Disinfecting the Guardian Climate Change Forum: Moderation Rules!
Around Christmas, I had more or less given up on the Guardian. The discussions following any article about climate change or environmental sustainability had become a nightmare – wading through vomit was one way I tried to describe the futility of it. There was no possibility of holding any kind of constructive debate. Instead we had to suffer endless trolling, abuse and projection – deniers seems to have become quite adept at assigning every scurrilous trait to those who take issue with them, the religious trope being a particular example. There was also some suspicion that the number of right-wing trolls had increased once Murdoch had put his paywalls in place, the inference being that deniers are also cheapskates. My opinion of such people is now so low I would not bother to argue what is, in reality, a moot point.
Then something very strange and wonderful happened.
I’d like to think that comments by me and others about introducing a paywall on the Guardian, and pleas like ‘I want my Guardian back’, actually made some difference, but it doesn’t really matter. What happened was that the Guardian evidently got completely fed up with all the crap they were hosting, and decided to do something about it.
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About five years back, I was reading a Bad Science column in the Guardian and decided to add a comment. This was in the days of the first forum engine, twice superseded since then, but it was the start of a long love/hate relationship between me and Comment Is Free. The early posts were lost in one transition, but my user profile currently runs to 244 pages, each containing 20 posts. As brevity and I are barely on speaking terms, I may not be far off the mark to suggest I’ve probably contributed a million words to Comment Is Free.
One of my good intentions (uh huh) is to go back and examine how the arguments and public discourse on climate change have developed over that time. Of course, I didn’t stay long in Bad Science before my moth-like attraction to the heat of the climate change debate drew me in. My memories of those early discussions are vague; what I remember most is that, in the main, they were far better natured. The principle argument circled the wagons of temperature rises, because after 1998’s anomaly, the principle sceptical argument was that the warming had stopped. Those of us less certain cast about for explanations, but I suspect even then we didn’t really articulate the right argument: that one should not expect non-linear systems to act in a linear fashion. Subsequent events, and the consistent negative mass balance in most of the cryrosphere, put that argument to rest.
Perhaps I’m romanticising, but it seems that the temperature gradient was the last of the valid sceptical arguments that worked. When it became clear the upward trend hadn’t gone away, and the Arctic ice in particular started to disappear at astonishing rates, things started getting a bit tense. We were getting better information by then, particularly from the pair of GRACE satellites. Science was really getting into gear and the prognosis became so dire that the IPCC’s 2007 report just added fuel to the fire in which scepticism was being cremated. We should not thank the chump who first said ‘the science is settled’ because the inaccuracy has haunted us ever since. But while science is never settled, the point was that the paradigm of anthropogenic climate change was no longer up for serious discussion. Science had moved on; solar and other forcings had been ruled out comprehensively, and now it was time to face the unpalatable probability, the very high probability, that climate change was indeed anthropogenic, and because the implications for society were so profound, science had blundered into the middle of an ideological war from which it could not extract itself. Like it or not, science was now in the front line, and with a serious fight on its hands.
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In war, truth is the first casualty. Too bloody true. I also think of equal and opposite reactions at this juncture, because the more solid the science becomes, the more some parts of society deny it. As the pressure of empirical evidence increase – particularly satellite photos of Arctic ice losses, which are very hard indeed to argue with – so the opposition hardened. To pull off this battle with rationality, they had to abandon it. The accusations against scientists became prominent in any debate, always without evidence, but so persistent and shamelessly aggressive the smears gained traction, at least within the media (and therefore with the public). We started to see a lot more ‘batshit’ science – confusing greenhouses with the ‘greenhouse effect’, daft remarks about breathing, hilarious stuff about global warming on other planets – and jolly good sport it was, for about 15 seconds. After that, we simply had to contend with a litany of idiotic clichés, their ubiquity documented by Skeptical Science, who run the definitive list of wrong-headed arguments.
More disturbing – for me, anyway – were the conspiracy theories. There had always been a few lurking around, but now things were getting quite ridiculous. None of them made any sense when examined clinically – I’ve written about tax and control memes, and why they cannot be logical – but logic never stopped a desperate man. The US, in particular, seems to be splitting into camps so bitterly divided it is hard to imagine their reconciliation, which is a great shame. Certainly, the most crazed, and often alarming, posts in CiF were from mad, bad Americans. You could almost hear the six-guns popping as they rode through town in a swirl of dirt and innuendo.
