Is it scale, not anonymity, that weighs down comments sections?

q tech columnist Clive Anderson on the debate around getting rid of reader posts under online news stories.

CBC News has temporarily switched off comments on stories about indigenous people and issues, citing the need to review how public feedback is moderated. Brodie Fenlon, acting director of digital news, explained the "difficult decision" at length in a post on the Editor's Blog.

For insight on this move and vitriolic threads more generally, Shad checks in with q tech columnist Clive Thompson.

Thompson argues that it may be scale, not anonymity, that drowns out thoughtful debate — and that massive audiences and meaningful discussion are a difficult pairing. 

q: Do you read the comments? Do they tend to generate more heat than light? How can we make comments sections — especially when opinions are divided and emotions run strong — a better forum for thoughtful discussion? Please lead by example below. 

WEB EXTRA | Brodie Fenlon explains the rationale behind closing the comments section under stories about indigenous people. Here's an excerpt:

We've seen thoughtful, insightful and moving comments on our pages. We've seen ignorant, ill-informed and objectionable comments as well. All of it is acceptable, in our view, in a marketplace of ideas where the issues of the day are freely debated and tested. For that to work, the debate must be respectful, even if it's vigorous and pointed.

But as our guidelines make clear, we draw the line on hate speech and personal attacks.

While there are a number of subjects and groups of people who seem to bring out higher-than-average numbers of worrisome comments, we find ourselves with a unique situation when it comes to indigenous-related stories.

We've noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines. Some of the violations are obvious, some not so obvious; some comments are clearly hateful and vitriolic, some are simply ignorant. And some appear to be hate disguised as ignorance (i.e., racist sentiments expressed in benign language).

This comes at the same time CBC News has made a concerted effort to connect with indigenous communities in order to improve our journalism and better reflect these communities to a national audience. The success of our Aboriginal unit and our investigative journalism around missing and murdered indigenous women are just two examples of that commitment.

We don't want violations of our guidelines by a small minority of our commenters to derail our good work or alienate our audience. So we're taking a pause to see if we can put some structure around this. We will reopen comments as soon as possible.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

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