Social media graces? Online commenting in a new media age

The struggle to define acceptable and accountable internet conversations continues

Many in the community are still struggling to come to a consensus on what are the proper standards for posting on social media.

Her picture appeared May 5 on a public Facebook discussion group for the community of Cedar, a rural area just south of Nanaimo.

She is thin, her skin worn, her eyes downcast behind dark glasses. She has unwashed, lank hair, streaked with blond and pulled back by a spotted clip the colour of smoke.

According to a post shared 390 times she is a crackhead and a potential thief, scoping the community for targets.

On its surface, the post appears to be a well-intended warning, aimed at making the neighbourhood aware of a possible threat to their properties. It is also obviously defamatory, libellous if untrue, and presented in such a way that would make the most torpid editor or news director smack their reporter upside the head with a copy of the latest Canadian Press style guide.

Except this is not traditional media. This is social media.

The “reporters” are not trained, nor beholden to any kind of professional standard, station manager, nor publisher. They answer to themselves and to their online community as they see fit.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube — welcome to the glorious modern era of free speech, where every citizen has been empowered with their own personal printing press and the community is still finding its way on how to best moderate this Wild West of information.

Vancouver Island University digital media professor Alanna Williams said we are witnessing a revolution in communication and thought exchange that parallels and dwarfs the invention of the press, the social impact of which has yet to be determined.

“It’s a changing society and we don’t know and we won’t know that for another 100 years,” she said.

The positives of this revolution for supporters of the democratic principles of public empowerment, freedom of speech and access to information are obvious. The world and its citizens are at your fingertips. The principle of “never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel” has lost much of its power.

But those who want a safe and orderly society might say it is also akin to giving a child a loaded gun.

The Cedar Facebook discussion following the above post framed the debate well: you see some citizens using the power of social media to warn their neighbours about a potential risk and share information about mental health and addiction support services; you see others sharing fears about false accusations and a lynch-mob mentality.

The issue is not limited to Facebook. The Toronto Star, the CBC, the Sun chain and numerous media outlets worldwide have taken recent steps to limit commentary on their websites. The most common reasons cited are racism and rage.

Online conversations can foster a climate of distance where people feel they can act without consequence in a way they never would face to face. They can also create the illusion that you are having a private verbal conversation in the corner of a coffee shop with friends.

Williams talks about how people need to understand they are actually having public interactions that can have serious repercussions and are very hard to erase.

“We need to interrupt that everyday take-it-for-grantedness (with) a sense of consequences for realizing the implications of their actions,” she said.

One place where the issue can manifest itself very easily is the heated arena of political discourse.

“Yes, this has been an unfortunate issue for both staff and elected officials and is of concern to us,” Campbell River Mayor Andy Adams said. “While it may be a ‘freedom of speech’ issue, nobody deserves to be subjected to some to malicious and defamatory comments that are becoming far too common, especially when it impacts people’s family members, particularly children.”

Last summer, the District of Saanich had a lengthy debate about posts being left on Mayor Richard Atwell’s official mayoral Facebook page. A divided council argued over whether they were endorsing potentially damaging comments by leaving the comments on the site, or censoring public speech by taking them off.

But the issue extends beyond what is posted to official forums.

The City of Nanaimo was concerned enough about the issue that it hired a lawyer to send letters to three Facebook discussion forums asking them to remove unspecified posts that allegedly attack the character and competency of staff, and prevent similar posts from appearing in the future.

Even though the comments were on privately maintained sites not affiliated with the city, the letter said the criticism amounts to workplace harassment and bullying.

Williams is not so sure. She sees the internet taking power away from traditional authorities and putting it into the hands of the public. Nanaimo’s action can be interpreted as an attempt to halt that.

“I do pay attention to these kinds of trends and this one seemed really clear,” she said. “Institutions have been the traditional holders of power. The city responded by trying to control.”

David Sutherland, a prominent Vancouver-based free speech and media lawyer, took that one step further. He suggested the city’s attempt to make this a harassment issues is essentially an attempt to wrap the wolf of censorship in sheep’s clothing. He said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms remains paramount online and if the right to free speech is being abused, remedies are available.

“Civil servants are not immune from criticism. In many cases, calling them out by name may be the only way to inhibit misbehaviour,” he said.

