Home > Metablogging > Trolls and anonymity

Trolls and anonymity

March 8th, 2009

Clive Hamilton has a piece in Crikey attacking the state of discussion on the Internet, in which the comments policy of this blog gets a moderately approving mention. As he says, maintaining a productive discussion isn’t easy, and a lot of blogs and other Internet sites don’t even try. But I don’t think that’s enough to support the conclusion that

If free speech means encouraging a free-flowing dialogue that draws the public into an exploration of alternative ideas and enriches civic culture, then the Internet is its enemy.

I’ll leave readers to point out the problems with this claim, or alternatively to defend it.

But I wanted to comment on one aspect of Clive’s piece, his claim that anonymity is the central problem. Although this seems plausible, my experience on this blog has been that the worst and most persistent trolls have been people posting under their own names (though commonly resorting to sockpuppetry to evade blocks, disrupt discussion and so on). And a couple have been academics.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    March 8th, 2009 at 09:33 | #1

    Blogging on well run sites seemes to be fine. I do find being (relatively) anonymous does increase my temptation to snipe at people but then I find I have a 99% chance of feeling bad about such behaviour within 3 days so I tend to self-regulate.

    Blogs at times give me the feeling that everyone is talking but no-one is listening. In that sense, they are no different from other forms of conversation.

    Opinion writers in the “formal” media are becoming very insecure are they not? I find that piquantly amusing.

  2. Hermit
    March 8th, 2009 at 10:00 | #2

    It’s interesting how some blogs survive the test of time and others fade into the aether. I recall some names from the blogroll on the early days of this site that have now seemingly disappeared. Nonetheless other blogs still survive even when commentors routinely criticise the blogger’s sacred cows. Limitless clean energy or population control for example.

    I note that when the suits lobby Canberra years of internet discussion go out the window. This site gave a lot of time to Stern and Garnaut yet that seemed to count for naught when the real power brokers were stirred into action. Perhaps the role of blogs will be to correct mistakes in public policy, not to influence them in the first place.

  3. March 8th, 2009 at 10:48 | #3

    Who’s a troll and who’s not? Well, if you’re Professor Brad de Long, you think everyone who disagrees with you is a troll (I left a polite comment which was deleted and others – even professors of economics – have also had the same experience). It’s very subjective.

    One can contrast the tendency of the Left/Right to have authoritarian comments policies with the laissez faire policies of most libertarian sites, e.g. the Reason magazine blog.

  4. Lyn
    March 8th, 2009 at 11:01 | #4

    There’s anonymity and there’s anonymity. You also see some vicious, ongoing feuds between very familiar pseudonyms.

    I tend to think Hamilton’s, and others’, thing about anonymity is related to Ikonoclast’s observation about opinion writers in the formal media. When we’re drowning in opinion, it’s harder to maintain the illusion that formal media opinion writers’ opinions are more right, or legitimate, than anyone else’s. Especially when that opinion is swimming against a popular tide.

  5. Ken
    March 8th, 2009 at 11:08 | #5

    I post anonymously and hope that what I say is taken on it’s own merits. I speak only as an ordinary citizen. I don’t have career and qualifications that lend weight to my opinions or affiliations to flaunt or to conceal. Just me and my thoughts with occaisional links where appropriate. I’m not very capable at public speaking or experienced with the cut and thrust of verbal debates. I prefer the opportunity to think things through before speaking out. In person on the soapbox I expect I’d be vulnerable to rhetorical trickery and cannon fodder for experienced debaters with quicker and more cutting wits than mine. Yet I think my thoughts and opinions still have some merit. I’m very pleased to be allowed to comment on blogs like this and I try not to abuse the opportunity.

    I was advised to not freely use my real name when the internet was new to me although the fears may mostly have been unfounded – at 50 plus and male I don’t expect to be targetted by sexual predators – but I think I’ll keep my anonymity all the same. Pr. Q has my email address and if he asks me I would provide my real name to him. I tend to agree with him that anonymity isn’t a major issue.

