Since I started working in the community newspaper business, I’ve come to realize that one of the most challenging parts of my job is convincing sources of the importance of speaking on record. On a regular basis people call me or stop me in the street to tell me an interesting story, but finish the conversation with: “Just don’t quote me on that.”
As utterly frustrating as that is for someone who tells stories for a living, I understand. Our area is very small and tightknit. Speaking your mind on an issue can be part of the process of bringing about positive change, but on the flip side it may also put you at risk of repercussions at work or—at the very least—a really awkward conversation down the road with someone you know in your community. But still, it’s difficult to get to the heart of important issues and bring about that positive change if you can’t convince your sources to open up publicly. There are limits to free speech, but it certainly is one of the most crucial freedoms of living in a democracy and we shouldn’t feel restricted from exercising it.
But then there’s the Internet. Ohhh, the Internet. How many times have I come across an online comment that piques my interest, but try to convince that person to elaborate on their comment for the purpose of a newspaper article? It’s like pulling teeth. It’s not uncommon for me to hear something like: “I posted that on Facebook, but I don’t want to comment about it in the newspaper. I’d prefer to keep it private.” Newsflash: Facebook posts are not private; even when you might think they are. (Case in point: the 13 Dalhousie University dentistry students who were suspended after they made or “liked” misogynistic comments about their female classmates on a school-related, private, password protected Facebook page. The comments were leaked to media and published.)
And what about anonymous posts? How many times have you scrolled to the bottom of an online article where anonymous commenters rip apart the author, or a politician, or a business owner? It’s so much easier to speak your mind or criticize someone if no one knows who you are, isn’t it?
Enter “Red Lake Confessions”; the area’s newest Facebook site whereby people send their confessions to an anonymous administrator operating under an anonymous e-mail. The administrator then anonymously posts on the site for anyone and everyone to browse at liberty. Only the names of the people who “like” or comment on the posts are displayed. The site contains everything from innocent confessions, to rants, to finger pointing at specific local people, businesses, and organizations.
People don’t filter their online behaviour like they do in person, and especially not when they can remain anonymous by hiding behind the “electronic curtain of the Internet.” I think it doesn’t hurt to take a moment and think before you associate yourself with a potentially defamatory comment. (Remember, some of those Dalhousie students were suspended on the grounds that they “liked” their classmates’ comments whether they literally liked them or not.)
According to Toronto-based Internet and defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony, it’s not easy or cheap for someone to pursue legal action on the basis of cyber libel and defamation, especially if the commenter was anonymous.
“If it’s one person constantly badgering or bullying another person they [police] are more inclined to use the ‘criminal harassment’ part of the code versus the defamatory or libel section of the code,” he explained in a 2013 Global News article.
But there are examples of the court ordering the anonymous defendant to step forward. In 2011, in Manson v John Doe, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered the anonymous defendant to identify himself (or herself) and to provide his address and the names and addresses of the anonymous co-defendants.
The court held that anonymity “should not be uniformly expected or ensured merely because the Internet is used as the defamatory communication tool.”
Some people consider confessions sites a lighthearted and fun form of entertainment, and my intention here is not to completely rain on anyone’s parade or play fearmonger. Confessions sites can also have the potential to positively impact someone’s life. I’ve read stories of people who, through anonymous online posts and the support they garnered through an online community, got over their fear of “coming out of the closet,” began to understand their Asperger Syndrome, or got through a gambling addiction. So it’s not all bad.
But, when it becomes a toxic cesspool of hostility, perhaps it’s time to step back. Stay classy, folks!
I realize that this editorial may direct readers to the Red Lake Confessions Facebook page. I have used the page merely as an example to highlight an important issue, it does not imply that The Northern Sun News approves of or endorses its content.