Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is free speech too cheap?

(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.


Jim Donovan said...

I suspect that, with the increasingly tabloid nature of news (print, broadcast and online), editors actually welcome the trolls as part of the "entertainment". Some better forums now insist on real names from registered people (identity and email address verified) with each comment verified by email checkback. The sooner this becomes the norm the better.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

"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."

I am not 100 percent sure of the decade Karl, but during some recent trawling through mirofilmed 1970s and 80s Wellington newspapers I was surprised to find letters to the editor signed with non de plumes.

I loathe anonymity (while acknowledging its strictly occasional necessary use).

Unknown said...

Amazing post! I initially found your blog a week or so ago, and I want to subscribe to your RSS feed.

Custom print

Karl du Fresne said...

Papers began refusing to accept noms de plume on letters to the editor in the 1970s. I think the Dom was one of the first, in about 1975. Other papers gradually followed. Smaller regional papers were the last - understandably, as letter writers feel more exposed in small communities. I don't think there's any doubt that the quality of letters improved as a result, and of course people were no longer able to write malicious letters under cover, as it were.

Press Chimp:
I'd like to oblige, but I have no idea what an RSS feed is. You have to understand you're dealing with a serious dinosaur here.

The probligo said...

As one of the resident, and mostly anonymous, trolls that leaves the odd (but more than occasional) comment I totally agree with Karl's analysis of the blogiverse as it has been probably since 9/11 - when I first started getting involved.

I can only add on a personal note that blogging and active commentary on other threads is a vain attempt on my part to start a worthwhile dialogue. There is little point in my mind in having a discussion with someone who I totally agree with - it has been said and there is really little to add... and already I have exceeded my 150 words.

Eric Crampton said...

I'm lucky not to draw many trolls over at Offsetting; those I find are easily met with the "Delete Comment" button. Big traffic sites that want to have decent comment threads have to engage in pretty costly moderation efforts.

But why bother reading comments threads that are breeding ground for trolls?

deserthead said...

Reminds me of this:'s_law

Kiwiwit said...

Evelyn Beatrice Hall (not Voltaire or Churchill or Jefferson) said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The corollary of your position is censorship.

Sometimes a non de plume is prudent in certain debates - climate change comes to mind, particularly in view of this statement by Greenpeace on their website: "We know who you are. We know where you live. We know where you work."

[John Draper]

Andrew said...

This whole post reeks of the usual snivelling hypocrisy and outright misinformation I've come to expect from you.

If what you state is indeed the truth, then how do you reconcile this with the opinion you expressed the other day on a completely unrelated topic?

Karl du Fresne said...

Tell me who you are, "Andrew", and I might bother to answer you. Otherwise you're just another of the spineless shits I'm writing about.

Andrew said...

It seems the vicious and rancid nature of internet comments in general has spilled over to contaminate even good natured attempts at satire.


Karl du Fresne said...

Ha! It's I who should apologise, Andrew. Your wickedly clever flame spoof sailed right over my head.