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.