    Meanwhile where else is there for open discussion of ideas? The maintream media is hopeless, I think it’s too much enamoured with the notion of free speech in the strict US constitutional sense of being free to express the partisan biases of it’s owners and have little or no requirement for accuracy or fairness. It also prefers to choose the ideas to discuss, to choose their preferred souces to do so and be free to heap ridicule upon and smear the reputations those who’s opinions aren’t shared by their owners and editors.

    When our limited democratic choices are dependent on the quality of information and the primary sources have agendas and biases and no requirements to be fair and accurate the internet and blogs in particular are serving an important role.

    Again, what other forums are there for “encouraging a free-flowing dialogue that draws the public into an exploration of alternative ideas and enriches civic culture”?

  6. March 8th, 2009 at 11:20 | #6

    Cross-posted from ‘Public Opinion’ a few days ago:

    ‘I actually believe there have been fewer problems in comments threads recently, mainly because blog owners got so sick of them and took advantage of the tools available to block persistent offenders and/or force commenters to register. The result is that the people who get their jollies by making offensively personal one-liners all congregate with like-minded souls at Catallaxy or Bolt or Blair or wherever (there might be some ‘left’ equivalents but none springs to mind although some LP threads go close) where they can insult those they don’t like in side-splittingly hilarious fashion without anyone else even noticing.’

    I would add that I find the comments threads here to be an admirable balance between robust disagreement and pointless argument, with zero tolerance for outright ad hominems.

  7. Ernestine Gross
    March 8th, 2009 at 12:07 | #7

    JQ,

    I read Clive Hamilton’s article on the link provided. My reading of the last paragrah in C.H.’s article is that he queries the meaning of ‘free speech’ by providing two – of possibly many – interpretations. As such, I can’t either defend or find faults with the excerpt quoted.

    .

  8. March 8th, 2009 at 13:12 | #8

    Clive’s article is well rebutted by a number of commentators which tends to support my thoughts that Clive is at best taking the p*ss. I think Ken wraps it up quite succintly when he asks what are the alternatives to the internet.

    You can’t have free speech (defined as the freedom to form an opinion and give it voice) without some people speaking loudly or rudely. That’s life. Cope with it :)

  9. Tom N.
    March 8th, 2009 at 13:14 | #9

    COMMENTS: QUALITY vs QUALITY

    Q certainly does have better quality comments threads than many other sites, but there is in my view significant scope for improvement. Without advocating external censorship, I would proffer that more self-restraint (or self-censorship) by those with ‘just’ an opinion on a matter, not backed up by any great specific knowledge, would improve the quality of the comments. Given that it can be time-consuming to have to sort through comments threads to find the gems, fewer though higher average quality comments might entice more people to read them. Lately, the comments threads on Q have become dominated by a few regulars, and I for one have started to often stop at the end of Q’s posts, rather than going onwards into the comments in the hope of finding further enlightenment.

  10. paul walter
    March 8th, 2009 at 13:38 | #10

    I thought the opinion piece was pussy.
    Who are the “couple of academics”?

  11. Chris Warren
    March 8th, 2009 at 14:11 | #11

    Maybe Clive Hamilton is the enemy. But then I don’t read such sites as Crikey.

  12. Kevin Cox
    March 8th, 2009 at 15:29 | #12

    I find that blogging and making comments is more valuable for me than it probably is for the readers. That is, by attempting to explain myself I make the topic clearer in my own mind if not in the readers:) If anyone ever comments I find them very valuable – particularly if they question what I say as I can try to understand where I have gone wrong in my explanation or heaven forbid I was incorrect. It forces one to learn the jargon and understand what others are saying when they come from different backgrounds.

    The blogosphere is good because it is close to a free market in ideas and people can select and choose and the best ones will survive and be passed on.

    Some of us who work “doing things” sometimes find it hard to find an audience to whom one can explain things. Long suffering spouses can take a rest from being a sounding board.

    I use my real name because many of the things on which I comment and invite comment may earn money for me and it seems appropriate that people know who I am. However, I think anonymity with responsibility is best. That is, people should be held accountable for what they say – particularly when it becomes personal – and it is helpful to have an idea how to respond to people if you know the context of their comments including their background and experience. I think it is also critical to be able to defend oneself from people who “steal your identity” and pretend to be you and say something totally against your own beliefs. (Disclaimer – our company sells such a system)

    I have recently been putting up comments on weekend reflections about the idea of expanding the money supply by creating assets first then creating money backed by the assets rather than the current way which is to create money then hope someone will create some assets from the money.

