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The case for closing comments

When the Prince George Free Press closed its doors a few years back, Roy Spooner and I set about creating something to fill the void.

We both felt the community needed more, not less, media outlets (not to mention we were both out of work). While we both agreed that more media was needed, we arrived at it from different angles.

For me, I felt the community was better served with more journalists asking pesky questions and giving the public more information about what was going on around them.

For Roy, media was more about engaging the community in a public discussion on the issues of the day. He wanted to create something that dug deeper than the headlines and the sound bytes, which truly examined and debated our society.

We really were on the same page. We believed, and still do, that public debate is crucial to a functioning democracy.

So much so that when building the Prince George Daily News web platform, I installed web forum software with the hope of doing just that. 250 News was still in its heyday then and readers were flocking to that site for news, but also for the string of comments just about every story generated. It was mostly a small group of people beaking off all the time and rarely were they debating the story they had just, supposedly, read. The comments were often colourful, abusive, mean, and nasty, but sometimes actually had pearls of wisdom and thought. While many readers checked the site out to read the comments, others tuned out because they didn’t need the shit-show.

Roy and I wanted to create something similar in terms of debate only rather than a Grade 6 level of discourse, maybe a Grade 10 level. The only problem was, and is, Facebook. I’ve stated before that I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. It sucks advertising dollars out of local markets like there’s no tomorrow. However, it does the same job that hundreds of paper carriers did/do for newspapers … delivers the product to readers.

And, it readily allows users to comment unchecked on news stories we post. At first, getting comments was a good thing. It meant people were reading and they were engaged. However, it soon became apparent that many, many of the users were neither reading the stories, nor were they engaged. They simply wanted to be abusive, or racist, or misogynistic all three or, more recently, spread stupid, dangerous lies that, for some crazy reason, others take as gospel. From Trudeau haters to anti-vaxxers, I barely hit ‘send’ on a story before they’ve got their fingers flying.

Over time, I found that an inordinate amount of my day was taken up monitoring and deleting Facebook comments and banning users, who Facebook always seems to let back on the PG Daily News page.

Readers often say “you should be investigating this or that,” and I’d love to but I spend most of my time being a hall monitor to bullies and idiots.

Only recently has Facebook made some changes which allow me to close comments on individual stories and I’m grateful because previously I could only go in after the fact and delete messages. Now, I can simple close off comments before the shit-show begins.

We’ve been closing off comments on select stories on our Facebook page for a few weeks now, and will continue to do so. CBC has already done this for many of the same reasons I’ve outlined above, plus the personal online attacks on reporters which, thankfully I haven’t been subject to (other than the one guy who called me a lefty snowflake but that’s not too serious).

In Fernie, my hometown, the city has closed Facebook comments on its page as well, for the same reasons. It actually took the administrator of a local Facebook group to court and got a nine-month restraining order placed on him. After the nine months was up, he was back at it.

And just for the record, this is not a free speech issue, which what those who want to spew vitriol at everyone and everything like to espouse.

You have the right to say whatever you like, however I’m not obligated, in any way, to broadcast it. Plus, we’re interested in debate and community discourse, which isn’t happening.

Now for the kicker for those who have made it this far, you can still comment at the end of this story. The difference is commenting here is actually on the Prince George Daily News site, which offers me much more control. In addition, if you’re commenting here you have to have at least scrolled through the story you’re commenting on.

You can also send an old-fashioned letter to the editor at bill@pgdailynews.ca.

Who knows, maybe I’ll revisit community forum software. Thanks for reading.

 

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