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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

commenters bad, commentators good « Previous | |Next »
March 7, 2009

We've come a long way since the bad old days when The Australian got stuck into bloggers and completely overlooked the criticism from commenters in its own pages. It's becoming fashionable to deplore the antics of the hoi polloi in comments, who are apparently eroding the quality of public debate.

Last week Crikey published Peter Faris explaining why he doesn't want a Crikey blog:

I have changed my mind -- I do not think is "useful" for me to do a Crikey blog. This change of mind is propelled by the comments on the Crikey pages in response to my Henson piece. The two or three serious, on-topic comments are swamped by a deluge of personal abuse. A good number of comments are hate comments. I am as thick-skinned as the next commentator, probably more so, but there is no point in having dialogue with people who have a visceral hatred for you personally.

And another one from Clive Hamilton:

An ugly culture of dogmatic and belligerent interventions now dominates social and political debate on the Internet. Comment sections on Internet forums are blighted by a kind of cyber-rage that drowns out debate with table-thumping assertion and a style of personal engagement that owes more to Gordon Ramsay than Socrates. A new vocabulary has developed to describe the variety of offenses, with neologisms such as "flames", "trolls", "snarks" and "sock puppets". Moderators of blog and comment sites do their best to control the rage by setting rules against racism, sexism, coarse language and ad hominem attacks.

Note that Faris and Hamilton both have privileged access to media and both enjoy being controversial and getting stuck into groups of people they don't like. On the topics of Henson (Faris) and internet filtering (Hamilton), both whipped out the paedophilia card to suggest that the groups of people they don't like in relation to those issues have unhealthy ideas about kiddies, which is pretty low, yet both complain about personal abuse.

If a commenter said photographers or internet users are into child sexual abuse, say, 'artists are a bunch of fag peddos', they'd likely be moderated. But apparently it's not what you say but the way that you say it that counts. Faris and Hamilton have plausible deniability on their side.

Via Trevor Cook at Corporate Engagement, Judith Timson at Globe and Mail on bad behaviour among commenters, quoting from David Denby's Snark, which apparently sunk after a bunch of snarky reviews from commentators, not commenters. One such review in the New York Times has Denby sorting his snark from his hate speech. Irony doesn't count as snark,

But “hate speech” isn’t snark either, Denby writes, because it aims to “incite,” not get chuckles, and because it’s “directed at groups,” not individuals.

Snark is a kind of humour used to ridicule individuals, mostly high profile ones, so it's a kind of levelling mechanism in the toolkit of tall poppy syndrome.

So on one hand we have high profile individuals politely suggesting that groups, photographers, internet users and commenters are bad, but hate speech is bad because it's directed at groups and aims to incite. On the other hand it's bad for members of the groups in question to personally abuse said high profile individuals because that's playing the man and not the ball, so doesn't count as proper debate.

I liked Henson's photos, use the internet and enjoy snark. I resent the implication that that makes me a kiddy fiddler and unfit to participate in debate. Groups may be suggesting these things about people like me and so might commenters, but commenters don't expect to get away with it unchallenged just because they're articulate public figures. You say it, you own it, no matter how multi-syllabic or plausibly deniable your argument.

Faris and Hamilton both have a case when it comes to the worst kinds of personal abuse, and to be fair, Faris does point out that that's his major concern, but the broader argument about the erosion of quality in public debate now that the masses can join in needs a bit more thought.

What is being said can't realistically be corralled off from who is saying it, which is at the heart of the dog whistle and man/ball arguments. 'I have a dream' wouldn't be at all significant if some blog commenter said it. Neither would 'art galleries and the internet are brimming with paedophiles and commenters are mindless scum'. We could not have had our sad approximation of the culture wars, a series of brawls between a handful of public figures, if things were otherwise.

| Posted by Lyn at 10:35 AM | | Comments (6)


I actually believe there have been fewer problems in comments threads recently, mainly because blog owners got so sick of them and took advantage of the tools available to block persistent offenders and/or force commenters to register. The result is that the people who get their jollies by making offensively personal one-liners all congregate with like-minded souls at Catallaxy or Bolt or Blair or wherever (there might be some 'left' equivalents but none springs to mind although some LP threads go close) where they can insult those they don't like in side-splittingly hilarious fashion without anyone else even noticing.

As a lawyer Faris is especially sensitive to the defamation implications and I have to say I'm amazed that there haven't been more writs flying around the place. Perhaps the comparatively small readership of blogs and the difficulty of getting reliable data about it means it would be hard to prove significant loss of either reputation or income from libel, while the MSM would be free to puiblish it for all the world to read. Nevertheless I'm surprised more thin-skinned individuals haven't gone to see a lawyer when they read what others have written about them.

Catallaxy aside, I wonder if it's fair to generalise and say big media is just catching up on what bloggers have been dealing with for a longer time? It does seem to be taking them a while to realise that comments are as publicly available as their article content.

Bolt and Blair seem to be twigging, but only after the criticism that had been going on for ages at other blogs suddenly started happening at Crikey. Defamation is about degrees I guess, so again, it's not about what is said but about who says it and where.

Off topic Lyn,

We must to be getting close to the 1/2 way point of the Rudd government. You were a strong advocate for him and his ideas. Can you list his achievements thus far?

Does Clive Hamilton have a problem with the Internet? It appears to be so. He seems to take the worst aspects of blog discussion in some areas of the internet and make it universal.The inference is that it's the internet that is the, "the ugly culture of the net;" or "The brutality of public debate on the internet is due to one fact above all -- the option of anonymity"; "the bullying culture of online forums." He ends thus:

if free speech means encouraging a free-flowing dialogue that draws the public into an exploration of alternative ideas and enriches civic culture, then the Internet is its enemy.

According to Hanilton cyber thugs roam the internet's discourse along with pedophiles in the digital visual culture.

Gary, if Hamilton does have a problem with the internet he's not on his own. Habermas isnt' keen on it either.

With the 'ugly', 'brutality' and 'bullying' stuff, it might be fairly safe to assume these people haven't ventured very far from big media forums.

Les, he hasn't played to the divisions, particularly the race ones, that made me glad to see the back of Howard no matter who was responsible. He plays the opposition off against one another, rather than social groups who actually have to live together.

I expected social conservatism from him, but am disappointed at the extent of it.

He's setting Australia up as a willing participant in international relationships, rather than shadowing the US, which I think is good.

He's much weaker on the environment and climate change than I expected. Depressingly so.

He's intelligent, doesn't do the screaming media caper and since the Henson thing he hasn't pandered to moral panics, which is good.

The internet filtering thing and focus on an ETS suggests to me he doesn't trust the citizenry, which is bad. Then again, what government does?

He's made moves on the Murray Darling, which is good, but kept it at a snail's pace, which is bad.

I haven't been able to figure out where he stands on the intervention. So far the message is that it's continuing, but in reality nothing seems to be happening. Like signing on to Kyoto, the meaning of the apology seems to be seeping away, which is bad.

What else? He's pretty boring, which is good and bad.

For mine, his greatest achievement is changing the atmosphere in this country, if that means anything. Greatest disappointment would be a toss up between social conservatism and environmental issues. Environmental issues probably wins.

I imagine you'd agree with most of that, if he'd been a Liberal.


I will be voting Labor in the state election because I always vote for the candidate that will best represent my local community and it is my opinion that the Labor candidate will do that best in my electorate.

So I read from your analogy you are moderately disappointed in the first half of Rudd's term.