Anonymity on CBC comments has to end, indigenous scholar says

Aboriginal scholars and activists in Winnipeg agree that if comments are to return to CBC stories on indigenous people, commenters shouldn't be allowed anonymity.

CBC temporarily closes commenting on stories about indigenous people

The University of Manitoba’s Niigaan Sinclair said if comments are turned on for CBC stories about indigenous people, people should have to use their real names.

Aboriginal scholars and activists in Winnipeg agree that if comments are to return to CBC stories on indigenous people, commenters shouldn't be allowed anonymity.

"People can make up fake Facebook accounts if you want, that's fine, but there has to be names attached to the comments people make," Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the native studies department at the University of Manitoba, said Tuesday.

On Monday, the CBC temporarily closed comments on stories about indigenous people and issues, pending a review of how they are moderated.

Brodie Fenlon, CBC's acting director of digital news, provided a detailed explanation.

"We've noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines," Fenlon wrote in a blog post.

Comments might be turned on again in January after "we've had some time to review how these comments are moderated and to provide more detailed guidance to our moderators," he said.

Sinclair said if comments are turned back on, people should have to use their real names.

"It has to be names," he said. "My biggest criticizer out there is a person called, 'YUUUUUUUUUUPPP!!!' You can't have a dialogue with that."

'Is it really free speech?' activist asks

Community activist Michael Kannon, who was involved in the Idle No More movement in Winnipeg, agreed that commenters should be required to use their real names.

If you're bold enough to make such statements, then you should be bold enough to own them with your real name and face.- Michael Kannon

"Is it really free speech if you have to hide under anonymity and darkness?" he said.

Kannon said Idle No More was largely driven by social media, including the comments sections on websites, and he has engaged with some commenters to explain First Nations treaties and other issues.

"I saw people — I guess trolls, you would call them these days — just really besmirching and trying to rob the dignity of indigenous people everywhere and I felt that you had to challenge that — the stereotypes, the bigotry, just ugly rude comments," he said.

Kannon said he's divided on the CBC's decision to close comments on indigenous stories. While he appreciates a "cooling-off period," he added, "Is it really a surrender to people trying to disrupt and make hateful comments?"

He added that he believes there is a "disproportionate negativity" in website comments that is not truly reflective of Canadian society.

"Why shut it down because a handful of ignorant, racial stereotypes? Hold them to the comments. Make them own them," he said.

"I agree with doing away with the anonymity. If you're bold enough to make such statements, then you should be bold enough to own them with your real name and face."

He said he hopes the public broadcaster will include input from indigenous people and other minority groups to decide on a "good framework and structure for a responsible comment section."

'We're in a really sad place'

In the meantime, the internet is not where Canada's great debates are happening, Sinclair said.

"If we're going to be depending on internet commentaries to have that really important national conversation, we're in a really sad place," he said.

"There are other places that that happens all the time: classrooms, mayoral campaigns, national election campaigns — these are really important forums because people can put names to them, can be responsible for their views, and then we can have a true and honest dialogue as adults, not children on an internet page."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman had those conversations during his campaign and said he's remained committed to continuing them by being as accessible as possible online.

"I am active on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram," he said. "As a public official, I receive feedback, sometimes critical, sometimes very disturbing as well. For me, it's something that I do pay attention to and try to learn and listen from."

Fenlon said there are a number of positives to online commenting, including fulfilling CBC's mandate as a public broadcaster.

"We believe it's important to provide the public with a democratic space where they can freely engage and debate the issues of the day," Fenlon wrote.

Sinclair said the forums do provide opportunity for allies to speak up, and that's happening increasingly across the country.

"I think these views and opinions are disappearing. They're fading because they're archaic views from the 1950s around Indigenous Peoples as uncivilized savages that are just manifested in words like 'drunks' now and words like 'welfare bums,'" he said.

"[But] they're still very much with us. I handle them every day. People refer to me as 'you people' all the time."