CBC management doesn't plan to make any immediate or major changes to its online comments policy in the wake of a complaint by a group of prominent New Brunswick francophones over what they considered hateful attacks on the province's French-speaking community.

Brodie Fenlon, CBC's senior director, digital news

Brodie Fenlon, CBC's senior director of digital news, says permitting commenters to use pseudonyms allows for an inclusive platform for all voices, including victims of crime and whistleblowers. (Twitter)

Brodie Fenlon, CBC's senior director of digital news, does say in a statement issued Friday that "more changes are needed, and will come."

The current practice of allowing anonymity, for example, is being reviewed, but requiring commenters to use their "'real names' does not guarantee civility," said Fenlon, pointing to the signed, yet hateful messages commonly seen on social media.

In the meantime, the public broadcaster is investigating each comment the francophone group expressed concerns about in a letter on Thursday, Fenlon said.

"We are removing those which were published in error and sincerely regret that they were made public," he said.

"This is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of dealing with such a high volume of comments" — "exponential growth" that has resulted in upwards of a million comments each month, said Fenlon.

"Moving forward, we will ensure that our guidelines are applied even more rigorously and judiciously," by the independent company hired to moderate CBC comments, Winnipeg-based ICUC.

Letter called for overhaul

Michel Doucet, a University of Moncton law professor who organized the letter signed by 120 francophones, could not immediately be reached for comment.

But he posted several comments in French on Twitter, saying he is disgusted by what he sees as the status quo. He also applauded the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, which tweeted it plans to write to CBC president and CEO Hubert Lacroix about the issue next week.

The letter to Fenlon had called on CBC to overhaul its handling of online comments to be "more discerning" and filter out those whose "only point is to attack the minority community."

Michel Doucet

Michel Doucet, law professor and director of the International Observatory on Language Rights at the Université de Moncton, organized the letter signed by 120 francophones. (CBC)

Some of the examples cited in the letter included comments about an "Acadian mafia," calls to "banish all the French" out of the province, and a comment that said languages commissioner Katherine d'Entremont appeared "demonic" in a photograph.

The letter said the signatories recognize people have a democratic right to "strongly express their opposition" to bilingualism and constitutional language protections.

But "bullying, contempt, intolerance and disrespect" in some of the comments undermines democratic discourse and commenters should not be allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, it added.

Balancing act

Fenlon acknowledges in his response that some "objectionable" comments do end up on CBC sites, but says permitting commenters to use pseudonyms allows for an inclusive platform for all voices, including victims of crime and whistleblowers.

CBC is obligated under the federal Broadcasting Act to carry different points of view on controversial matters of public interest and concern. But the challenge of balancing freedom of expression with the right to respectful debate is not unique to the CBC, said Fenlon.

Many media organizations, including some major newspaper sites in Canada, have shut down comments entirely, he said.

"At CBC News, we believe audience engagement is central to our mandate as a public broadcaster."

To that end, CBC is constantly reviewing its processes and making adjustments "to maintain a democratic space where Canadians can debate the issues of the day," and experimenting with new ways for audience members to engage digitally, said Fenlon.

Last November, CBC temporarily suspended comments on stories related to aboriginal issues due to the inordinate number of comments that regularly contravened its guidelines and constituted hate. As of January, it now ensures all comments are reviewed by a human moderator before publication, he said.

"The point is not to remove things with which we disagree, just comments that fall outside our guidelines, including into the realm of hate speech," said Fenlon.

"We will always advocate for free speech, for Canadians' right to voice critical opinions and dissenting views, even when perceived by others to be ignorant or ill-informed."

CBC Response

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