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Monbiot versus the trolls: The battle for hill 666?

December 14, 2010

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2010 11:28 am !

    I don’t think the Guardian do value their discussion boards that much actually: or at least, I think they like the traffic, but don’t want to invest in anything that improves the experience of reading the boards. Their system has certain merits in comparison with a crowd-sourced moderation system*: unless you say something that’s so off that it’s deleted, comments stand in order, and this does, at its best, enable referenced debate. And at it’s worst it’s a heap of timewasting bile and idiocy.

    The best solution (as you and I have found) is to go off and found your own blog and leave them to it. After spending way more time than it could possibly justify on commenting at the Guardian, I decided it was only worth doing if my first comment would fall on the first page of discussion (it’s quite obvious readership falls dramatically after the first 50 or so comments) and broaden out my attention to places where it’s done better.

    At base I follow the internet hacker’s maxim that it’s wrong to worry too much about where you publish something or if it’s archived: just get it out there and let the internet take care of the rest. There are 2 billion other internet users out there: obscurity is, and should be, the norm.

    *e.g. Slashdot etc

  2. December 14, 2010 1:23 pm

    I deeply mistrust the word “troll” in a context of argumentation, as it seems to imply a concept of territory marking . But I would suggest that the worse “trolls” are those willing to accept evident injustices practised to outside critical voices, simply in the hope to be seen as belonging to the “good ones” expecting to be published for having been system pleasing.
    History should have teach us, how such wannabe apparatchiks are the worse enemy of the freedom of speech.

  3. December 14, 2010 5:24 pm

    Wikipedia is right wing troll city as far as climate change is concerned.

  4. Dr. Tom permalink
    December 14, 2010 9:49 pm

    I think your readers might be interested in a book I just finished. It is the best read I’ve had in a few years:

    Oreskes, Naomi & Conway, Erik M.
    Merchants of Doubt: How a Handfull of Scientists Obscured the Truth obn Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, 2010, Bloomsbury Press.
    I’m sure many of you are familiar with the work. They name names and have done about five years of research for the book.


  5. December 14, 2010 10:04 pm

    Don’t stop posting comments it does help many people who read the. In that way i for one did found your blog.
    I am not sure what a troll is in comment page but i will tell you about an incident i experienced on the TED site. I was very interested in the topic Plant intelligence and the talk was very good, so i was asking questions and people were very helpful. Several people were not they just argued and were a bit angry. Anyway it went on for several days and than this angry person said he just saw the talk and was amazed and did not know that Darwin already wrote a book about it.
    The point is here this was a “denier” who had not even watched the talk so i suppose that many people on the Guardian comment without even reading the article.
    This astro-turfing i feel do exist and is supported by companies I see it as a form of advertising to influence public opinion to sell an idea with it the related products.
    An other reason to keep posting comments to give an counter weight, it helps to keep people informed and many will see through the trolling and astro-turfing.

  6. December 15, 2010 1:04 am

    Hmmmmmm, actually I wish GM would rememberthe old maxim ‘the medium is the message’. He works for the Guardian, surely he can have a word in the editor’s shell like and set up a smart system for managing the threads. My grandad always used to say “a bad workman complains about his tools”.

  7. Watching the Deniers permalink
    December 15, 2010 6:53 am

    … or GM could disable the comment feature on his articles all together.

    Problem solved!

    And yes, I’m serious… I’ve noted quite a few papers down under do not allow comments or open threads for articles on climate anymore (the Age in particular).

    I think they released it did not help. It simply gave the spam trolls a chance to clutter their site with disinformation and shut down debate. If there is no debate, why allow an open thread to be abused.

    Same with Internet polls, another useless function on news sites.

    I think SciAm have just learnt a valuable lesson with their botched Internet poll that got crashed by Watt’s directing his WUWT minions to it.

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 15, 2010 8:23 am

    Welcome to Julius and antiphonsgarden.

    Some thoughtful posts – thanks to you all – but I’m off to Bristol today to give a talk at the Uni. I’ll be writing a bit about that shortly, and I will come back with some additional comments to this thread and the interesting points made so far.


  9. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 22, 2010 12:25 pm

    I am looking forward to seeing your comments on your Bristol experience. This is a good university I think so you must be in some high regard by these peoples to do a speech there. Also A-M has been very interested in your writing concerning renewables in the developing world as this is a special concern for her work. I have been rather busy with things here but hope to make some replies soon.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 23, 2010 7:55 am

    Hi Birgit – it will be a while before I post something about Bristol, but that’s because they recorded the event and there will be a podcast available, which I hope will be interesting. It was certainly an interesting day meeting so many academics studying the way the media address climate change, and I felt I had contributed something helpful at the end of the day. (I was amazed though that none of them had heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect – I couldn’t think of a more important paradigm to understand if one is considering what part the media – and the bloggers – play in the public discourse).

  11. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 23, 2010 8:15 am

    Julius: I agree – small fish, big pond etc.

    antiphonsgarden: I don’t worry about nomenclature any more. It doesn’t seem to matter what terms one uses, there’s always somebody who will take offence. I think the general point is made despite the distinctions.

    Dr. Tom: Merchants of Doubt is a great, and shocking, book. At Bristol, one of the issues I addressed was a failure of the public to distinguish between reliable sources of information and those that merely reinforce existing prejudices (confirmation bias). With all the information out there from Exxonsecrets, from Monbiot – who covered this subject pretty well – and Oreskes’ book, the documented travesties from the likes of Cato and the George Marshall institute, the raging bias of WUWT…I just don’t understand how people can be so gullible as to lap this stuff up instead of being a bit more discriminating.

    It isn’t that I expect anyone to move from a sceptical or denial position to the exact opposite. All that common sense dictates is not to be fooled by pandering nonsense, to abstain from ‘believing’ any of it, and hold back on the dismissive rhetoric. A position of neutrality would be more prudent, but then again prudence isn’t something that many posters seem to have much regard for, despite the fact that climate change mitigation or adaptation is roughly the same as taking out insurance on your house – a matter of protecting oneself against risk, but this time on a global scale and where the risk could be quite terrible. We shall see, won’t we?

    clegyrboia: I’ll keep writing if you’ll keep reading.

    Hengist: I don’t think there’s much George can do. It isn’t like they can adopt a system for one thread, or one poster. Given a system as busy as theirs, I don’t expect much can be done (look at how long it’s taking them to come up with some kind of preview function – not exactly novel code considering that everyone else seems to have a better system than the Guardian. It’s all a matter of investment, which I suspect is a big problem for the G).

    WatchingtheDeniers: I agree completely. It’s a matter of territory really (I think of it in military terms, hence the Hill 666 reference). The Guardian is an international outlet, and the news and features it publishes are generally excellent. The threads under climate change articles however are, in my view, a complete waste of time, and give space and prominence to people whose views range from silly or uninformed, to destructive, dishonest and bloody stupid. A few good men and women try to keep the record straight, but they only have to do that because the threads are so full of misinformation or disinformation. Since the discussions are singularly unproductive, I think the Guardian, and the public at large, would be better off without the threads.

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