Baiters, haters and spivs

In the online edition of Melbourne-based publication King’s Tribune last month, editors Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw came to a radical decision. They resolved – after a few months of earnest consideration was capped by one post of anonymous, misogynist bilge too many – to turn comments on their website ”off”.

Given the magazine deals mostly in robustly expressed opinion, and not wishing to discourage debate, Gilmore and Shaw made an even more radical suggestion: letters could be sent by email or Facebook, or even (are you sitting down?) by post. The most cogent, topical and witty of them would be considered for publication.

It’s important to note the Tribune is a small venture. It began five years ago as a newsletter for a St Kilda bar and became a ”real” magazine last October, extending its reach through newsagents into Sydney and Canberra. Its circulation is less than 1000; Gilmore and Shaw keep day jobs.

There are practical reasons for a small publication like the Tribune to disable comments: neither the editors nor individual writers have the time, energy or inclination to monitor and moderate, much less reply to them all. There are more pressing things, such as getting out the next issue.

The Tribune is not alone. Many bloggers are heading down the same path, which seems counter-intuitive, given immediacy and interactivity were two of the key attractions of blogging in the first place. But how many people are actually bothering to read the so-called bottom half of the internet, let alone add to it?

My guess is that it’s a tiny minority, but it’s a minority that’s having a disproportionate influence on both the tone and direction of the print and electronic media.

The key question for older mastheads in particular is how much immediate, non-considered, anonymous commentary enhances public debate – after they’ve spent valuable resources weeding out the spammers, trollers, and astro-turfers that deliberately seek to distort and/or poison it.

There’s some evidence the astro-turfers, in particular, are on the march. British writer George Monbiot recently told of being contacted by a whistleblower that worked as part of a PR team paid to infiltrate comment threads and forums, doing the bidding of their corporate clients. The whistleblower worked under 70 different usernames.

The implications for debates on contentious topics such as climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt – are obvious. And alarming.

Then there’s the issue of anonymity. This might be vital if you’re a Chinese or Syrian dissident or, for that matter, a spambot turned corporate whistleblower. Mostly, though, it just allows people to indulge their worst tendencies, not only towards individuals but entire social groups.

In this respect, a culture of widespread online bullying – particularly towards female writers – actually has the potential to drive some of our brightest voices out of public life altogether. Writers have always needed thick hides, but for some the price of your anonymity can be measured in their therapy bills.

It’s true that people haven’t changed in their tendency to be biased, ill-informed, unreasonable or at times plain inarticulate, and that we shouldn’t blame the technology (which can also be such a transformative agent for good) for the shortcomings of those who abuse it.

After all, people can also be wise, considered, challenging and eminently reasonable, and they too can reach a wider audience than ever before. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Mostly, comment forums remind me of children’s playgrounds, where the bullies always win – because everyone else scarpers.

The sad truth is that controversy outrates reason every time. We live in an immoderate age. It’s why Ray Hadley, Kyle Sandilands, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are among the best-paid and most powerful media personalities in the country.

Does the popularity of The Drum, The Punch and even, for that matter, Q&A depend first and foremost on the talent of their writers and guests? Or do they live or die on the extent of the frenzy they generate? This is a difficult dilemma for mainstream media publications, which (unlike The King’s Tribune) base part of their online business models on advertising pageviews.

The genie is long out of the bottle, to the point that it’s both impossible and undesirable to stuff it back in. But, were the genie able to grant three wishes, I’d request genuine transparency of identity (why can’t names and addresses be withheld, where clearly necessary, on request?), a much tougher line on personal abuse and a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.

All of which takes time, money and human resources. But with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.

First published in The Age, 12 April 2012

20 comments

  1. SilverTail

    Yes the “retailer’s association” is an example of a “grass roots” style astroturf campaign but its not specifically a robo-commenter / troll / shill / spammer on a blog site. I hope you understand the difference.

    You’re excused…

    Cheers, au revoir…

  2. Andrew Stafford

    I hardly think the statute of limitations arises in the instance you cite. No one has been slandered, and there is no time limit on journalists researching this issue. Monbiot has been reporting on astroturf campaigns for 10 years, anyway, so I wouldn’t just blithely assume his trail’s gone cold. He’s also (if you check his blog) offline for now, as he’s just had a kid … Life gets in the way of writing sometimes!

