Monbiot versus the trolls: The battle for hill 666?
Poor old George Monbiot has launched another bitter attack on astroturfers and trolls who infest the Guardian threads with their bilious remarks. (These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy). He does this every once in a while, and of course it draws even more trolls, contrarians, conspiracy theorists and the like, but he rather queers his own pitch when he starts talking about implementing identity checks and other rather draconian sounding measures, most of which the Guardian couldn’t pay for, even if they were considered advisable, or even practical. I’m not going to discuss the issue of anonymity (except to say I don’t think that’s where the problem lies, or a solution can be found), but I do have a few thoughts about the quality of debate, what lowers it, and what could be done to improve it.
I don’t believe CiF suffers much organised astroturfing, but does suffer a great deal from posters who cannot, or will not, stick to the topic. Attempts at identity validation are not only unwieldy, but costly – and this is the issue which I think governs the way CiF operates, and the regrettably inconsistent quality of the discussions.
Irrespective of dissenting views – and CiF would be hopelessly dull if we didn’t disagree – the issue is one of applying the Community Guidelines effectively, and consistently. The main problem here is that every damn thread is hijacked by contrarians, and when they start misrepresenting science or making unsubstantiated accusations about scientists, these remarks cannot be left unchallenged – else the remarks could then be taken as fact, when they are inevitably opinion, and usually wrong.
But that’s on the science, not on the political or social issues, which is what we should be discussing, and where right and wrong are not concepts that can be applied dogmatically. Who knows what the right energy strategy is? Who can tell which method of raising money is the best way to fund climate change adaptation. How can we tell if our money is being used wisely? These, and other issues, are valid points of discussion – assuming we can stick to them. Adversarial attacks on science and scientists where both are framed as ideological issues, are not valid points of discussion, even when the science is the topic.
As for solutions, what is required to ‘clean up’ CiF is the rigorous application of the Community Guidelines. All posts that are off topic should simply be removed. This obviates the need to rebut them, saving people like me a huge amount of time and effort trying to correct mistakes, deliberate misrepresentation and, all too frequently, utter falsehoods. Sure, there will be those will wild and wacky viewpoints on any subject, including climate change, but so long as we’re discussing the issue in the limited context of a specific article, such viewpoints should be welcomed as part of the engagement with the public that the Guardian promotes.
What cannot be allowed to continue if CiF is to have any real merit as a place for intelligent discussion, is this hijacking of threads by disaffected posters who just want a vehicle – any vehicle – in which to air their discontents. The second you get a comment about sea ice in a thread about Namibian deserts, we’re screwed. When the subject is sea level rise, hockey stick clichés are really unhelpful. If the debate is about peak oil, then can’t we leave out the crazy stuff about the Marxists in the UN, or Gore’s bank account?
I conclude that the Guardian knows all this too well. I also assume that the whole problem – or the solution to it – comes down to money. The amount of work moderators would need to do on the environmental threads alone would probably keep the entire team occupied. My guess is that CiF overall is so busy that the mods have little or no time for the kind of diligent weeding out that I’m advocating. It’s a shame, and I blame nobody for this, but commercial facts will always take precedence over principle.
The Guidelines are adequate to provide a basis for quality control. The funds to implement the guidelines, however, may well be insufficient to the task. What the Guardian must ask itself is this: if the organisation is committed to support the science and politics of AGW, but cannot afford to moderate the discussions adequately, perhaps the discussions and the way they are being abused are a liability to the cause of climate change mitigation and adaptation, rather than an asset? I’d rather there be no discussion at all – silencing my voice along with those I oppose – than to continue to have to fight this rearguard action in which the voices of reason are drowned out – as ever – by the sheer numerical superiority of the baying mob.
Free speech is an important principle enshrined in, and honoured by, democratic societies. What is often missing from the articulation of this principle is that free speech can never be confused with cheap speech. Freedom is not free; it comes with responsibilities, as does democracy. If we do not protect our freedoms, if we do not participate in democracy, we will lose that which we value most through our complacency and our disregard for the very principles that our forebears fought so hard to protect.
Footnote: These principles are important, and in this blog, quite topical: while some posters who are now being moderated or banned from this blog will of course mutter about censorship, and claim I don’t wish to debate with anyone who disagrees with me, what they don’t understand is that discussion cannot take place when people are convinced they are right, that science is wrong despite not being able to prove it, or that everything is part of some terrible conspiracy. Such fanciful and anxious commentary has no part in reasoned debate, which is why such comments will not appear in this blog.