    I am looking for comments because it is likely that I will persuade a government to allow me to build a system to create assets first. I want to find the problems I have not thought about before spending too much money building prototypes and trials. This of course is an undisguised request for people to read about the approach and pull the ideas to pieces.

  13. March 8th, 2009 at 17:04 | #13

    Curious that a person who has written such important books about the greenhouse mafia, economic growth and political dissent appears to be advocating some kind of censorship.

    Why don’t we just make it illegal to be right wing? Then we wouldn’t have to get off our bottoms at all!

    Doesn’t he remember the speakers’ corners of the olden days – places like “The Domain” and all the namecalling that went on there?

  14. March 8th, 2009 at 17:04 | #14

    PS

    I never read comments anymore, I just make them!

  15. Bruce Littleboy
    March 8th, 2009 at 17:14 | #15

    Kevin Cox re 12 / weekend reflections

    A reply appears on the Core Economics site:

    http://economics.com.au/?p=2838&cpage=1#comment-136066

  16. Alice
    March 8th, 2009 at 17:26 | #16

    The insurance industry killed the Domain. You need public liability insurance to have a public meeting. The Domain was great, insults and all. Yet another great Aussie tradition run over by the insurance industry.

  17. Bruce Littleboy
    March 8th, 2009 at 17:26 | #17

    A corollary of Hamilton’s point was made long ago and by many others (Clive James, I recall) re narrowcast TV vs broadcast TV. The left-wing loonies would watch channel 1918 exclusively, the racial supremacists channel 88 and so on. They could then abuse the other side without hearing other views at all. We would cease to debate and thereby form a broad community view; society would instead balkanise.

    I think the quality of specialised blogs far exceeds that of TV shows that allow audience members to ask politicians banal and formularised questions.

  18. Salient Green
    March 8th, 2009 at 17:42 | #18

    If I were you John Q, I would be a little uncomfortable with Hamilton’s complement, packaged as it was with the rest of his precious tripe.

    I think he was dealt with appropriately in the comments section.

  19. Steve
    March 8th, 2009 at 17:58 | #19

    Like ProfQ, I find that there is plenty of vitriol from people who post under the real names as there is from anonymous posters.

    The cause of the occasional vitriol is more to do with the medium.

    Anyone who has used email for more than a few years had probably been involved in a flame war, argument, or at least a misunderstanding with a well known and good friend over email, that is quickly patched up when you meet in person.

    There are two considerations:

    1. Some people write things more heatedly and with less concern for couching their view when they are writing across the intertubes than if they were saying it to somebody’s face

    2. When writing quick emails, a lot of the actual emotional intent of the message gets lost in transit because it isn’t accompanied by body language, tone of voice, or a bit of care in the writing.

    Learning email etiquette is something that you don’t realise you even need to do at first, and then you pick it up over months, if not years. Same for blogs.

    Clive has written some quite un-insightful, old fashioned kind of stuff of late.

  20. March 8th, 2009 at 18:19 | #20

    Just because I’ve been yellow-carded and sin-binned a couple of times doesnt make me a “troller”. I am not even an academic and I can’t afford a sock-puppet.

    Name names!

  21. stephen bartos
    March 8th, 2009 at 19:09 | #21

    I have commented on this blog, not often but on occasion over a number of years. The only time I’ve been subject to unwarranted ad hominem attack on this blog, the attacker was Clive Hamilton. I prefer names to anonymity but consider that a matter of personal preference rather than a normative judgement. Anonymity may give some commenters moral licence for brutality; but it can also protect commenters from that kind of attack.

  22. Alice
    March 8th, 2009 at 19:41 | #22

    I would argue the delete key is more essential than anonymity in maintaining civil discussions. Uncivil = just delete. Someone who I never even saw before called me a horrible word in here once and they got a ban (I still suspect it was one of those extreme young libs actually – they can be very badly behaved in my experience). That was nice. I think Clive could have elevated his praise for JQs blog in that regard – very well managed.

