(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 18.)
One of the claims made for the internet is that it has opened up public dialogue on a scale never experienced before.
And it’s true. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection – or indeed any of the myriad devices now available that enable users to communicate online – can enter cyberspace and contribute to the discussion of the day, whether it’s about sponge cake recipes, the relative merits of different dog breeds or the war in Afghanistan.
They can start a blog, as I did, or they can contribute to the comment threads (as they’re known in Net-speak) that allow people to respond to blog entries with their own opinions.
On news media websites, too, readers can submit comments responding to published opinion columns. These comments are usually moderated – in other words, vetted before publication – but the moderation is typically light-handed. Only the most outrageously defamatory or offensive language is filtered out.
Never in history has so much opinion poured forth largely unchecked in public forums. In the old days, for example, anyone wanting to take issue with a newspaper columnist had to sit down, write a letter to the editor and sign it with his or her real name and address.
There was no guarantee it would be published and even if it was, it might be abridged because of space limitations in the correspondence columns. (Human nature being what it is, the bit edited out was always the one the letter writer considered the most vital.)
You can still go through this quaint, old-fashioned routine, but there’s a much more effortless way to have your say. You can submit a comment to the paper’s website. It’s virtually instantaneous, you can say as much or as little as you like, and it doesn’t have to make sense.
What’s more, you don’t have to put your name to it. You can use any enigmatic, vaguely menacing or downright silly pseudonym you choose. Only a few commenters on websites and blogs use their real names.
Some newspaper websites attract hundreds of online comments. Depressingly, the opinion columns that provoke the strongest reactions are often about sport – for example, the column by Australian sports writer Paul Sheehan criticising the All Blacks’ Kapa O Pango haka, which so infuriated New Zealanders that 868 responded. (Question: what conceit makes commenter number 868 think anyone is going to read his or her contribution?)
The best-read blogs, such as Kiwiblog and Hard News, also routinely attract hundreds of comments, whereas I consider I’m doing well if my modest effort gets five or six.
All this is held to be liberating and good for democracy – and so it is, up to a point. No one can complain any longer that newspaper editors (or talkback producers, for that matter) are the gatekeepers controlling entry to public opinion forums. Now anyone can have their say, at any time and from anywhere on the planet.
But while the sheer volume of comment on the issues of the day has increased exponentially, no one could pretend that there has been a commensurate rise in the standard of debate.
In fact, quite the contrary. Far from being the stimulating, uplifting marketplace of ideas fondly envisaged by free-speech idealists, the internet and blogosphere is a seething, toxic cesspit of jeering, name-calling, vulgarity, bile and mendacity.
Its dominant characteristics are malice, rage and ignorance – a lethal combination that extinguishes any hope of civilised, intelligent dialogue.
Anyone scanning the comments sections of media websites and blogs soon notes recurring patterns. The first is the sheer volume of personal abuse – the tool most frequently resorted to by those who disagree with other people’s views, and deployed with equal ferocity by those on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The strategy is to intimidate one’s opponent not with force of argument but with vituperation.
Often the anonymous commenter fails to see, or more likely pretends not to see, the central point of the other side’s argument, preferring to introduce extraneous issues, thereby diverting the debate from the central issue under discussion. Another tactic is to wilfully misconstrue what has been written or wildly extrapolate it so as to justify derogatory conclusions about the author.
If the tone of online debate wasn’t so deeply depressing, some aspects of it might be almost amusing. A typical pattern is for the first few comments to be reasonably lucid and relevant, then for the thread to rapidly spiral downwards into a deepening well of viciousness and rancidity that steadily becomes further removed from the subject supposedly under discussion.
By the time you get to about the 30th comment, the participants have totally forgotten what started it all and are intent only on insulting each other.
It’s tempting to draw a comparison with a sharks’ feeding frenzy. It takes only one commenter to draw blood and then it’s all on. In short order the thread is splattered with entrails and severed limbs.
Another analogy is with the troublemaker who throws a punch in a crowded, bad-tempered bar and then quietly slips out the door as the place erupts in an all-in brawl. By the time the premises have been trashed and the last bodies carried out, no one remembers or cares who or what started it.
And here’s something else I’ve noticed: the same pseudonyms crop up time and time again, denoting an abundance of angry and bitter losers who have nothing better to do than trawl the net all day looking for someone to “flame” (another internet buzzword). Often the combatants know each other well from previous encounters.
As a low-grade spectator sport, it’s like a stock car demolition derby – something of transient appeal to people of limited intellect. Not even the most ardent champion of the Internet could argue that these venomous and cowardly outpourings have elevated public debate.
I now wonder whether the choleric tone of debate on the internet has begun to contaminate wider public discourse. A friend who hosts a radio show remarked to me recently that the emails and text messages sent to his programme have become noticeably more vicious and vindictive over the past couple of years.
I don’t think it’s because his show has deteriorated (it has a large and loyal audience). It’s just that people now feel they can get away with abusive language that was once considered beyond the pale. Cowards and bitter ranters who previously fumed in private have licence to vent their bile publicly under the cloak of anonymity.
The sad conclusion is that perhaps free speech now comes too cheap.