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Guardian Forum: Censorship trouble at t’mill

May 6, 2009

I am a regular contributor to the UK Guardian’s Comment Is Free forum, where there are often complaints about moderation policy and the uneven way it is enforced. Quite often, people using abusive language simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Some go as far as to suggest that moderators are colluding with their contributors, protecting them over-zealously, and enforcing censorship rather than moderation. Yesterday, I joined an open thread where I defended moderation, remarked about the responsibilities inherent in the principle of free speech, observed that occasional errors of judgement were inevitable and rejected conspiracy claims as being rather unlikely. Then something really strange happened in a climate change threat I was contributing to..

Moderators

Now this is getting seriously worrying. I expect you’ll delete this post too but be aware that I have posted this comment, and the reconstruction of the missing posts, at gpwayne.wordpress.com.

This is what happened. A new poster calling himself manamana expressed surprise at the length and a certain acerbic tone used by another poster nicknamed mannacker, asking if such posts gave him license to use the same methods, or whether he should report such posts as abusive. An enquiry requesting guidance that is both fair and appropriate. It was deleted. I responded by defending mannacker’s right to free speech, that he could post whatever he wanted at whatever length, so long as he conformed to the CiF guidelines.

I also observed that CiF is a robust place where taking the piss is neither unusual or deemed particularly offensive, and that we should refrain from using the Abuse report because all too often this can be an attempt at censorship, where in my view it is more useful to allow all posts to remain unless legally compromising or rabidly abusive. This post “disappeared” along with a number of supportive remarks from Jezebel216 and my responses to her.

Then our new poster returned and expressed surprise at being deleted, asking why this might have occurred. His query was deleted, while my response expressing surprise and concern also “disappeared”.

Let me be quite clear. I do not support criticisms of moderation where people will not accept responsibility for their ill-judged remarks. I reject the accusations that moderators are colluding with Above the Line (ATL) writers, protecting them over-zealously. But your actions here are unconscionable. It cannot be inappropriate to discuss moderation in the place it occurred, and since there is a thread open on the same day in which many of 1200 posts discussed this same issue with Matt and others from the staff, it is obviously an acceptable topic for discussion in this forum.

You may say that such discussion are off topic, but since there is nowhere else we can discuss them except in occasional open threads, we have no choice. Do you believe that it is better to suppress what may be serious incursions on our freedom of expression? An accusation may be false, but only by making it publicly can this be discovered and discussed appropriately. By deleting these posts, you have reinforced the worst fears of your contributors. You are enforcing your own opinion that we should not be allowed to discuss such issues, and doing so inconsistently.

You are censoring posts that do not breach community guidelines. Your actions are arbitrary while you remain anonymous and cannot be called to account. By what right do you decide what we may or may not debate? This is not your job, and in effect you deny us the free speech that is both our right and our privilege so long as we respect the guidelines. These actions are heavy-handed, ill-judged and sinister, and only serve to fuel the very suspicions about your motives, purpose and agenda that until today I had thought rather extreme. You leave me disappointed, angry and very concerned, both for the ongoing value of this forum, and the nature of the editorial policies and control the Guardian management exhibit.

To other posters: you respond to this post at your own risk.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. John M permalink
    May 6, 2009 10:35 am

    Hello.

    Having had another comment disappear into the oblivion of ‘moderation’, I have just sent the following email to Mr Monbiot, via his own website :

    http://www.monbiot.com/contact/

    “I don’t know if you are aware (or are bothered) but there is a lot of censorship being carried out by the moderators on one of your recent Comments :
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/apr/30/climate-change-scepticism-climate-change?commentpage=6&commentposted=1

    Numerous posts have been deleted or have not even appeared on the site; most recently, it seems, because posters have been querying why it is happening.
    I myself am having all my comments sent to moderation first and they are all disappearing, but I still do not know why because no-one at the GUARDIAN has told me anything.
    Another poster, gpwayne, has put some details up on his own website :
    https://gpwayne.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/guardian-forum-censorship-trouble-at-tmill/#more-35

    Just about all the deletions have been targetted at those who accept AGW, but I don’t want to try to guess why.

    Anyway, just thought you’d like to know because it is preventing full and frank debate on your very good Comment.

    MeFinny2″

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    May 6, 2009 10:45 am

    Mefinny2! (or indeed JohnM). How excellent. It’s my pleasure to inform you that you are the first person to visit my blog and comment, so thanks and welcome. There is more to come on this one, so pop back if you have the time. But briefly (and fairly) I got an email from the Guardian which pointed out that discussions of moderation off topic were contrary to the CiF community guidelines, which is why my discussion of this issue was pulled. On other matters, this is a rather more complex issue altogether, one which I’m going to consider in later posts here.

  3. John M permalink
    May 6, 2009 2:11 pm

    Glad to be the first and hope I won’t be the last !

    I had a reply back from George Monbiot in double-quick time and he was interested in what was going in and wanted examples. I didn’t really have any to give him that would show bias from the moderators, apart from the first one I had deleted, which referred to manacker and his ‘crazy gang’ over at Harmless Sky. I don’t know whether it was deleted for the ‘crazy gang’ bit or for being off topic (bringing up a Denialist campaign to delete posts on CiF – way off topic !), but I have had problems ever since.
    I referred George to your comment on this site.

