Maybe it was Mark Steyn’s assertion that Islam is taking
over the world that got to you. Or Ezra Levant’s reprinting
of the Muhammad cartoons. Or perhaps you simply disagree with
Terry Milewski’s portrayal of the Indo-Canadian community.
What’s your next step?
One option that’s become increasingly popular is filing
a human rights complaint. Steyn has had such complaints lobbied
against him in both Ontario and British Columbia. Ditto for
Levant in Alberta.
Another means of recourse for the offended party is a civil
suit. After Milewski’s Samosa Politics aired
on CBC’s The National, the network was hit with
a $110 million lawsuit by the World Sikh Organization. The WSO
alleged the piece had slandered not only its reputation but
also the reputation of the Sikh community as a whole.
A CRTC complaint, if applicable, is a third option. The Canadian
regulator prohibits licensees from broadcasting “any abusive
comment that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to
expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred
or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin,
colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or
There are letters to the editor. There are letters to your MLA.
And there’s always heading down to an organization’s
official headquarters for an impromptu protest.
But one response to offensive journalism that’s gained
a lot of steam in recent years is online advocacy journalism.
The most famous example might well be the Killian documents
that led to Dan Rather’s departure from CBS.
On September 8, 2004, in a segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday,
Rather told the story of President George W. Bush’s preferential
treatment when he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard.
Supporting the story was a series of memos purported to be from
Bush’s commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian.
A number of online right-wing advocates, from influential bloggers
to their anonymous readers, were convinced that the papers were
forgeries filled with lies. These people set about proving as
much, pointing to the fact that one of the fonts used in the
memos didn’t even exist when the documents were said to
have originated. Others recreated the exact papers in Microsoft
Word with little to no effort.
While CBS originally disputed the claims – former
network executive Jonathan Klein went so far as to dismiss the
advocates as “a guy sitting in his living room in his
pajamas writing” with no credibility – the network
soon realized its documents couldn’t be verified and admitted
its mistake. The advocates had won.
While much has been made of this victory for the bloggers, a
new attempt at online advocacy journalism – one gaining
in popularity by the hour – has been largely ignored.
I’m talking, of course, about Facebook.
Facebook is, in its own words, “a social utility that
connects you with the people around you.” It boasts more
than 70 million active members and the social networking site
generates the fifth-most traffic of any webpage in the world.
Any Facebook user can create a group and the site currently
hosts more than six million of them. The topics range from the
popular 1990s television show Saved by the Bell to
the writings of Tolstoy to the starvation of children in developing
countries. And whenever an event of any consequence takes place,
a Facebook group expressing a viewpoint on that event surfaces
within a few hours, at most.
If we use Mr. Webster’s traditional definition of journalism,
Facebook groups certainly don’t fit. “The collecting
and editing of news for presentation through the media”
implies a level of preparedness and professionalism that these
groups generally lack. An obligation to truth and loyalty to
citizens – two elements Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
identify as critical to journalism – are also not inherent.
But if we look at Facebook groups as advocacy journalism, as
“journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint,”
often through non-objective means, then the idea isn’t
quite so far-fetched. Facebook groups often attempt the same
grassroots muckraking as advocacy journalists.
Offensive journalism is a real factor in the rapid creation
of these online groups. Someone somewhere sees or hears a report
they take offense to. Before long, a Facebook group is born.
“Mark Steyn is a waste of the printed page…”
“Ezra Levant is a moron.”
“CBC SLANDERS SIKHS AND THE SIKH COMMUNITY.”
These are just three of the groups that are dedicated to the
journalists mentioned in the very beginning of this piece. The
titles are undoubtedly aggressive, as is each group’s
But just as offensive journalism spurs advocates on one side
of the debate, it frequently advocates on the other side of
that same debate. Both Steyn and Levant, insulted in the aforementioned
groups, are heralded in others dedicated to preserving free
“Defend Free Speech in Canada – The Case of Mark
Steyn” has almost 1,000 members. Its creator writes that
he started the group “to raise awareness about the chilling
effects on free speech the human rights complaints against author
and columnist Mark Steyn will have.”
“Support Free Speech; Support Ezra Levant” has over
1,100 members of its own. Its administrator established the
group to not only defend Levant, but also to “reinforce
the idea that [Canada is] a country that supports the freedom
of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
Facebook’s official stance has been somewhat mixed. Its
policy on the creation of potentially slanderous groups comes
across as airtight, at least at first.
“Note: groups that attack a specific person or group of
people (e.g. racist, sexist, or other hate groups) will not
be tolerated. Creating such a group will result in immediate
termination of your Facebook account.”
The website offers a “report” feature that lets
users flag inflammatory material but Facebook has proven slow
to react to these reports and even slower to delete said material.
Thousands of groups that violate the company’s terms litter
its site, popping up at a rate that makes them difficult to
While professional media watchdogs, such as the liberal Media
Matters or the conservative Media
Research Center, must choose their words carefully because
they can be held accountable for them, the same simply isn’t
true of Facebook advocates. The harshest penalty for most of
these individuals is having their account temporarily deactivated.
As a result, Facebook has become a haven for anti-journalism
and anti-journalist attacks that are arguably, and ironically,
But is anyone taking these groups seriously? Not so much at
With blogs, there was a feeling-out period that lasted for several
years. While they were read as early as the mid-1990s, blogs
weren’t particularly well-respected at the time. Early
variations tended to be either glorified rants or public diaries.
It wasn’t until 2002 that blogs gained even an ounce of
respect as a means of advocacy journalism. On December 5 of
that year, then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott attended a
party honoring former presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond.
Lott told those in attendance that if Thurmond, who was a strong
supporter of racial segregation, had been elected president,
the United States “wouldn’t have had all these problems
over the years.”
Bloggers, offended not only by Lott’s comments but also
by the mainstream media’s unwillingness to run with the
story, let their feelings be known. The advocates forced Lott
to resign two weeks later. While the Killian documents brought
blogging to the spotlight for many, it was the Lott incident
that opened the door in the first place.
Facebook groups need a similar rallying point. Too many represent
what blogging did in its early stages: journalism run amok.
In 2000, Sue Careless, a member of the Canadian Association
of Journalists and a supporter of advocacy journalism, was invited
to speak at the CAJ’s panel in Halifax. Careless supplied
a set of rules for advocacy journalists to follow. Among her
most important were:
1) “If you only spout slogans and cliches, and rant and
rave, then you are not doing honest journalism. You need to
articulate complex issues clearly and carefully.”
2) “Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice
journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be
seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged
3) “A journalist writing for the advocacy press should
practice the same skills as any journalist. You don't fabricate
4) “If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits
a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a
journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may
be to a cause you personally support.”
5) “A good journalist must play devil's advocate. You
must argue against your own convictions. In an interview, you
still have to ask the hard questions of possible heroes, the
tough questions even of the people you admire.”
Most of us are able to immediately identify a blog that meets
these five tenets. But a Facebook group? It’s not quite
While Facebook advocacy can be a response to offensive journalism,
it cannot yet be identified as advocacy journalism. The groups
and the messages just aren’t refined enough. Too many
are about settling scores rather than providing the relevant
facts. Given the ease with which Facebook allows its members
to create these groups, it might be quite some time before this
is no longer the case.
And that might actually be to the benefit of journalists everywhere.
As long as these groups continue to make their points through
insults and irrationality, journalists will not have to ask
the tough questions on why the groups are being established
in the first place. Whether or not the disputed works are truly
offensive remains an issue for another day because Facebook
has yet to prove itself as worthy of such discussion.