You may have seen the story: TVA Nouvelles deleted a Facebook post pointing to a story about a house fire in Halifax that killed seven children (who happened to be from a Syrian family) because it received several unacceptable comments that appeared to make light of or even celebrate their deaths. Media personality Alexandre Champagne compiled some of those comments in a widely shared screenshot.
TVA Nouvelles posted another post and apologized, saying it would try to police its social media better next time.
I posted a link to the apology on Twitter and it got retweeted a bit, prompting a lot of discussion. I was interviewed for a CityNews story about it, during which I tried to say that a few comments on a Facebook page provides a skewed impression of the views of the audience — and larger population — as a whole.
Through the various discussions, I’ve seen a lot of statements that I feel are missing key context, so I’d like to try to add some of that here.
- The number. Champagne’s screenshot includes 10 comments (of which one says he was misinterpreted and meant to mock TVA’s sensationalism, but nevertheless apologized). People have given numbers from half a dozen to dozens, but I haven’t seen other screenshots. There are also people who used inappropriate reaction emojis, like the laughing face. Obviously one comment praising dead children is one too many, but compare this number with the more than 2,000 comments on the apology post. The vast majority are angrily negative toward those comments and the people who made them, and the rest are doing that thing where you comment on a Facebook post and tag someone instead of sharing it with them properly.
- Fake accounts. I tried searching for the profiles listed in the screenshots. I couldn’t find most of them, meaning they’ve either been shut down or suspended, changed their name, made themselves unsearchable or are otherwise hidden. While fake social media accounts is definitely a problem, and we’ve seen them used to sow political division in the U.S., there’s no evidence the accounts mentioned here are fake. Nor have we proven they are all genuine. But even if every account is some Russian bot, that doesn’t make this not a problem.
- Moderating Facebook. Some have asked: How did TVA allow those comments? Don’t they monitor social media? The truth is that unless you have a reason to, you’re not going to be keeping an eye on every comment attached to every post on Facebook. Most large media organizations don’t even make the Facebook posts themselves, but use programs and services to prepare and schedule posts for them. In the past 24 hours as I write this, TVA Nouvelles has posted 38 times to its Facebook page. Each of those posts has dozens of comments, some of them hundreds. The amount of human resources required to actively monitor all of that makes it not realistic to do so as a general rule.
- Responsibility. Do TVA, LCN and Quebecor as a whole have some responsibility here in nurturing a culture of suspicion against Muslims and immigrants? Maybe. Does Facebook have a responsibility in nurturing a platform where the most outrageous voices get the most attention? Maybe. Do we all have a responsibility here in having a society where people hold these views in the first place? Maybe. Take your pick. But if everyone spends all their time pointing fingers, nothing gets done.
- Whataboutism. It’s a classic defence in online debates. What about francophobia in the rest of Canada? What about all the hatred toward Quebec? That kind of prejudice also exists. Both are wrong.
- Quebec. Someone on Reddit compiled comments to a website’s story about TVA that blamed Quebec as a whole, or Quebec francophones, claiming they’re all racist. Needless to say, these people didn’t get the point.
- Not just TVA. The truth is these kinds of comments are found on Facebook pages all over the internet, on private groups and public posts. On Twitter and Instagram. Online and offline. We can do our best to silence them, but that doesn’t stop the people who hold those opinions from continuing to believe them. At best it’ll maybe contain the spread.
- Islamophobia semantics. Since Premier François Legault said there isn’t islamophobia in Quebec, I feel like we’ve been having a weird debate over semantics. In a segment on CHOI-FM, the hosts said there are islamophobes but no islamophobia, which makes no sense. People who say these things seem to think “there’s islamophobia in Quebec” means “all Quebecers hate Muslims”, which is the kind of logical fallacy we should be teaching three-year-olds about. So can we all agree that islamophobia exists and start talking about its extent or what we should do about it, rather than have people misunderstanding the basic definition of words?
- Darkness. A lot of people have responded to this story with anger. That’s understandable because these comments are abhorrent. But much of the reaction is headed in the direction of rage and hate. When faced with the dark souls of people whose minds have been poisoned, the response should not be to jump into the darkness with them and have a fistfight. We need to ask some tough questions to ourselves about how people come to these opinions, and how we can stop it. Whether it’s a lack of education or a lack of economic opportunity or mental illness or undue influence of outside manipulators or something else, we need to look at the root causes. People who lash out irrationally aren’t inhabited by some pure evil demon. They have some inner pain and don’t know how to deal with it in a mature fashion.
- The light. A GoFundMe page set up in the wake of the fire has raised $482,524 from 9,968 people in two days. A few childish hurtful comments have been overwhelmed by hundreds more pushing against that hate. The nature of social media and the news cycle may mean that the most outrageous minority gets the most attention, but we should not forget that the people on the side of good far outnumber the trolls in our society. That’s true on TVA’s Facebook page, on Facebook as a whole, on the internet as a whole, and in the world. Shine more of a light on that goodness.