Racist comments on Indigenous stories prompts outlets to turn them off

Protesters stand at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., on Sunday Feb. 23, 2020, during a protest in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

In a brief editorial that doesn’t pull punches, SooToday editor Mike Purvis announced this week that the site would be closing all comments on stories about Indigenous issues.

“It’s not that we don’t think it’s a topic worthy of discussion,” Purvis wrote. Au contraire, he explained:

“Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people is one of the most pressing things facing our country, and this community. Especially right now.

“It’s just that some of you don’t seem to have anything of value to say. And yet you keep saying it anyway. Over and over again. At length, and in hurtful and often hateful language.”

The editorial is gaining traction online, particularly as more media editors and comment moderators, including those at Global News, report increasingly vitriolic, violent and flat-out racist comments on their sites.

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And while SooToday is one of the first to announce a plan to close comments in the wake of the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests that have dominated recent news coverage, this is far from the first time that websites have blocked commenting in an attempt to contain racism.

So what exactly is it about online comment sections that makes people feel comfortable posting horrendous things, such as Purvis noted, like “Canadians would be better off if we could ‘live native free’”?

A team at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney in Australia did a 10-year systematic review of cyber-racism research. What they found is that the internet is a place where individuals and groups can easily spread divisive views.

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Researchers found that individuals — such as those posting hurtful, insensitive and racist comments about Indigenous people under stories mentioning Wet’suwet’en — mostly do it to hurt people and to find other like-minded people who will “confirm their racist views.”

An incredibly popular place for them to seek out people who share their racist views?

News commentary websites.

Their go-to strategies?

“Denying or minimising the issue of racism, denigrating ‘non-whites’, and reframing the meaning of current news stories to support their views,” the researchers wrote.

Click to play video: 'Author Desmond Cole discusses ‘The Skin We’re In’'
Author Desmond Cole discusses ‘The Skin We’re In’

Indeed, last December, Global News closed comments on the story of a Cree woman from Onion Lake Cree Nation who had been murdered.

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Daleen Kay Bosse, a much-loved wife and mother who was studying to be a teacher when she went missing, did not deserve to be targeted by hurtful, racist comments, her mother told Global News after reading through the existing comments, horrified. For some families, like Bosse’s, the hate can be so extreme as to make families regret speaking up about vital issues.

Those types of comments are what prompted SooToday to say enough is enough.

“In just the last two weeks we have seen you resort to slurs and hurtful stereotypes over and over again,” wrote Purvis.

He went on to write that commenters not only posted insensitive messages, but one called for peaceful protestors to be shot and several more suggested drivers run down those partaking in solidarity demonstrations.

Lest you think this issue is new to the most recent Wet’suwet’en actions, it isn’t.

CBC closed comments on most Indigenous-related stories in 2015 after realizing that they “draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines.” A few months later, CBC Indigenous staff read some of the comments posted under their stories, inspired by comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” segment.

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“You should go play in the park near us where the Indians play and murder and beat people,” one person tweeted.

“So what, now they want the government to oversee their drug use, their unprotected sex lives, etc? These people know the risks of their lifestyle,” tweeted another.

“They used to feed off the buffalo, now they feed off the white European,” tweeted yet another.

And on and on:

“Strange how the choices and ways aboriginals choose to live their lives are always the fault of government, police or the white man in general, maybe if you didn’t drink, do drugs, prostitution, etc… you wouldn’t get murdered.”

For the record, historians, experts and expert reports like the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry report and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports, have clearly illustrated the ways in which Indigenous people’s lives now continue to be negatively impacted by government legislation like the Indian Act and government policies like the residential school system.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau blasts legacy of ‘colonialism’ inherent in Canada’s history'
Trudeau blasts legacy of ‘colonialism’ inherent in Canada’s history

As Indigenous lawyer Naomi Sayers put it to Global News shortly after the MMIWG inquiry’s final report was released: Canada’s record on the treatment of Indigenous Peoples is indisputable.

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“You can’t debate that fact,” she said.

“Canada has a history of legislating Indigenous communities, Indigenous bodies and Indigenous systems to essentially annihilate them, do away with them and to erase them forever.”

Ultimately, the Australian researchers say the type of online racist commentary that often accompanies Indigenous-related stories is part of a “worrying trend.”

“We have now seen several examples of violent action perpetrated offline by isolated individuals who radicalise into white supremacist movements — for example, in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway, and more recently of Robert Gregory Bowers, who was the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

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Comments on are moderated after the fact, meaning on most stories you are free to submit using your Facebook account but your comments may be removed if they violate guidelines. Things like spam, graffiti, campaigning and advertising are prohibited and there’s a recommendation against SHOUTING.

For legal reasons, select stories do not allow comments. And for insensitivity and racism reasons, select stories have their comments closed when the amount of work required to moderate them interferes with newsgathering, which can occur when there is an excessive amount of vitriol.

As Purvis wrote on The SooToday, “We are, frankly, tired of presiding over a constant stream of divisive drivel that is completely at odds with the purpose of the stories we write, and with our mission as a news site.”

— with files from Maham Abedi

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