A group of 120 prominent francophones in New Brunswick is demanding the CBC overhaul its handling of online comments to filter out posts they consider hateful.

Michel Doucet

Michel Doucet, law professor and director of the International Observatory on Language Rights at the University of Moncton, organized the letter to CBC. (CBC)

They have signed a letter organized by University of Moncton law professor Michel Doucet, which says some users of the CBC website are "systematically propagating hate and contempt towards the francophone community" in New Brunswick.

The letter cites online 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, among others.

The signatories on the letter include 21 New Brunswick mayors, three New Brunswick senators, a university president, a former provincial ombudsman, a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice, and dozens of Acadian and francophone leaders.

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

Undermine democratic discourse

But "bullying, contempt, intolerance and disrespect" in some of the comments undermines democratic discourse, it adds.

The letter is addressed to Brodie Fenlon, the director of digital news at CBC, who refused an interview request from CBC News.

"We received the letter and are reviewing it," Fenlon stated in an email. "We intend to respond and I'll share that with you as soon as it's ready. It would be premature to comment before we've responded to Mr. Doucet."

Rosella Melanson

Signatory Rosella Melanson says the issue is not about anglophones and francophones, but rather reasonable and unreasonable people. (Submitted by Rosella Melanson)

Rosella Melanson, a signatory and a former executive director of the now-defunct New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said the comments make francophones feel unwelcome in the online discussions on CBC's New Brunswick site.

"You can't go there, you can't approach there, because it's so incredibly hateful," she said. "You can't show your face there because the bullies in the playground will dump on you.

"I don't think it's about ideas. It's about telling Acadians to 'go back to Quebec,' even if they've never been there. It's ridiculous stuff that's full of hate."

Melanson says the issue "is not about anglophones and francophones. New Brunswick is not that divided. It is between reasonable people and unreasonable people."

In Ottawa on Thursday afternoon, Conservative Senator Percy Mockler, who also signed the letter, spoke about it in the Senate and called on CBC president Hubert Lacroix to take steps "immediately" to address the situation.

Indigienous people policy set precedent

In November, CBC announced it was closing comments on stories about indigenous people. While "ignorant, ill-informed and objectionable" comments are expected during a free and open debate, Fenlon wrote, "we draw the line on hate speech and personal attacks."

Doucet's letter says that decision is a precedent CBC should now apply to anti-francophone comments.

"If you changed the word `francophone' and added any other linguistic community, or ethnic community, or religious community in New Brunswick, I'm not sure CBC would want to publish them," Doucet said in an interview.

The letter doesn't call for comments to be closed, but says CBC should be "more discerning" and filter out those whose "only point is to attack the minority community."

Anonymity feeding vehemence

CBC's and Radio-Canada's online comments are moderated through ICUC, a third-party social media moderating contractor based in Winnipeg. Users who comment must set up an account and provide an email address, which is not made public.

But unlike CBC, the French-language Radio-Canada requires users to provide their full name when they register. Although it's impossible to verify every name, moderators intervene if a user name is obviously a pseudonym.

'It's much easier to hide behind a pseudonym and say anything you want than when you have to put your name on it and show who is making the comment.' - Michel Doucet, law professor

"We wanted to be transparent and we wanted our audience to make that effort too," said Pierre Champoux, Radio-Canada's director of digital news.

He said in a fast-changing media environment, news organizations are constantly re-evaluating their practices.

Doucet said other news organizations that prevent anonymous comments end up with a more civil discussion.

"It's much easier to hide behind a pseudonym and say anything you want than when you have to put your name on it and show who is making the comment," he said.

Kris Austin, the leader of the People's Alliance of New Brunswick, agrees with Doucet that anonymity is feeding the vehemence of the comments.

While many of the comments echo Austin's positions on bilingualism and duality, "we do need to keep some reason to it, and some civility to how we discuss it."

Tim Currie, professor at University of King's College in Halifax

University of King's College Prof. Tim Currie, who specializes in online journalism, says moderating comments is complicated and some news sites are moving away from comments sections. (University of King's College)

"With anonymity, they're not held accountable for what they say," he said. "Anybody can say anything about whatever they want, and it can be the most hateful, disgusting thing you'd ever read.

"People have to have the freedom to speak their mind, but I think there has to be some credibility and accountability in what they say in attaching their names to it, and CBC comments are no different."

But Tim Currie, a professor who specializes in online journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, says moderating comments is difficult.

"You blacklist a user and they show up under another username," he said.

He said he wasn't surprised at Doucet's letter because other media organizations have faced similar complaints.

But drawing the line is complicated, Currie said. Moderators must sift through thousands of comments, and the ones quoted in Doucet's letter, while "intolerant and disparaging," don't contain "the keywords of hate" such as profanity or explicit threats.

Currie says comment sections on news sites are declining industry-wide, with discussions moving to social media, where users choose who they associate with.