  23. Kevin Cox
    March 8th, 2009 at 20:00 | #23

    Bruce Littleboy,

    Thanks for pointing out the reply. It is just what I was after. It telss me where the message is not getting through and where I have to either improve the message or change the system. In this case the comments are a result of my inadequate explanation. Have a look at my attempt at explaining at http://economics.com.au/?p=2838&cpage=1#comment-136066

    This is exactly what comment makers like myself want. It is very useful.

    I think of it as a way of market testing ideas.

  24. Stephen L
    March 8th, 2009 at 21:31 | #24

    I post here under a name that few people who know me have trouble working out. I sometimes post elsewhere under a pseudonym (I make it a policy never to post on the same thread, and if possible the same site under both). I find having people know my identity makes me slightly more restrained, but the difference is marginal. Most particularly I’m more willing to criticise potential employers under my pseudonym.

  25. denko
    March 8th, 2009 at 23:38 | #25

    This is the age of ‘information overload’.

    Nobody cares to deal with all the information that assualts us as we cross the myriad courtyards of our daily lives.

    Hence the import of each new thought or opinion rather than flourish atop the lush loam of consideration and repartee is diminished and left and lost to wither…

    Like the oceans’ repository to a billion billion jellyfishes’ countless giga-gametes – so salted by this daily discharge of dreams and conjecture into an ethered internet to diminish, bereft and lost to wither…

    too…

    SAD.

  26. paul walter
    March 9th, 2009 at 08:00 | #26

    Second thoughts.
    Hamilton is not totally wrong to decry the trolls and so forth. They ARE the bane of blogging, particularly the anonymous “flying squad” types. It’s true some bloggers must remain anonymous for work etc reasons, but perhaps Hamilton was really getting at the sort of gits who really stuff up Palestine/ Israel discussions, for example.
    The problem I have with Hamilton is that he was the first to alibi Labor’s 2004 defeat, when the Tasmanian forestry branch of CFMEU openly scabbed for Howard, by trying to blame Latham and the Greens.
    This, we remember, was the election when the idiot Victorian Right ceded a Senate seat to FF, and control of the Senate to Howard, rather than preference the Greens in Victoria.

  27. Ender
    March 9th, 2009 at 08:59 | #27

    I post as Ender simply because I chose it long ago when I first logged into the ABC comments section and it was the first name that stuck when asked for a login name. Prof Q also has my email address which contains my real name and my blog, recently closed, also was in my real name.

    For trolls just remember the golden rule:

    “Do not feed the trolls”

    However I do remember one thread I got sucked into here a couple of years ago that had to be halted by Prof Q. I do make a point however now of always being polite and never insulting even under extreme provocation even on Jennifer Morohasy’s blog where the discussions there went from dreadful to downright embarrasing as they are now. I do not post there any more.

  28. Socrates
    March 9th, 2009 at 09:13 | #28

    I would be a hypocrite to argue against anonymnity. I think the key thing is the tone of moderation for keeping thing civilised.

    In my own defence of anonynmity, I would say that loss of it would greatly restrict the number of people who can comment. I work at times for both Federal and State government departments and some are quite ruthless in silencing dissent or even the mere questioning of policy, even when voiced in the abstract. FOI laws and widespread use of confidentiality agreements for all staff on some projects mean that the apparatus used to prevent discussion are greater than ever.

  29. smiths
    March 9th, 2009 at 10:35 | #29

    i think its a bit like being at someones house,

    this is johns house, he has his rules which are completely fair, and john is a nice, humble bloke,

    so i try to exercise respect to john primarily,
    and also to the other guests, some of whom occasionally annoy me,

    but i dont want john to think ill of me for poor behavior, weirdly i somehow care what he thinks,
    so i self regulate, apologise if i have gone too far,
    and stay off a topic if so advised

    some internet pundits have gone mad with their own sucess, as they get referenced and become ‘someone’ their ego grows, and the vibe and subsequently the comments suffer

  30. johng
    March 9th, 2009 at 10:43 | #30

    Some of the comments here illustrate Hamilton’s point eg Salient Green

    ‘If I were you John Q, I would be a little uncomfortable with Hamilton’s complement, packaged as it was with the rest of his precious tripe’.
    Also some misinterpret Hamilton as asking for censorship of the net. There are many good postings on this post but they are somewhat obscured by the poor postings. And as Hamilton says Quiggin has one of the highest signal to noise ratios. Some of the other blogs are unbearable. And sometimes a Quiggin thread is unbearable.
    Its sad given how much hope we had for the web blogs.
    It would be interesting to see if there could be some academic analysis of the factors associated with poor threads vis-a-vis good threads.