It would be false to assume the internet is a lawless place where people are powerless to protect themselves from malicious comments. Those who spread false information about others can be held accountable and were in a pair of prominent recent decisions in B.C. court.

On April 20, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered Katherine Van Nes of Abbotsford to pay her neighbour Douglas Pritchard, a teacher, $65,000 after she and others made posts on her Facebook page in 2014 that falsely created the impression he was a pedophile.

“The seriousness of Ms. Van Nes’ defamatory Facebook post, her replies, and the comments of her “friends” cannot be overstated,” Justice Anthony Saunders wrote in his reasons for judgement. “An accusation of pedophilic behaviour must be the single most effective means of destroying a teacher’s reputation and career, not to mention the devastating effect on their life and individual dignity.”

On May 6, the B.C. Supreme Court awarded Vancouver businessman Altaf Nazerali $1.25 million as a result of a lengthy 2011 posting by the American website Deep Capture that falsely alleged he was an arms dealer and drug trafficker with ties to the mafia and to terrorists.

In his reasons for judgement, Justice Kenneth Affleck said the actions of author Mark Mitchell and Deep Capture CEO Patrick Byrne demonstrated an “indecent and pitiless desire to wound.

“Mitchell, Byrne and Deep Capture LLC engaged in a calculated and ruthless campaign to inflict as much damage on Mr. Nazerali’s reputation as they could achieve,” he wrote. “It is clear on the evidence that their intention was to conduct a vendetta in which the truth about Mr. Nazerali himself was of no consequence.”

In the Pritchard case the offensive comments were voluntarily deleted by Van Nes a little more than a day after being posted. In the Nazerali case, the court banned the defendants from publishing the libellous material online or elsewhere and ordered Google to block the article from coming up on any online search.

The quest to scrub the internet of defamatory material isn’t always easy, however, as the 2013 case of Lee David Clayworth indicated. Clayworth successfully sued a vengeful ex-girlfriend for her online attacks while the Canadian teacher was living in Malaysia, but the girlfriend continued to post on a variety of sites. Malaysian court orders proved ineffective on websites based in other countries and pleas to individual sites to remove the posts frequently fell on deaf ears.

While international laws dealing with these types of cases is lacking, indications exist that Canadian law is becoming increasingly sensitive to the issue.

“In my view the potential in the use of internet-based social media platforms for reputations to be ruined in an instant, through publication of defamatory statements to a virtually limitless audience, ought to lead to the common law responding, incrementally, in the direction of extending protection against harm in appropriate cases,” Judge Saunders wrote in the Van Nes decision.

The courts, however, remain an expensive arena of last resort for the most serious of cases. The preferred path is a community that conducts its online conversation in a civil, responsible manner, where posters hold each other accountable. For Williams, that comes through education — teaching people what is acceptable in the online world and what isn’t.

”If people are going to be online and we want to them to conduct themselves a certain way, how are we going to get there?” she said. “The ability to understand what modes of conduct are best for the media they are in; the ability to discern. One of the challenges is for kids today they don’t think of it as an ‘other.’”

The need for education doesn’t just apply to people who are too comfortable in the online world. It also should be a consideration for those who don’t yet trust it, or fully appreciate its potential for good. The City of Nanaimo letter is one such example.

“There wasn’t any evidence that anything wrong had been done. If the city had looked at this as an opportunity to learn, they may have come at it from a different way.”

Williams remains optimistic that the online world can create connections that foster more understanding and stronger communities. It comes down to knowing your sources, questioning what you read, and treating online conversations like the useful public forum they should be.

Ultimately, the desired result could be a Star Trek world, where an informed, accepting society has moved away from a black-and-white system of values and understands life is complex, with room for many variations.

She said there is already evidence to support that is already happening.

“Much of the online culture is chronicled through Reddit. This generation has a much more open mind and a real desire to have quality conversations,” she said. “The way to take apart complex systems is to look at them holistically. You can’t control complex systems. You can understand and look at them.”

In that more nuanced environment, North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure said people who step over the line eventually get exposed for who they are.

“It is my belief (or is it hope) that those who abuse social media inevitably discredit themselves and have no influence beyond their small circle of disciples,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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