Online comments on news stories: a problem for everyone

Coverage of the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada has prompted a nasty backlash in some comments sections. It's an issue with which most media outlets are trying to come to terms.

Syrian refugee stories are among those that frequently attract hate-filled comments. What can be done?

A Syrian refugee carries her baby as she arrives with other Syrian refugees on a dinghy on the island of Lesbos, Greece, during August last year. Online comment sections on news stories about Syrian refugees have been flooded with hateful messages. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Never read the comment section. 

It's something you'll hear journalists repeat time and time again in newsrooms across the country. The comments can be full of hate, anger, rage, and mean-spirited vitriol. So we stay away ... for the most part. 

But recently, since I've been working on CBC's Syrian refugee project, I suddenly had families who, put off by the comments on our website, wouldn't even talk to me.

And so I dove in. 

On a CBC News story about a Syrian family arriving in Canada to a warm welcome, "Mad as Hell" wrote, "Wonder which gang they will join? Vietnamese, East Indian or Somalian? Or will they just start their own crime ring, regardless it's going to be messy."

Max Honey delivers Olympic mittens to the Immigrant Services Society each week. Shamsia Alef-Sultani works at ISS of BC and looks forward to his weekly visit. This story elicited several hateful messages from online commenters. (Bal Brach/CBC News)

On a story about a 12-year-old Vancouver boy who wanted to buy mittens for refugees,  "AntiTourismBC" commented, "Too bad he didn't help one of our OWN homeless ... this is pathetic." 

There's also misinformation being shared across social media when it comes to refugees. 

Take for example, the duel on Facebook over a claim that refugees receive more money than Canadian pensioners. The original post was shared more than 37,000 times — and then debunked.

A widespread problem

Sadly, the problem with these types of comments isn't new and it's not limited to a single media outlet.

Last month, the Toronto Star shut down all commenting on its website, stating that instead, it would  be "promoting and showcasing the comments our readers share across social media and in their letters and emails to our editors."

In November, CBC News took the extraordinary step of temporarily shutting down all comments on stories of indigenous people.

In November 2015, CBC News temporarily shut down all comments on stories about indigenous people. (Ryan McMahon )

Brodie Fenlon, acting director of digital news at CBC, admits, "It's a very complicated issue." 

"There are a number of stories where we're having a large number of comments violating our guidelines." Those guidelines include hate speech and personal attacks.

"You can't libel someone. You can't personally attack someone. We don't allow hate speech; we don't allow you to say something that would hold a person or group of people in contempt based on their race or gender or religion."

So how are these type of comments getting past the moderators?

Fenlon said some comments go live when they are posted, others are flagged by audience members and then reviewed by a third party moderating company the CBC works with.

"We have moderation being done by humans who themselves make mistakes. Your interpretation of what is hate, may be slightly different than my interpretation," he said.

'Where is that line?'

"To be quite frank, it's even hard for us internally to decide, 'Where is that line?' Because that line can be grey. Where does somebody who doesn't understand the issues, who's ignorant, who's sheltered — where does their view become an attack on a group or hatred?"

Fenlon said a plan to deal with problematic comment sections on CBC stories will be revealed in the coming weeks. 

"We may have a different type of commenting ... without a doubt we will have engagement; we will have a space where Canadians can be heard and where views can be reflected from across the spectrum of opinion. That's really important to us."

But whatever form that takes, will it lead to increased civility in online discourse? 

Greg Barber is the director of digital projects at the Washington Post and head of strategy and partnerships at the Coral project, an initiative to help news organizations build better online communities around comment sections. 

Greg Barber is head of strategy and partnerships at the Coral Project — an initiative to build better online communities around comment sections. He says civility increases online when reporters and editors are present in the comments. (Greg Barber/Twitter)

Barber said studies show when people engage in the comments, whether it's reporters or editors, the level of civility in the conversation increases. 

"It's [about] creating an incentive structure that then gets the kind of content we want," said Barber.

"I think some users come in, see the tenor of the conversation, and participate in that way thinking they're not really doing anything wrong. By showing users 'Well no, this is actually what we're looking for in this space, can you contribute in this way, and if you do, your comments have a chance of being highlighted,' we have the potential to change that conversation." 

Barber believes shutting down comment sections completely is not the answer, especially since journalists sometimes get tips and story ideas from audience members there.

"I think news organizations need to ask what's the best kind of interactivity to have here?"

Sometimes that answer may go beyond just a blank space at the bottom of the page, where trolls sometimes lurk. 

About the Author

Bal Brach


Bal Brach is an award-winning reporter at CBC News Vancouver. She has more than a decade of experience working in television, radio and online news across Canada. Bal's storytelling skills have earned her a Jack Webster Award. She is also the recipient of regional and national Radio Television Digital News Association awards. Bal can be reached at or on social media @BalBrach


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