(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on Stuff.co.nz., April 3.)
Some good has come out of the awful events in Christchurch on March 15.
Ordinary New Zealanders came together in an overwhelming display of support for the victims and their families – confirming that, contrary to inflammatory statements by a couple of Green Party politicians, ours is fundamentally a decent society. That was a big plus.
In the wake of the shootings there was also a general recognition that ethnic minorities are an integral part of the New Zealand community; that they have a right to be here and to follow their chosen faiths without hindrance, even when some aspects of those faiths may be at odds with the views of the liberal, secular mainstream. Another plus.
A further consequence of the Christchurch shootings was that many of us became more conscious of the ways in which we unthinkingly perpetuate racial stereotypes – for example, by making jokes about the supposed characteristics of ethnic minorities. Even when no malice is intended, jokes about race can have the effect of magnifying potentially negative perceptions of “otherness”.
These are all changes for the better, but March 15 brought about another significant outcome that can only be positive.
As New Zealand recoiled in shock and anguish at the violent deaths of 50 innocent people, attention focused on the role of so-called social media in promoting hatred and division.
Not for the first time, Facebook – the platform used by the Christchurch shooter to live-stream his monstrous act – was squarely in the frame. But whereas Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet behemoth has sometimes given the impression of being largely indifferent to the harm it causes, and so powerful as to be virtually untouchable, this time it was shamed into taking at least token action.
Whether Facebook’s newly announced ban on content promoting “white nationalism and separatism” will be effectively enforced remains to be seen. Many commentators are sceptical – understandably so, given Facebook’s record.
But in the meantime, there have been important changes much closer to home. New Zealand’s biggest digital news platform, Stuff, and the long-established Kiwiblog have both announced long-overdue changes to their comments policies. It’s no coincidence that this happened so soon after the Christchurch atrocities, which can at least partly be blamed on the proliferation of hateful online rhetoric.
Comment sections, for those unfamiliar with them, are spaces where readers can express their own thoughts on whatever has been posted online.
In theory, comments are moderated – that is to say, someone is supposed to check them to ensure they’re not defamatory or offensive. But even on a mainstream site like Stuff, which says it rejects roughly one-third of the comments submitted, the comments section is too often a toxic cesspit.
Kiwiblog, the website of conservative political pundit David Farrar, is even worse. The primary content, most of it written by Farrar himself, is usually reasoned and restrained, as you’d expect of someone who is naturally personable and polite. The Kiwiblog comments section, however, can be a fetid swamp.
I must declare an interest here, because I’ve been the target of savage attacks on both Stuff and Kiwiblog – as I am on other anti-social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, where I’ve been abused using language so inventive that it almost commands my admiration.
Someone on Reddit recently called me a “motherf**king odious s**tgibbon”, which even I have to admit has a certain vigorous ring to it.
The common denominator here is anonymity. As long as people are allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, as the most rancid commenters do, then they feel emboldened to say whatever they like.
Sociologists call it disinhibition – a lack of restraint and a disregard for social convention. It happens because these commenters feel safe behind their online identities with their idiotic cryptic names.
Who knows what these fearless keyboard warriors would be like if they had to identify themselves? It wouldn’t surprise me if they were as meek as lambs.
Newspapers learned decades ago that the quality and tone of letters to the editor improved overnight once writers were required to provide a name and address. It’s a great shame Stuff didn’t adopt a similar policy online, but I guess it reasoned that people would be less likely to post comments if they had to name themselves.
Now the site has made changes aimed at cutting out “comment pollution” and Kiwiblog has done much the same. Farrar has written an admirable exposition of what’s acceptable, what’s not, and why.
Eyebrows will be raised at Stuff's decision to place certain hot-button issues - such as 1080, immigration and fluoride - off-limits to commenters altogether, but otherwise both sites' moves should be welcomed. After all, there's no reason why free speech shouldn't be exercised in a civil and respectful way.