    I was also surprised that you had an email from CiF because I have heard nothing. I sent an email yesterday and am still waiting for a reply.

    Anyway, I managed to get a comment posted recently but it appeared in between two comments I’d already read so it could all get very confusing.

    Good luck with the blog.

  4. Tracy permalink
    May 9, 2009 9:58 am

    I was very surprised that manamana’s post and subsequent posts commenting on the subject of censorship had been censored. But I’m shocked to find that your posts are being sent to moderation first, John! Bloody hell! As for being off topic – since when is staying on-topic rigorously enforced? And calling someone a ‘crazy gang’ isn’t especially perjorative.

    My post pointing out that someone must have been desperately trying to censor John’s posts is still there (at the moment). The community rules are hardly very prominent, which is why manamana was asking questions in the first place. Posters who do their damndest to insult people don’t appear to be having their posts sent to moderation first. You’re right, G, there is no consistency – the rules, such as they are, are being applied totally arbitrarily.

    On the plus side, if they’re that desperate to censor you, you must be really getting to them. so keep up the good work.

  5. gpwayne permalink*
    May 10, 2009 7:16 am

    And a big welcome to the lovely Tracy (and yes, I’ve seen a picture…)

    Time to clarify a few points I think. First off, the original moderation of manamana’s post was silly – not censorious and certainly not as a result of anyone else complaining (in fact, I don’t think any of the posts related to this issue troubled other posters, but John’s problem is quite another matter of course – funny how those so keen to promote discussion of the inadequacies of climate change and the alleged reluctance of pro-AGW supporter to enter into debate, are also the first to reach for the Abuse button. Not funny at all, really).

    But everything that followed was in conflict with the guidelines. You say they are not prominent, but I feel this is a little unfair. The link to the guidelines appears at the bottom of every single thread. It is up to us to read them, and I failed in this because if I had bothered, I would have known that discussion of moderation is banned, except in open threads or those specific to the topic. Their reasons – as stated to me in a polite and reasonable email (my first from them) was that it takes topics well off target and they are right. That they pulled my long post about this – the one that appears here – was proper and consistent, and in some respects I feel the email they sent was concilitory by way of offering me an explanation. I find this thoughtful and I believe it demonstrates a respect within the Guardian for my contributions that I’m a little surprised to discover I appear to have earned.

    I have a number of half-formed thoughts about this whole issue, which I find is quite complex. Few people would be inclined to consider the business model that impinges on this topic, the commercial aspects and the analysis of management processes that apply. But this is part of my business background and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that to frame this in the context of a business analysis is appropriate. That I haven’t had time to do so yet is, I hope, something I will rectify in time.

  6. Tracy permalink
    May 10, 2009 12:16 pm

    Thank you Graham!

    I read the guidelines a long time ago – when I first joined CiF – they are pretty similar to most forum guidelines, so I certainly didn’t memorise them (though I notice they’ve updated them recently – a minor quibble but the link could do with being at the top of the page, next to the sign in part, not at the bottom of the page). But what always surprised me about CiF was how off-topic some posts could go – the mods just didn’t seem to bother about whether a post was on-topic or not.

    What surprised me about the deletion of all those other e-mails was that earlier in that thread (and in a few other threads) had been a discussion of the antics of a group of skeptics who had a strategy of trying to get as many ‘warmists’ posts deleted as possible – this post was on a similar topic. And that takes us back to John’s posts. I would hazard a guess that someone hit the ‘report abuse’ button on his profile, not just on one of his posts, to lead to such draconian measures as pre-modding his posts.

  7. Tracy permalink
    May 10, 2009 1:41 pm

    John, anyone who was reasonably familiar with your posts couldn’t possibly justify censoring/monitoring them in this way.

    Have you had any replies from CiF yet?
    Jezebel.

  8. antiphonsgarden permalink
    July 2, 2010 11:49 am

    I am always a bit amused when the middle class who think to “do the right thing “discovers the plotting cynicism of those in power.
    Instead of dividing between those who “knows how to behave” and those worth to be controlled by big brother, maybe a common solidarity towards the reduction of human expression in media would be more appropriate.As such all my compassion to all having experience the often absurd, often plotting, injustices at “comment is free”.
    Liberty of expression is inclusive, not selective.

  9. Ruth permalink
    June 9, 2011 1:49 am

    Even now, 2 years after this article was originally written, the Guardian is still engaged in rampant moderation and political censorship in the comments sections of their articles. They will not allow certain truths pertaining to the war in Libya to be discussed and they do not allow conversations regarding their moderation policies. Other posts are deleted at whim; often vanishing without a trace, while replies to them are left in place leaving a one-sided view of the discussion. Their moderators at times delete comments purely because they conflict with their own opinions.

    Like the author of this blog, I am not against moderation in principle. I understand that it is sometimes necessarily, particularly where rude or vulgar language is being used, but the Guardian go far far beyond what could possibly be considered an enlightened approach to moderation.

    I suspect that if they keep up this heavy handed approach to moderation that they will fall out of favour with the younger people who have found the internet generally to be a place perfect for freedom of expression and civil discourse. Political censorship really has no place on a supposedly liberal newspaper.

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