dogma and the media is no exception. Objectivity in media is basically a myth. And I say, that most journalists lack the vocabulary and/or the ethics to discuss it.

    Holding to the illusion of objectivity allows the media to avoid dealing with unpleasant truths or angering a power structure on which media organizations depend upon for access, profits and in many cases private and public funding.

    Giving airtime, or print, to both sides and then holding to a notion that the job of objective journalism has been undertaken, is a falsehood. And so, in our sound-bite media-verse, there is an immense divide between truth and the news. The most serious failures are the stories left out, the ones we don’t see or hear about, and the ones that DON’T come from ‘reliable sources.’

    In the end, most journalists are corporate employees and there now exists a symbiotic relationship between the media and the power elite. The comment boards on media sites is one place where this false attempt at objectivity gets stripped away.

    I am in total agreement that there is no civil discourse, dialogue or any other mediated exchange on such message boards. That’s what I appreciate. It allows for an unfiltered glimpse at that level of blind economic, political and even religious dogma, and to your point, the surprising extent of deep seeded racism and hatred that lives in the hearts of fellow Canadians. As disheartening as that all is, I wish to understand and get a read on the level of vile that’s out there.

    Rather than pumping such sh*t into a septic holding tank and letting it sit, metaphorically speaking, my preference is to pump it onto the lawn, expose it to the light of day, air it out, turn it into compost and allow something else to potentially grow instead.

    Just another perspective on a message board.

  2. Thanks Mitchell. And just to repeat my point from the Facebook conversation on this, I’ll say that I think that the vitriol we see on newspaper comment boards is out of proportion to what is actually out there. And anonymity makes it possible for people with political agendas to repeat messages over and over until it seems true. That is what I think is happening with the five messages I linked to above.

    You can still revel in vitriol if people are publishing it on their own blogs, but I can’t see where an open door on a widely read website that allows for anonymous posters with no stature or following to repeat racist and unattributed messages over and over and over is serving the public interest.

  3. Chris, I am in total agreement with you–100%. Anonymous posters on widely read comment boards (newspapers and websites of other mainstream media) don’t serve the public interest. They are not meant to, their purpose is to serve special interest. The stated ideal of freedom of speech, as it relates to comment boards for mainstream media websites, is pure obfuscation. I made this same point on your FB thread.

    It may seem like a cynical position to hold and yet if you follow the comment boards, even occasionally, it becomes apparent they are populated by paid trolls. The troll’s job is to spread mean-spirited drivel at the slightest hint of opposition against whatever position/message the troll’s employer holds. Unfortunately racism and hatred are commonly used by these troll posters and others who gain a sense of power by making such posts, which usually ends up serving the same purpose as the trolls.

    Any effort/campaign to get anonymous posters off such boards, I’ll support. And yet fake names associated with email addresses is rampant, which means anonymous postings will never be eliminated. And to advocate that mainstream media drop their comment boards will lead to being labeled as anti free speech–one of the corner stones of democracy. And so here we are.

    The Internet and social media have changed the rules of political engagement. Mostly for the worst IMHO, which is a whole other conversation and not one I wish to get started here. Only to say that if we remain idle, it’s only going to get worse.

    Appreciating your strong posts of late.

  4. Chris and Mitchell,
    you guys are right and you both made a lot of good points. Your posts rightly pointed out the downside of irresponsible posters, but also shows that good ideas, clearly elucidated, define the best part of the rough and tumble public discourse, Many people do not comment, but may have read and valued your comments, Most people understand that “trolls” are not good people. The fact that this word has come into common usage indicates people have the capability to judge *bs* for what it is. The hope is that if bright people keep putting good comments out there, other folks who have not yet verbalised all the nuances of a situation may be able to then choose the best ideas. You cannot stop stupidity by refusing to allow people to express their ideas (or their hidden agendas),but have faith that your model of intelligent discourse and responsible truth telling will provide the standard of value that folks will use to inform themselves and to choose “the good”. This is an old struggle. The only thing that allows evil to flourish is for good people to remain silent.

  5. Bart,
    You have eloquently moved the discussion to the heart of the matter. Expressing an insight that I have long held and yet missed its connection to this discussion:

    Evil is not defeated by good. Evil is defeated by truth.

    Shine a light on evil. Expose it. Get it out of it’s hiding places–which is often the deepest layers of the human heart and psyche.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Hey Chris- thank you for posting this. A number of my friends/colleagues and I have been doing a ‘media watch’ blitz where we go in and post a counter-narrative to the vitriol being spewed in those comment sections of newspapers. The same (incorrect) narratives are repeated and yes, these are the ‘truths’ Canadians have been taught to hold about Indigenous people. The Thompson newspaper pulled it’s Facebook page because of the level of racist comments being posted there. If any of these comments were about any other racial group in Canada, there would be a hate speech/crimes investigation. Canada has a very high tolerance for racism directed at Indigenous people. Articles like yours help to educate those who are willing to learn differently.
    Thank you!

  7. […] couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post advocating that newspapers should close their comments sections.  In the days since then I have heard from many people agreeing with me, and no one has disagreed. […]

  8. Thanks Grace!