  31. Ikonoclast
    March 9th, 2009 at 11:41 | #31

    I think Ken’s post at #5 is excellent and sums up matters well. He is a good advocate (and example) for the person who can put his case well in a considered written form but is not adroit at debating or public speaking where bombast, effrontery and sly debating tricks so often carry the day.

  32. paul walter
    March 9th, 2009 at 12:09 | #32

    Back to Hamilton.
    The big power formations all include formidible spin components.
    Given Hamilton spins for Labor, what could his objectives be with this effort?
    Conroy wants both the internet and public broadcasting dumbed down and Conroy’s boss Rudd is of course close mates that cretinous gang that runs Murdoch, inc the Government Gazette, who loathe broadsheet media and blogs alike.
    I well remember Milne bleating to Conroy at a press club luncheon leading up to Kev 07 that he should come down on the internet.
    Given that more than a few in parliament on all sides are also religious prigs, it would suit many of them also for reasons of personal prejudice.

  33. Lord Sir Alexander “Dolly” Downer
    March 9th, 2009 at 13:45 | #33

    The tone of many of the comments kind of give weight to Clive’s argument.

  34. Lord Sir Alexander “Dolly” Downer
    March 9th, 2009 at 13:58 | #34

    I mean the comments over at the Crikey piece.

  35. gianni
    March 9th, 2009 at 15:21 | #35

    paul walter@32

    Given Hamilton spins for Labor

    Clive Hamilton doesn’t spin for Labor. His political philosophy is a progressive one, which results him taking public positions that coincide more often with those of the Labor Party than those of the Liberals. (As any number of the people posting here have said: correlation does not imply causation.)

    According to your logic, Harry Clarke (check Prof Qiggin’s blockroll) can be accused of “spinning” for the Liberals because his views line up closer to those of the Liberal Party than Clive Hamilton’s.

  36. paul walter
    March 9th, 2009 at 17:33 | #36

    Gianni,#35.
    Yes, darling?

  37. Bruce Littleboy
    March 9th, 2009 at 18:42 | #37

    Slightly off topic perhaps…
    What annoys me is people who post false information or who carelesslyly repeat it:

    I went to a seminar this morning and heard that Marx written this:
    Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and mechanical products, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism”
    (It’s been widely recycled in the press lately, but not with a page number.)

    But it’s been claimed to be a fake “quote”:
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/b … 527135.ece

    Unless someone more skilled than I can find it in Kapital (in which case I may be somewhat guilty of naughtiness myself)… Shouldn’t journalists do this though? But they never put page numbers in anyway.

  38. March 9th, 2009 at 19:00 | #38

    Bruce, the Marx quote is fake. You can search Kapital here:

    http://www.marxists.org/

    Most of Marx’s texts are included on the above site, and are searchable.

    Fraudulent Marx quotes have been circulated before, a topic I once touched on here:

    http://lacomplaintedupartisan.blogspot.com/2008/02/lies-or-stupidity.html

  39. jquiggin
    March 9th, 2009 at 19:43 | #39

    Although the phraseology sounds like Marx, the analysis is not and the references to consumer credit are anachronistic – credit of this kind, aimed at ordinary workers didn’t emerge until the 1920s.

  40. Salient Green
    March 9th, 2009 at 19:45 | #40

    johng, Hamilton’s point was that the internet was the enemy of free speech. Please tell me how my opinion of his essay illustrates that.

    I think the whole blogosphere is like the prehistoric nutrient soup where all forms of organisms were creating themselves and being tested. Many failed, some survived. Sometimes it was rough and cruel, sometimes it was pathetically easy and sometimes it was impossible.

    Some people have an unhealthy attitude to conflict, especially where there is some passion involved. I find reading or being involved in passionate exchanges very stimulating. Those who are exposed as fools with some blunt, but not personally abusive, language for continuing to ignore the facts can be a lesson for others if not themselves.

