Uncivil discourse

Writing in the Toronto Star recently about CBC’s decision to suspend comments for a month, Navneet Alang said “the social media era has upended some of our most cherished ideas around speech — and that guaranteeing someone a platform for their feedback isn’t just unnecessary, it’s actively harmful.”

His article includes themes that I have covered a number of times in the past, in such posts as “The fourth degree”, in which I reminded readers that comments are moderated on this platform.

Alang wrote:

At its ideal, the comment section under a story can correct mistakes, challenge assumptions, and give voice to what was not depicted or described.

That does indeed happen on Facebook sometimes, even today. But what you also get in those same comment boxes are wild conspiracy theories, baseless ravings, misogyny, racism, and other forms of hatred, both subtle and outright, and more. It is in short a toxic stew, one in which the beneficial aspects of comments come with considerable costs.

Uncivil discourse isn’t just found in comments sections of news articles. Recently, a Canadian university professor cancelled his Twitter account after he was called out for writing a number of antisemitic posts, although he was rewarded with a $2.5M grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which apparently doesn’t care about unsocial behaviour by its recipients.

Last week, I observed that the discourse following the CRTC’s review of its error-filled 2019 wholesale rates decision has been over-the-top with inappropriate personal attacks, especially from anonymous accounts on Twitter. Since then, it seems to be getting worse, as these (often anonymous) commentators descend into old fashioned muck-raking which perversely accelerates the impression in the public’s mind that the CRTC lacks authority, integrity, and independence.

When such comments get amplified by official corporate blogs and Twitter accounts calling for the government to fire the Chair of the Commission, this serves to undermine the very concept of due process under the law. In Canada, if you don’t agree with a CRTC decision, there are 3 channels of appeal available; a coup d’état is not one of them.

Former CRTC vice-chair Michel Arpin wrote a reply to one of the attacks on the current CRTC chair, saying:

The decision was unanimous, no dissent by a group of 9 members. A fair number of these members have a telecom background particularly the two vice chairs who are long time civil servants having spent a major part of their career in telecommunications. So stop accusing Ian Scott.

As I wrote in April,

Confronted with inconvenient facts, apparently some people feel the need to resort to ad hominem attacks, rather than preserving the obscurity they so richly deserve.

I’m not offering a solution; I’m just finding there is some catharsis in venting.

Your comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “Uncivil discourse”

  1. Michael Connolly

    Calling for the firing of the Chair because one is not happy with a decision is totally inappropriate. What is the point of having an independent regulator if that regulator could be fired whenever a disaffected party could convince the government to do so? Who would ever take the position of Chair with that spectre hanging over them? This would terribly influence decision-making in the worst possible way. Calling for the firing of the Chair does great insult to carefully crafted institutional arrangements and reflects badly on those who make such a call. As you mention there are more than adequate established means of seeking redress if one believes the regulator has erred. Populism has no place in the administration of fair regulation.

  2. Jim Johannsson

    Today’s social media platforms allow self-interested parties to easily create populist campaigns to amplify their lobbying efforts. Many of these campaigns are intended to evoke emotional, not logical responses. “Fire the chair” and “CRTC scandal” are just two recent examples.

    The parties behind these emotive campaigns know their factual arguments are too weak to pass an unbiased, critical assessment. So they are trying to steer the debate in a different direction, away from the facts. It’s a direction that is intentionally personal, messy, and emotional. While they have whipped up some public support for their campaign they have also created significant anger and resentment in the very organizations they depend on for their survival, and that anger is getting worse. It’s an ill-conceived strategy that will ultimately fail and leave them even more vulnerable than they are today.

    Consider for a moment what would happen if the federal government capitulated to proponent demands and fired the chair and/or commission? Would a new chair or commission be inclined to help the proponents gain access to more incumbent facilities or more favourable wholesale pricing? Not likely. Would incumbents be more inclined to cooperate or would they instead fight every issue in the courts? Absolutely they would fight.

    An enterprise that is in the business of reselling telecom services has a startling dependence on incumbent facilities and the goodwill of the regulator. Going to war will end very badly for them.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top