    If you want a classic example, though, I’d suggest the “retailer’s association” that sprung up to combat the planned plain packaging of cigarettes recently. This “association” and its campaign was entirely funded by big tobacco, and it wasn’t hard to spot those in their employ in comment threads on pieces regarding that issue.

    I agree with you that the US politically is in dire shape, democratically speaking. I was only referring to the greater freedom of parliamentarians there to act individually, a contrast to how things are done here. Crossing the floor is commonplace there.

    OK, I have other deadlines to attend to now, so please excuse me. Time to move on…

  3. SilverTail

    I understand that investigations may take time and there is always the litigation component. But there is also a statute of limitations. At what point does Monbiot’s accusations become baseless slander? I can only assume the case has gone cold.

    But as I said, if the practise is so prevalent you must be able to show me some classic examples of it. I recall the hungry beast covering it once, so i looked it up on youtube only to find it was more about “grass-roots” funding for activists and not so much about blogs comments.

    Personally I identify myself a centrist. And am happy to sit on the fence and throw stones but equally praise good policy.

    But strangely for the past decade or so when the Liberals were in government I was able to have civil discussions with the left or right without a problem – and thus equally criticise left or right policies.

    But since Labor has come into power, I have found that any criticism of the left is simply not acceptable.

    This is a double standard, and I hope you are able see this.

    I can only guess that in 2013 when the tables are inevitably turned, we can look back and see how the commenting landscape has changed.

    Your view about politics in Australia is valid but I still prefer that than what the mighty US has become. I think Federal politics seriously needs a new injection of fresh blood as the system is becoming a little inbred. And why are so many ex-lawyers?

    Free speech is also a duty. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

  4. Andrew Stafford

    Good question, but having worked for four years on a book, I know how long these investigations can take…

    I’m concerned that we are living in a time of extremely polarised debate. Take the Pell/Dawkins slugfest on Q&A earlier in the week. What real purpose did that serve? No one could have come away from that discussion enlightened in any way; it was no better than Jerry Springer really. It was ritualised conflict, with no higher purpose than being a ratings winner.

    The truth as I see it is that, while I’m unashamedly of the left, neither the left nor the right side of politics has a monopoly on good ideas. Dialogue needs to remain open, and there needs to be constructive level of engagement across the political spectrum. But that requires some level of moderation, otherwise rather than engagement we just get two sides ranting at each other, which is less than constructive.

    Unfortunately in Australia it starts at the top, with an adversarial party system and with politicians bound along party lines more than in other democracies such as the US. What’s more, we have a particularly combative brawler in Tony Abbott leading the Liberal Party. Not that he’s alone: Latham and Keating were great brawlers of their time for the ALP.

    Free speech is a privilege as well as a right, and it shouldn’t be abused. As I’ve said earlier, if you use it to defame, to bully or intimidate, then you really don’t deserve your place at the table of civilised debate.

    • TheLiteralTruth

      In my opinion, the debate was significantly more cerebral and significant than a discussion about the size of the PMs derriere and the appropriate cut of her jackets.
      An adversial party system sure beats that in most other countries, where the only loud adversaries are found in prisons. The loud sound is as a result of torture.

    • Andrew Stafford

      Considering I have such a small circle of readers, Philip, I’m impressed that you’re still contributing to this discussion … I was under the impression it was beneath you 🙂

  5. SilverTail

    I have no problem understanding that this goes beyond left-right politics. As I said I believe you but would like some sort of proof – like: username X on “the age” ariticle Y is an astroturfer for this reason and this is how they do it.

    I think that education on the matter will help the readers out there filter out such comments by themselves – a lot like advertising nowadays. I am serious when I say I have trouble picking them out.

    Day after day I see one person call another a troll or a shill but you have to question yourself: “is it possibly the name-caller that is the troll or shill”?

    To an extent I believe there is a duty by the moderators to do a better job of filtering out the waste of space comments, but I guess you need to draw a line somewhere and the line will always bring up the censorship issue.

    I read the monbiot article – but what strikes me as very odd is that he states:

    “I’ll reveal more about what he told me when I’ve finished the investigation I’m working on.”

    Keep in mind this was published over a year ago, where is the investigation up to? Or did the source turn out to be bogus? Just asking….

  6. Andrew Stafford

    No, you’re wrong there SilverTail. I have already stated that this is not a left/right issue; online bullies exist in quite possibly equal proportions. This is not about censorship; it’s about the rules of engagement in how we address each other. I’m allowing you to challenge my views; you’re not being rude or threatening.