    Anyone who posts an opinion needs to be mentally prepared to stand up for their position and/or wear criticism without taking it personally or taking on another’s personal problems.

    The blogosphere is richly evolving and exciting for it. There is an enormous amount to be learnt not only of facts but of human nature. Those who are a little sensitive could try embracing the chaos or reduce their exposure.

    I was actually holding back before. If Hamilton was standing in front of me now I would tell him to stop being a baby and that his essay was a bit pathetic.

  41. Bruce Littleboy
    March 9th, 2009 at 19:54 | #41

    Thanks THR #38 (an amazing web resource, by the way)

    There are giveaways re inauthenticity: 1867 is the widely stated publication year, and since when were household “mechanical products” available back then to workers or anybody? (But I vaguely recall that the Singer sewing machine was practically the first and it was around in the 1850s.) And workers being surrounded by affluence rather than emiserised?

    But everbody’s guard was down: people spontaneously trust those who seem trustworthy, though superficially. Like trusting bankers and ratings agencies.

  42. Salient Green
    March 9th, 2009 at 20:25 | #42

    Hamilton says “Even a public commentator as thick-skinned as Peter Faris declined a request from Crikey to join its blog, citing the unpleasant attention opinion writers invite…”

    Turns out Faris was getting out of blogging anyway. From Wiki – “On 25 January 2009, Faris announced that he would discontinue blogging” and this – “His bluntness of expression and conservative political views tend to alienate his opponents”

    Perhaps it is not Faris’s skin that is thick. Clearly he was trying to impose his conservative views on others who found him objectionable. He has been tested and failed. This I see as natural selection at work in the blogosphere.

  43. Alice
    March 9th, 2009 at 20:29 | #43

    Salient#40
    (secretly – I think Hamilton wrote that in 5 minutes. Capable of better – satisfactory observation but not quite a credit.)

  44. Salient Green
    March 9th, 2009 at 21:09 | #44

    Agree Alice, he wrote a much better piece for unleashed which had a huge number of responses.
    Some of the worst were by one of Jennifer’s orcs but who takes them seriously? Maybe Clive did.

  45. Chris Warren
    March 10th, 2009 at 09:36 | #45

    Even fake Marx makes better sense than all the world’s central bankers as they, nonsensely rush to the printing presses if Brendon Lau’s piece in today’s AFR pg 21 is any guide.

    How can you have free trade, a floating exchange rate, plus printed currencies – all at the same time?

    What theory is this?

  46. Alice
    March 10th, 2009 at 09:42 | #46

    Salient – does Jennifer have a flock of orcs in tow? Its the babies that squawk the loudest you know.

  47. Jim Birch
    March 10th, 2009 at 16:12 | #47

    I think a good deletion policy is important. There are a lot of noxious loud mouths out there but they are humans (I think). If they can be encouraged to express them selves coherently, eg, fact-checking and arguments rather than slogans, they not only be become tractable for slicing and dicing, but are forced to consider their own positions which is a benefit for the blog and the world in general, and also, they might even occasionally present an argument that stands up.

    I love seeing people change their minds; it shows that the process works a bit. Unfortunately, the more common response is to depart, but a few more interestings or even I was wrongs would really improve the place IMHO.

  48. paul walter
    March 10th, 2009 at 17:00 | #48

    #46.
    These are the blighters that follow cow right whales and tear the tongues out of the calves.
    We need some Japanese up, quick smart, to lampoon a few.

  49. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    March 10th, 2009 at 18:09 | #49

    On the basis of his concern about a lack of courtesy I suspect that Clive Hamilton opposes free speech even in the NSW parliament. The reality is that the online community has done a fantastic job at self regulation. The mere ongoing existance and utility of sites such as wikipedia should offer us a sense of triumph rather than despair.

    Personally I find Clive Hamilton quite offensive. The guy wants a government run Internet filter for goodness sake. He is an enemy of free speech and an enabler of totalitarian tendancies.

  50. Alice
    March 10th, 2009 at 18:24 | #50

    #48 – lol. Yes, they can fire away…!

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