Online opinion should follow same rules as print

Wild West of internet opinion bloggers full of lunacy, hysterical libel and hate

Stu Salkeld, editor

When I was in college, we journalism students had a course called “Media Ethics.” Friends of mine in the police world call that name an oxymoron.

Anyhoo, in this course we were taught that our news coverage should be unbiased, our newspapers should treat all people equally, we should not play favourites and avoid libel, because we could be sued. And that’s bad. Libel is relatively easy to avoid: only print what you can prove.

In June, the owner of the Baconfat Chronicles, a bizarre internet blog, was charged with willful promotion of hatred, an indictable offense with a maximum of two years in prison. The Edmonton Police Service stated the Baconfat Chronicles had postings that encouraged violence or murder. For those unfamiliar, a blog is a website on the internet that features only opinion articles, usually written by the website owner. Most bloggers don’t bother to get a college education in opinion writing.

On July 12 it was reported Mr. Baconfat Chronicles had passed away, so obviously charges were dropped. The government won’t comment on how 67-year-old Barry Winters died.

I actually had a personal experience with this site. It cropped up while I was responsible for moderating comments on stories for a website a few years ago. A link had been posted, the posted link went to the Chronicles, I followed it and saw a disturbingly hysterical display of hatred. To add insult to injury was the horrid grammar on display.

This wasn’t the only experience I had with internet trolls’ self-therapy. At the newspaper in question we suffered a regular crew of trolls who posted on our stories comments that were hateful, toxic, profane accusations mostly against local politicians. In some cases the accusations were libelous. Of course, the vast majority of these courageous “trolls” used fake names and photos to hide their identity (including the Baconfat Chronicles person above).

I tracked one particularly prolific offender down. His behaviour was akin to a lunatic on our comment section, but once I phoned him and confronted him, he seemed very reasonable. I assumed it was because his identity was about to be revealed to all the people he defamed and attacked.

The online comment section is probably going the way of the dodo. Most major news websites now require registration through a third party like Facebook so someone else can share the liability for Baconfat-like behaviour, while other sites have cracked down on comments, closed them for some subjects or in some cases done away with commenting completely. Popular Science and Scientific American closed commenting on their websites because of nasty trolls.

I can understand strong commenting about things like wasting of tax dollars or incompetent politicians. But when the comments swing over to screaming obscenities and making death threats simply for personal satisfaction, trolls shouldn’t be surprised when karma catches up to them.

Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.

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