Some B.C. municipalities are turning off comments on their Facebook posts to protect their staff
Fernie and Tofino set up their own discussion platforms as online bullying increasingly spills into real world
Two B.C. municipalities have disabled comments on their official Facebook pages amid concerns that threats and harassment aimed at councillors and staff on social media are increasingly happening in person.
The District of Tofino, a community of almost 2,000 on Vancouver Island, says it decided several months ago to restrict comments on its Facebook and Instagram posts due to what it describes as "an increase in bullying and harassing comments," according to an emailed statement to CBC News.
Fernie chief administrative officer Michael Boronowski says online bullying of city staff and councillors has spilled over to the real world, making them feel unsafe to do their work.
"Things become heated on social media and all of a sudden, people are angry in the community," he said.
"We've certainly felt unsafe in our homes. I myself have had to tell my kids, 'Look, when that car goes by, you don't go outside and you tell dad when you see that car,' more than once. I've been followed from workplace to workplace. So, it's a very real concern."
Fernie Mayor Ange Qualizza says she had four staff members moderating Facebook comments, but she concluded it wasn't a good use of taxpayers' money.
"We can't have someone sitting on Facebook all day long deleting comments," Qualizza said. "We're not trying to limit engagement … we're trying to make sure that the information that goes out on our behalf stays intact."
"We don't want the information that's leaving our office to get diluted or confused in the community."
Qualizza says Facebook is no longer an ideal platform for meaningful conversations, and now her city is encouraging residents to register with its online platform Let's Talk Fernie to express their opinions on policies.
Tofino chief administrative officer Bob MacPherson says his municipality has established a similar platform called Talk Tofino! to foster civilized dialogue between residents on local issues.
"We've seen an increase in the number of people using that platform," he said. "People still don't agree with us on everything, [but] they're much more measured in how they present those concerns."
University of Ottawa law professor Stéphane Émard-Chabot, who served as an Ottawa city councillor from 1994 to 2000, says municipalities often have limited resources to respond to online abuses, and municipal councillors often don't run with a political party that can provide support to counter-attacks online.
Émard-Chabot says removing anonymity is a key step to ensure a respectful civic discourse and encourage public service.
Both Fernie and Tofino online platforms require users to provide a valid email address among other proofs of identity and residence to register.
"If you don't do that, things will degenerate," Émard-Chabot said. "The community itself becomes a poorer community because the good people will not want to engage. People will not want to run for office. Good people will not want to take a job with the municipality if they think they're going to be subject to ongoing threats."
In the year leading up to the Montreal area's municipal elections this month, several politicians said they were giving up their seats, citing toxic social media comments and harassment as reasons.
Facebook started allowing users and pages to close comments early this year.
With files from Daybreak South, The Canadian Press and Laura Marchand