Racist anti-aboriginal slurs and offensive comments prompt Thompson Citizen to permanently close Facebook page

Today the Thompson Citizen ends its presence on Facebook, a presence we have had on Mark Zuckerberg's Palo, Alto, California social media website since March 10, 2010. As this story is posted, we are in the process of disabling our Facebook page.

Thompson Citizen publisher Brent Fitzpatrick, general manager Lynn Taylor and editor John Barker all concurred on the decision to end the newspaper's Facebook presence.

We won't mince words here. We're leaving because for some time commenters have been posting virulently racist anti-aboriginal comments on our page and tagging photos in a similar way, including our profile photo of the Thompson Citizen building this morning.

It ends here.

This newspaper is not going to stand by and let anti-aboriginal racists and haters spew their evil on a vehicle we're facilitating them using.

We can't control Facebook to any real extent, nor can we control what commenters think and say. Nor should we. But we can control where we have an online presence and where we don't. Newspapers, needless to say, are about free speech and the exchange of ideas in a democracy, often hotly contested ones, so leaving Facebook is not an easy decision. But it is the right one.

If you want to know where we stand as a newspaper, read our editorial, "Thompson: 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'" You can read it in print or find it online at: http://www.thompsoncitizen.net/article/20130130/THOMPSON0302/301309990/-1/thompson0302/thompson-a-house-divided-against-itself-cannot-stand

As a newspaper, you want to report the news, not be the news. As of this morning, we had an all-time high of 2,867 Facebook "friends" and Facebook itself counted one billion active users as of last October - meaning it had officially registered one-seventh of Earth's population. So, again leaving is not a step we take lightly. And we also know many Thompsonites have an affinity for Facebook that would make it the first place they would go look for us, even more so for some readers than our own website. That's the reality.

Facebook is not our website. That, too, is reality. We were guests there just like other users. While we could adjust some of our privacy settings, it was very, very difficult, if we were going to allow for "commenting" for any of our in-house "administrators" here to filter or control what was "posted" on our Facebook "wall" before it was posted, or published, as it were.

If a comment was deemed in our judgment to be offensive or inappropriate, we were almost always in the position of dealing with it after the fact. Some of our readers seem to think we're somehow "responsible" for our Facebook page and imagine we can control it to a degree that is not possible. Sorry, can't be done. So the "responsible" action for us to take is to say, sayonara, Facebook. Alas, racism never sleeps. Sadly, we don't expect that to change by our leaving Facebook, but we're not going to be a party to it on social media.

When former general manager Donna Wilson had the Thompson Citizen join Facebook almost three years ago, we hoped it would be a way to engage our online readers by showcasing our own stories and photos on our newspaper website at www.thompsoncitizen.com; allowing readers to comment, if they wished. Either we were a bit naïve to the potential for malicious mischief or the world of 2010 was a more innocent place. Perhaps some of both are true.

We also used our Facebook page frequently to post hypertext links to other media outlets carrying stories, photos and even opinion pieces we thought might interest and engage our readers, as well as blogs, Twitter feeds on occasion and YouTube videos. We also allowed our Facebook "friends" to post sometimes on our page; items like "lost pets" or maybe an upcoming charity event. You name it. It was a wide and eclectic mix. You might see a CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), or stories from many, many other outlets linked to on our Facebook page for an hour, a few hours, a day, etc., depending on the news cycle.

It didn't mean we endorsed what the other media were saying; it was meant simply to promote thinking and lively discussion, an order far too often exactly reversed on social media sites such as Facebook, we have found.

Why online commenting on news stories seems so often to bring out the worst in some people is a puzzle that researchers continue to study and those of us in the media never cease to wonder about. Is it the anonymity afforded them by many commenting modules that don't require real names, but only pseudonyms as usernames the problem? Perhaps. It seems likely much of what is said in online commenting would never be said face-to-face, person-to-person. If you are interested in a broader discussion on some of these issues, you might check out these links: "Robert Fisk: Anonymous comments and why it's time we all stop drinking this digital poison" at http://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/robert-fisk-anonymous-comments-and-why-its-time-we-all-stop-drinking-this-digital-poison-3349527.html, or Margaret Sullivan: Seeking a return to civility in online comments at http://fores.blogs.uv.es/2010/06/22/01-seeking-a-return-to-civility-in-online-comments/, or Katie Roiphe's Slate magazine article, "What's wrong with angry commenters?" at http://www.slate.com/articles/life/roiphe/2011/12/what_s_wrong_with_angry_commenters_.html

But Facebook requires users to use their real names (obviously some don't) so anonymity wasn't the problem in main for us there. Some of our most virulent, racist anti-aboriginal comments have come from commenters who were more than happy to sign their real names.

We will continue - at least for the time being - to allow commenting on DISQUS (dis·cuss d-sks'), created by Big Head Labs, Inc. and founded in San Francisco in 2007 by Daniel Ha and Jason Yan as a networked full discussion community platform, built on the Django high-level Python web framework, for you techno-geeks out there.

But again DISQUS is not our company. We're a customer using their software. While its filtering and moderation options are more effective than the free-for-all on Facebook, it, too, is far from perfect in screening out offensive or racist comments. So we'll be watching.

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