Friday, August 16, 2013

A Different Angle to the Role of Newspaper Comments on the Net

Than in my previous post, both because I put that one out while quite ill and because this article is interesting.  It doesn't change my basic opinions on the issue (which is that moderating is a necessity, for tone and hatred), but it adds an important nuance to it.  Here's what Tim Dunlop writes at Comment Is Free, after condemning abusive comments and e-mails in general:

To put it plainly, I have nothing but contempt for those who engage in this sort of behaviour, and am happy to see them pursued and exposed. But I am also a fan of online discussion more generally, whether it be on social media, on blogs, or in the comments section under stories in the mainstream media. 
Such interactions have significantly changed the nature of the media environment, giving voice to sections of the community who have never before been able to contribute. These developments are not the democratic panacea cyber utopians sometimes pretend they are, but they are a vast improvement over the top-down media models of the past, where the audience was relegated to the role of passive consumer. We need to be careful not to let this abuse discourage us from pursuing online interactions in a way that enhances democratic participation.
Dunlop then points out that worrying about trolls can be used to squash access by those the editors don't like and that attempts to get rid of Internet anonymity are misguided:

It is very easy for those with the institutional backing of, say, a political party, a trade union or a newspaper to demand that everyone use their own name when entering online discussions, but it isn’t that simple. Without that sort of institutional support, and without the experience of involvement in public discussion, many ordinary people feel vulnerable – anonymity is the one tool they have to level the power differential.
The key terms in Dunlop's text are "enhances democratic participation."  It's not clear to me what he means by this, about trolling:

The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”.
I'm going to assume that he means moderating comments threads.  That might not be what Dunlop means by the gate-keeping activity.  Still, because I want to talk about moderating anyway I'll go with that:

I've surfed the net long enough to deserve Surfer Pension, and I'm pretty certain that not-moderated comment threads can, over time, lead to the very opposite of "enhanced democratic participation."   I can think of examples where people with the opposite political views set up home in the comments thread of a political publication (the Nation, a few years ago, for one case) and consequently made posting there a gantlet run for most other people.

I can also think of examples where the comments on some site have degenerated into anyone's worst nightmare, possibly through the process of some people essentially bullying all who cannot take extreme hatred or prejudice etc. away from the site.

Then there's the hate group aspect of commenting:  A call seems to go out for commentators of a particular flavor to discuss certain articles, and when those commentators use the language of hate those who belong to the hated group have a higher commenting fee to pay to participate:  They must be willing to take verbal abuse.  The way women are often treated* in the comments of a feminist article, say, is a good example of this.  And to have a higher entrance fee for some commentators may not be terribly democracy-enhancing.

Thus, while I agree that comments can have a democracy-enhancing effect, that effect will not be present when the discussion is not moderated.  The parable to that might be to remove all rules about how to carry out elections and to tell people just to run for the ballot boxes, elbow each other away, and tuck as many ballot tickets as possible in the boxes.  No other rules.  If you wish, you  can keep others from getting to the ballot boxes, too, and you can gang together to accomplish that.

Maybe that is too strong.  But my point is that anarchy is not the same as democracy.  And yes, I understand that moderating and other forms of regulation can work to stifle real democracy.   So does not moderating at all.

That's why I think moderating for hate is crucial.  And yeah, I get how difficult that could be, without stifling the argument embedded in that hate.  But if certain types of hateful comments are banned the participants might learn how to make their point in a more civil manner.   You think?

*I get called interesting things in comments threads, by the way.  I think "a foaming c**t" is the most fun (sadly, not true, though I think having that ability would be great).