Trolls and anonymity

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.

50 thoughts on “Trolls and anonymity

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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”: … 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

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

  19. 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.

  20. #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.

  21. 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.

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