    However, I have just deleted a further reply from Philip as it was solely about climate change. As I warned in my previous post, I wouldn’t be engaging further on that issue as it was beside the point of this discussion. If I write a blog post on climate change, that’s a separate matter.

    You might call that censorship. I call it moderation. Philip is free to have his say, but that doesn’t mean I (as a small publisher) am obliged to publish him when I’ve spelled out quite clearly that replies are to remain on topic.

    In relation to your second point, I was trying to get across several of the vagaries of online comments in 800 words. George Monbiot’s article on astroturfers (which addresses this specific issue at greater and more convincing length) can be found at http://www.monbiot.com/2011/02/23/robot-wars/

  7. SilverTail

    OK, you don’t accept my analogy, how disappointing.

    As I stated in the Age, it still seems like, in your eyes, only discussion that agrees with the subject matter is considered valuable – this goes against everything free speech and scientific method for that matter are there for.

    I think being challenged to your views can be a positive thing, people don’t ask “why” enough.

    On topic: I keep reading about the vested interests, but I simply cannot see concrete evidence of it.

    You would think in an opinion piece that is deemed worthy enough to be published by Fairfax you would have at least provided one example (beyond stating George Monbiot has a source from PR firm).

    I’m not saying I don’t believe you – as it kind of makes sense, I’d just like more details.

  8. Andrew Stafford

    Well, I would say that’s a very weak analogy. You may as well argue that iced tea resembles whiskey, therefore it is safe to drink whiskey and drive. You would be ignoring the fact that they smell different, taste different, and that one contains alcohol and the other doesn’t.

    You accept the science, I presume, that underpins much of modern society – in medical research, for example, or engineering. How are the scientists who study climate different?

    However, this is all beside the central argument about the civility of our discourse. I have explained the point I was making, in parentheses, about climate change not being scientifically contentious in my response to Philip of Turramurra. Further replies regarding this issue will be considered off topic and deleted (moderation in action)…

    The wider point being missed here is how those with vested interests seek to distort public opinion by (among other things) employing people to infiltrate comment forums to push their own commercial/political agendas. That is a growing problem in our democratic discourse.

  9. Andrew Stafford

    My circle may be limited, Philip, but the numbers doesn’t worry me too much. What concerns me is trying to write as best I can, and trying to connect with people as best I can. So, thank you for connecting with me. I have no problem with disagreement. This is not a left/right issue. What I’m on about here is the lack of civility and transparency in our public discourse.

    Unlike you, I’m not a scientist, and make no claims to expertise in this area. But when I say climate change is not scientifically contentious, I am referring to raw numbers. This is fact, not opinion: the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists are in agreement about anthropogenic global warming. There is disagreement in the details (modelling rates of change, for example) but no substantive disagreement about the fact that the earth is warming, and that humans are responsible for this change.

    So while climate change might be a contentious issue politically, it’s not contentious at all among climate scientists. Now, I don’t know what kind of scientist you are, nor what peer-reviewed climate papers you’ve read and are in disagreement with. But since my circle is so small, I’d suggest you take those concerns to someone better placed to expose their failings, since clearly you’re wasting your time swatting at a tiny gadfly of the neck of public debate like me… 🙂

    • SilverTail

      Hi Andrew,

      The problem I have with the “97% of climate scientists agree” statement is that its disingenuous. I’ll give you another statement:

      “97% of theologists agree there is a god”

      Does that mean there is a god? I mean 97% of theologists can’t be wrong can they?

  10. TheLiteralTruth

    Andrew, I noted that you got lucky only once as a taxi-driver. I was invited up for a cup of coffee on a New Year’s Eve for a cup of coffee by two ladies after an unsuccessful venture into King’s Cross. After finishing the coffee, I was off. I mean New Year’s Eve. Double fares. Triple fares.
    Both The Age and the SMH regularly publish letters which contain falsehoods. I have complained to no avail. At least thirty per cent of letters are factually incorrect. So your complaint is not limited to blogs.
    The Guardian “moderates” its blogs with such political correctness that half of Australia’s Hansard would be rejected, along with at least a quarter of letters to the editor in Australia’s press. The UK just jailed a guy for comments on Facebook. They were inappropriate but less life threatening than stabbing, which often attracts lesser sentences. Chris Lilley would risk life imprisonment for his TV shows.
    I would point out that you have expressed the usual glib comments about the Queensland election, that will be appreciated by your limited circle – very limited circle.
    I note your comments on climate change. You have a right to your opinion, but not your facts.

