Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A disgrace to free speech

My former colleague and fellow blogger Denis Welch devoted his weekly media slot on National Radio’s Nine to Noon yesterday to the blogosphere – or more precisely, to the ugly, abusive tone of much of the comment posted on blogs.

Host Lynn Freeman, sitting in for Kathryn Ryan, volunteered that it really bugged her that so much of this rancid comment was anonymous. “It’s so gutless,” she said. “I despise it.”

Damned right, Lynn. I believe that if an opinion is worth expressing, it’s worth putting your name to.

When the opinion expressed is innocuous or benign, it may not matter too much. But when someone is viciously attacking someone else personally, as is so often the case, they should have the courage to step out into the light where they can be seen.

Of course the very reason so much blog comment is toxic is that the perpetrators are able to hide behind pseudonyms. If they were required to own up to their outbursts, these contemptible fleas would quickly vanish. Anonymity makes them brave.

Newspapers stopped accepting pseudonyms on letters to the editor a long time ago. (The Dominion was one of the first, in 1975.) Not only did this greatly reduce the risk of newspapers unwittingly publishing malicious letters, but the quality of correspondence improved overnight. No surprises there, since people who are prepared to be held accountable for their opinions are naturally more likely to think carefully about what they say and whether it can be justified.

Even talkback radio, though nominally anonymous, places a check on malicious and venomous callers by the mere fact that someone may recognise their voices. And if that’s not enough, content is moderated by a host who has a seven-second delay and a dump button in case things get out of hand.

The blogosphere, in contrast, is almost completely unrestrained. In Denis Welch’s words, it’s a Wild West.

There’s an argument that the anything-goes nature of the blogosphere is an essential part of its appeal; that anonymity is essential for free and unrestrained debate. This is a feeble excuse for gratuitous, juvenile name-calling. Transparency and openness don’t stifle free debate; they simply mean that it’s conducted in a civil, mature and honest way.

There is a narrow range of circumstances that justify anonymity. The whistle-blower drawing public attention to incompetence or corruption in government, at risk to his/her career, is an obvious example; likewise, the confidential source who gives information to the news media on a matter of public interest. But these defences don’t apply to the cowardly, splenetic ranters who infest the blogosphere. They’re a disgrace to free speech.


Rob Hosking said...

Yes. Then, having discussed the gutlessness of anonymity, Welch went on to nominate his favourite blog as 'No Right Turn' - which is anonymous.

Anonymous said...

The Irony of electing NRT as your favorite blog is that it has comments disabled. This is the exact opposite of the type of thing you are discussing, Karl, but, to my mind, it is just as bad. By disabling comments you essentially wipe out two thirds of the benefit of blogging - hearing other peoples views on the same subject, and having to defend your own.

The problem of ranting trolls is easily solved. It just requires monitoring of your comments section. Admittedly, this is considerably more difficult for someone like David Farrar than for you and I, the fact remains that it is achievable. David could easily put his comments into a moderation queue for a while, until they settle.

Karl du Fresne said...

Monitoring comment is extremely easy for me. By my standards, two comments - such as this post attracted - is an avalanche.

ZenTiger said...

I've used my Blog Handle consistently for the last 4years (ever since I've been blogging).

Regular readers might know of me just as well as they might know a "Mike Smith" who could live anywhere in NZ. OK, let's say he lives in Auckland. Make a difference?

I think there is a very big difference between an anonymous commenter, and one who uses the same name consistently, whatever that name is.

Worse are those that assume fake names and pretend they are genuine, or those that change their handle to suit the angle they promote.

I merely wish to keep my job and my family free from interference from people that cannot respect a passionate opinion.

Rancid commenters are merely loud and vulgar, like a drunk you might see at a party. Knowing the git's name is Tony doesn't make much difference, and comments can be censored later when they cross boundaries of decency.

Let's hope there is an appreciation for comments made that can stand on their own merit for the content rather than be judged by the messenger.