This past week saw the opening of the case against Jian Ghomeshi on multiple counts of sexual assault, and it did not go well for the Crown. In the eyes of many that would be to put it mildly, as the defence used private emails from the first two complainants to raise concerns about their reliability and credibility as witnesses. In doing so, important questions also arose over the prosecution and defence of such cases in general.
This morning I was looking forward to going online and reading discussion of what happened, as well as commentary on its broader meaning. When I say “discussion” what I’m mainly referring to is not news coverage so much as public discussion in the comment threads that typically follow news articles on the Internet. I don’t comment myself on these, but I do like to see what other people are thinking and to take note of any trends and divisions taking shape in the public mind.
I was disappointed. In recent months, public commenting on news stories has become an endangered activity. In 2015 both Sun Media and the Toronto Star disallowed commenting on their websites. Other news sites will allow commenting on some stories but disable comments on anything smelling of controversy (that is, the stories that usually attract the most comments). As a general rule, criminal cases or anything involving Israel stand at the top of the list of taboo subjects.
And so I went looking in vain for some indication of what ordinary people were thinking about the Ghomeshi case. There were a few op-ed pieces in the Star but, as noted, you can’t comment on the Star website. There were also a couple of op-eds in the Globe and Mail, but the comments were closed on both of them, as well as on any story relating to the trial. Christine Blatchford’s reportage on the trial at the National Post, as well as any other story about the proceedings at the Post, have their comments disabled. The CBC’s Ghomeshi coverage does not allow commenting. Even across the pond the British Guardian did not allow any comments on its Ghomeshi story. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, Thou Shalt Not publicly express an opinion on these matters that has not been studiously vetted and approved.
I can see some of where this is coming from. These sources don’t want to be liable for everything said on their websites, though I’m unsure of just how liable they would be. A story like the Ghomeshi case might be expected to bring out the worst in troll behaviour, and board moderators might be expected to put in some overtime overseeing heated discussions.
But that said, I think this is a terrible loss. Open discussion of important, controversial current events was one of the great things the Internet brought to news coverage. Sure there are some bad apples, but I’ve found lots of informed, intelligent, provocative discussion in news threads, just as I find a lot of anonymous Amazon product reviews quite helpful. On occasion I’ve even seen the authors of op-eds forced to backtrack when shown to be wrong by anonymous posters with silly avatars and made-up names. Meanwhile, discussion of topics like foreign policy and criminal law, however heated, speak to the essence of the rationale behind the preservation of free speech: promoting greater engagement with politics and civil society.
What is the alternative? Only allowing acceptable, mainstream opinions to be expressed publicly? Are the rest of us just to be satisfied with commenting on celebrities (as long as we don’t say anything too negative) and arguing over who’s going to win the SuperBowl? Is criticism to be neutered, leaving us only with Facebook’s thumbs-up “like” icon (with no “dislike” available)? Are comment threads just a tool for driving up website traffic and selling stuff? I often hear complaints about how trashy, tabloid infotainment, click bait, and listicles dominate Internet “news,” but if that’s all that the public are allowed to engage with, while “hard news” remains in a roped-off V.I.P. reserve, who can blame us?
It’s a depressing trend that I can’t see any end to. Which leads me to ask: Did the trolls win?