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Please leave the pub, you’re making the other patrons uncomfortable

Posted on 30 November 2015

Today, CBC’s acting director of digital news announced comments on stories about indigenous people will be closed until at least mid-January. In the post, Brodie Fenton writes (emphasis mine):

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).

This comes at the same time CBC News has made a concerted effort to connect with indigenous communities in order to improve our journalism and better reflect these communities to a national audience. The success of our Aboriginal unit and our investigative journalism around missing and murdered indigenous women are just two examples of that commitment.

We don’t want violations of our guidelines by a small minority of our commenters to derail our good work or alienate our audience. So we’re taking a pause to see if we can put some structure around this. We will reopen comments as soon as possible.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about comments, and recently put my own, loosey-goosey policy into place about which sort of comments would get deleted on my Facebook page. One of the things I didn’t really get into with my explanation, but which was top of mind, is a desire for people who are marginalized to feel comfortable being present in my online space, even if it means cracking down on people who are less sensitive to those sorts of situations.

It’s all about what sort of space you want to make – is it a shouting match where anyone can say anything, or is it a civil discussion where people of different backgrounds can speak up and feel a sense of belonging and respect?

* * *

Earlier this year the city of Prince George decided to rename a city park in such a way that it recognized the indigenous people who originally called that space home (and many of whom still do). The online debate was, at times, heated and in some cases boiled over to the point of implicit and explicit racism.

Some sites allowed this debate to stand. The Facebook page for a local radio station wound up deleting a post about it after the discussion veered outside of what they deemed good taste, and then they posted about that decision. They were not the only one to delete stories.

There is a popular Facebook page in Prince George for posting good news stories about the city. It has created an amazing community of people who want to celebrate the city, connected people needing help, and quite literally changed lives for the better. And the job of keeping that page a place of positivity is not easy. I’ve seen some of messages the admins receive – all volunteers mind you- and they are virulent, hateful, expletive-filled, and not something I would wish on my worst enemy. In order to prevent these messages from polluting the public-facing parts of this community, the admins have had to make some difficult decisions about what is and isn’t allowed. Controversy is not.

The world is full of spaces for people to argue. This page is not one of those spaces. It is a space to share good-news stories and feel good doing it. So one of the rules is, basically, if a post starts to generate controversy, it gets deleted. One time I posted a story about stairs being painted a new colour, and people didn’t like the change, so the story got deleted. I shrugged and moved on.

I think, however, this decision-making gets a little more complicated if you are dealing with stories affecting marginalized groups. Because while for some people the renaming of this park was something to complain about, for a great many others it was something to celebrate. For the Lheidli T’enneh people, it was a moment of acknowledgement of their past and present in this city. It was a moment of reconciliation. It was a good news story.

And so they did what many other people in this city do when they want to celebrate – they posted the story in this very popular Facebook page for sharing good news. And then the negative comments would start, and the story would get deleted.

The metaphor I came up with was to think of the Facebook page as a popular pub where people go to celebrate. In this instance, people came in to celebrate the renaming of the park. Some people at the other table didn’t like it. So the people celebrating were asked to quiet down or leave.

I don’t think for a second this was the message the admins of the page want to send. They have a tough job (that isn’t actually a job), and they are keeping things civil as best they can. I know for certain I’ve clammed up or tried to change the subject when a conversation gets uncomfortable, simply because I want to move on and keep the peace. I know that isn’t always the best decision, and yet I continue to do it. So I’m not going to fault anyone for how this played out.

There are large media organizations with dedicated comments manager who still struggle to keep discussion respectful– see CBC’s decision to shut the comments down as they consider ways to fix this. Rather than kicking people out of the pub, they are shutting the pub down while figuring out their next move.

But I also think the reasons for doing this are worth paying attention to. There is a desire to keep the comments open, but open to people of all backgrounds, rather than letting the baser elements control the conversation. I’m not sure how that will be accomplished, but it will be worth following. At the core of this, for anyone with an online community, is the process of thinking about what sort of community you are aiming to create, how you do that, and who might get left out in the process. Who do you want to be allowed in your pub?

Filed under: blogging, Canada, Indigenous

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