    “climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt”.
    I was so incensed at the non-scientific nonsense that was being peddled by both Labor and Liberal Parties that I stood against a Liberal candidate as an independent for the seat of Bradfield when Brendan Nelson resigned.
    One of my degrees is a science degree. Unlike so many commentators, I can read, understand, analyse, and criticize scientific papers.
    I would suggest that you read Panicology by two mathematicians to gain some insights.
    As for George Monbiot, in Heat he pointed out the limitations of many of the solutions that are so eagerly embraced by the AGWers in Australia.
    Spain and California are regularly referred to as exemplars of the new economy. If they are, it is an economy with collapsing house prices, high unemployment and huge Government debt.

    Philip Dowling
    11 yeramba St
    Turramurra

  11. Andrew Stafford

    Firstly, it’s nice that the polite and kind people have decided to migrate over here from The Age to post comments! (Of course I’m asking for trouble, or at least speaking too soon, in saying this.) Thanks for the feedback. I haven’t read most of the 80-odd comments on the piece – and as Jane Tribune has noted, it’s somewhat ironic, if predictable that comments are open.

    This issue really seems to be getting some traction lately. A number of bloggers are going down this path, and one consistent point being made is that comments actually don’t make money for those websites where they bring in ad revenue. That could become a compelling problem: the sums have to add up, so comments could end up getting the boot if it costs more to moderate them (via the resources required to do so) than the income they generate via pageviews. Of course, the alternative is the current near free-for-all.

    Of course, the state of play in Australia doesn’t necessarily apply elsewhere. The comments forums on the Guardian and New York Times websites are relatively civilised places, where contributors are freely allowed their own opinions, but not their own facts.

    I should add, as well, that it’s depressing how often these kind of arguments turn into battles about censorship and freedom of speech. Of course, it’s nothing of the kind. This problem crosses partisan lines. The point is that when we engage in debate there are some rules of engagement. It’s when you use these forums to bully, harass, intimidate and defame, that you really don’t deserve your place at the table. Simple really.

    • Ross Hamilton

      so put the censorship in the hands of the User.

      When some one you dont like attempts to add you to a social networking site you click the ‘ignore’ button. So why not apply that to comments, this will give people
      the right to choose what they would like to actually read. this would help to cut back on spam, trolling and hell it would allow people to read things they want to read. once you’ve clicked on the ignore button it will exorcise your choice across the web site in question, filtering out other inane comments made by the trolls, spammers and other misbegotten affiliates that you have selected. I believe the choice to ignore is another basic human right.

      Cencorship at the User’s discretion!

  12. Jennifer Marshall

    Excellent article in The Age Andrew. I agree with your first comment I personally find the misogyny overwhelming and consequently stopped engaging quite a while ago. Online disucssions in e-learning courses seem to avoid the vitriol of open forums as, I presume, the lack of anonynimity forces courtesy. I am not sure about the scale of need to conceal identities as few people are genuine whistleblowers or under threat, and as you mention, identity can be withheld under circumstances.

  13. Tim van Gelder

    Andrew, well put. The question as always is: what is to be done? You make three suggestions in the penultimate paragraph. The first, “genuine transparency of identity” is a bit tricky because there are many legitimate reasons people may wish to conceal their identify and only participate on that basis. Regarding the other two: YourView (www.yourview.org.au) is a new (as yet fledgling) effort to do this, particularly giving “a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.”

  14. Mister Football

    Hi Andrew

    I really enjoyed your OP in The Age today (yes, in hard print), and just wanted to track you down and say so.

    I’m thinking that as the old papers, and new media, move behind pay walls, as the HS is currently attempting to do, perhaps it becomes easier to allow real people to engage in debate, given that we all have to pay with credit cards, etc.

    Having said that, I like a bit of anonymity.

    If discussing politics and social issues is getting a bit too heavy, you can always turn to discussing aussie rules and sport…oh wait…

  15. Late Life Learning

    Thanks to you (and Fairfax) for this post. I am too intimidated by the strident bullying on sites such as the Drum. While I may read some comments there is no way I am going to expose myself to the partisan reactionary abuse prevalent in cyberland. Do these people not have lives? The flow of comments look to be more about point scoring that any reasoned debate.