When irresponsible reporting inspires online hate

When irresponsible reporting inspires online hate
Quebec Premier François Legault recently spoke out about the online hate he and other politicians receive. “It’s changed in the past few months,” he wrote on Facebook. “Every time I post something, I’m treated to an avalanche of aggressive comments, sometimes even violent ones, to insults, obscenities and even threats.” 

Legault went on to say that “something must be done,” and asked his social media team to monitor and clean up his page. His message unleashed an outpouring of support from Quebec politicians and public figures, themselves often targets of hateful comments and online threats. Some even requested a code of ethics for social media. 

Where have they been all this time? 

I think it’s great that the Premier and others in his circle are finally speaking out about online hate. I don’t downplay the abuse they receive and how it manifests online. I also suspect the pandemic has unravelled something in a lot of people, unleashing additional layers of toxicity.

But Legault and everyone else so eager now to empathize with this message shouldn’t only notice or believe the amplitude of the problem when it affects them directly. Some of us (women, racial and religious minorities) have been yelling about this issue for years. Legault’s message comes along exactly six years after I and many other Quebec feminists co-signed an open letter (published in Le Devoir) urging the government to treat online harassment with the seriousness it deserves and calling for the legal tools to defend ourselves with new expanded legislation. 

During those six years no action in that direction has been undertaken. So, while I can empathize with Legault’s sudden aha moment and recognize that media platforms lack the interest to monitor and hold abusers accountable, I can’t help but raise my eyebrow at the suggestion that it’s “changed in the past few months.” It’s been bad for a long time, Mr. Legault. You just haven’t noticed because it didn’t target you. 

Legault is guilty of what so many people benefiting from white privilege and/or male privilege are guilty of. I know that to some of you these terms are loaded, and you’ll immediately brand me as a “social activist warrior” or a “woke” or whatever dismissive term those unable to listen to minority grievances are calling us these days. But the terms define a specific state of mind: The denial of a problem whose severity is either completely bypassed or seen as exaggerated because it has yet to, or never quite will, affect someone to the same degree. And if it’s social media trolls that primarily dole out the hate, they are often aided by mainstream media that often contributes (intentionally and unintentionally) to perpetuating popular biases, stigmatizing minorities and making them easy targets of online toxicity.

The invasion of the Jews

Someone recently asked me if I think that the social media hoopla taking place over a recent TVA banner was “an example of how we currently socially reward outrage.” The short answer is no. 

The banner they were referring to involves the TVA Nouvelles news network airing an interview with the president of the union representing custom workers at the border. In it, the union president stated around 8,000 people, many of them Jewish, crossed the Lacolle border in the past 48 hours for Passover. The TV banner that TVA chose to run with? “8,000 Jews in 48 hours at the border.” 

LCN headline

It should come as no surprise that a banner singling out a religious minority as somehow bypassing pandemic rules and scapegoating them as the ones to blame for any upticks in COVID cases would bring out every racist and anti-Semite online. Does the Premier care to see an “avalanche of hate”? He should go take a quick look under that TVA report. I did and it wasn’t pretty. 

The worst part about all this? Not only was the deliberately misleading banner singling out a religious group and exposing them to online abuse, but none of the information cited in the story was true. 

A few hours later, a CTV interview with a spokesperson from the Canadian Border Services Agency specified that a total of 7,557 travellers entered Quebec in that 48-hour period, through all ports of entry. Most of the people crossing were essential workers (like truckers), exempt from the 14-day quarantine, along with some Canadians who are Jewish coming home for Passover. The spokesperson also said that the figure was comparable to the numbers of previous weeks. 

Faced with social media anger over the inflammatory banner, the online article was quickly changed to “8,000 people,” but of course screenshots live forever and quickly circulated online, and an entire community that had done nothing to merit it was subjected to online hate because of a false narrative no one bothered to fact-check. 

Majority bias in media can fuel hate

In 2017, I wrote about media’s responsibility to report carefully after TVA published a badly sourced, unverified news story alleging that female construction workers had been removed from a construction site near two Montreal mosques. According to the story, the demand was made to the construction company by mosque administrators who didn’t want women near their place of worship during Friday prayers. 

The report sparked a torrent of outrage from politicians and pundits, and threats from extreme far-right group la Meute, outraged the mosque would make such an outrageous demand. Only it hadn’t. The reporter never bothered to ask for a comment from mosque administrators. Probably, I suspect, because the story reinforced and confirmed popular biases about the Muslim religion with regards to its treatment of women. 

Exactly one year after the unfounded report appeared, TVA issued an apology, but the damage was done. The story ran the very same year the Quebec City Mosque shooting happened, which alone should have served as a reminder of how corrosive online hate can be with very real consequences for those vilified. But somehow it didn’t.

Calixa Lavallée high school students outside church circa 2007–2008

Not to be outdone by TVA, Le Journal de Montréal (another Québecor outlet) ran a story last Friday about street gangs and fraud involving CERB payments. The image accompanying the story was of a group of young Black people, with the caption, “Street gang members, a few days ago, in the city.” The image was immediately signalled by many members of Montreal’s Black community, who pointed out that the image was a) not recent (it’s from 2007–2008), and b) depicts a group of Black students from Calixa Lavallée high school in line to attend church. Nothing says street gang activity quite like a bunch of kids attending a religious service. The image was quickly removed online, but it lives on in print.

Journal de Montréal headline

Even though the journalist whose name appears in the byline immediately apologized, journalists are rarely if ever in charge of choosing their headlines or the images that accompany their stories. That responsibility lies with editorial management, web editors, senior producers, and so on. One can’t help but ask, what about the image yelled “street gang” in their minds? The Black faces, the hoodies? How was this image saved in their image bank that it came up on a search for ‘street gangs’? If this isn’t an example of implicit bias in reporting, I don’t know what is. Along similar lines, the union president might have chosen to mention that most people crossing the border were of Jewish faith, but it was an editorial decision not to fact-check that with border services and to choose “8,000 Jews in 48 hours at the border” for the TV banner. 

Québecor produces almost half of the news content in this province but withdrew from the Quebec Press Council back in 2010. As a result, it faces no repercussions for these questionable reports and is under no obligation to adhere to any ethical and professional journalistic standards.

If the Premier insists that we need to have a serious discussion about online hate, then it’s also high time for Quebec’s politicians and pundits to recognize the significant role some of Quebec’s most popular media outlets often play in demonizing minorities and fuelling the marginalization of groups that already face the brunt of prejudice and racism. Fallacious reports lead to a torrent of online hate, too. That, in turn, often leads to physical violence in real life. We shouldn’t wait for the targets to be politicians, news anchors or popular talk show hosts for us to notice or care. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.
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