I don’t know if the deniers – the propagandists, that is – realised it, but in forum like Comment Is Free, the issue is one of territory. Elsewhere, I’ve referred to this a battle for a hill, for the high ground (Monbiot versus the trolls: The battle for hill 666)? Consider it this way: the Guardian is an influential and widely read MSM (Main Stream Media) site with considerable international reach. It may also be the most prominent MSM site in the world whose editorial policy is pro-AGW (and pro-science). Whichever viewpoint dominates the discussions after any article on climate change or related topics, that viewpoint will be widely disseminated and through a medium that gives any position a degree of automatic credibility. Repeated sufficiently, propaganda may be taken as fact, become the accepted paradigm, the norm, the consensual position.
Indeed, as some of us realised – perhaps belatedly – for a while there, we really thought we were losing. We got fooled by the deniers, so pernicious was their influence, and so heavily outnumbered were we. They were kicking the crap out of us, largely through the tactic of simply pouring shit all over us at every opportunity, and only a few brave men stood against them. I am ashamed to say I’m not one of them: I retreated for a while, so disturbing to me personally was this rhetorical war of attrition – a war still raging today, one that has riven the main political parties in the US as many follow their venal instincts, opting for the easy choice, the complacent option and the cheap vote.
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That’s how it was before COP15 and the CRU debacle made things worse. There were so many final nails being driven into the coffin of climate change, deniers were running out of iron. Cancun fizzled like the damp squib we knew it would be, and the US reverted to knuckle-dragging politics after the mid-terms, leaving Obama even more disenfranchised and powerless, what little he had accomplished likely to be undone by a wilful and demagogic congress.
On top of that, the Murdoch paywall had gone up and the fossil-fool count had gone up overnight. The crowing was unbearable. Christmas was miserable, except when a couple of my quotes featured on the front page in quick succession.
That was when a small tactical nuke went off in the climate change threads. I have to remark at this point that the problems we had in CiF were the fault of the Guardian, albeit in a well-meaning way. The issue of moderation versus censorship is a knotty one, and no matter what policy you enforce, it is impossible to please everyone, and particularly those who get moderated. So the Guardian’s default position had become self-defeating; while trying to encourage quality debate, the over-liberal moderation allowed every thread to be hijacked by deniers, who quickly turned everything into mush.
The effect was inevitably to disrupt the proceedings, every denier post a new lie, deceit, misrepresentation, a new bit of bad science, another conspiracy theory – and each post had to be refuted, rebutted or debunked. That’s the problem with debates that entertain too many strands; each one becomes a debate in itself, often degenerating into acrimonious dispute. Each new denialist trope dragged us off course and into the no-man’s-land of uncertainty, which is exactly where the deniers wanted to take us all. (Actually, most were not new at all – denialism depends on the litany of clichés that circulate like bubbles of bad gas in a turbulent liquid. They certainly understand recycling, do your cut and paste deniers).
One weekend, it became clear rather violently that things had changed. At first, one could be forgiven for thinking that the entire moderation team had been on the piss the night before, and were as grumpy as its possible to be without being homicidal. Posts were disappearing nearly before they’d been written, so acute was the attention. Not only that, but it very quickly emerged that it was off-topic denier posts that were taking the heavy shelling, while those of us who wanted to discuss the topics remained relatively unscathed.
I have to admit a shameful glee at this point. It was wonderful, watching all the crap get stamped on before anyone had a chance to retort and get dragged into another pissing contest. Some of us learned real fast. Others – deniers, naturally – had real trouble understanding what a topic was, of that if they wilfully ignored it to vent their latest bit of contrarian crap, they would disappear like melting ice, only quicker.
Over the next few weeks, a wonderful thing has happened (several, actually – but more on that another time). Comment Is Free is hosting focused, constructive debates on environmental issues. Trolls are shown the door real fast, our invisible bouncers now operating a zero-tolerance policy that I’ve fallen foul of myself a few times, while I readjust my compass and reorient myself. That’s fine by me; I’m just collateral damage – on the end of a bit of friendly fire. The result is absolutely worthy; the trolls, after some serious cognitive dissonance issues, have buggered off. Moderators need little encouragement to sweep out the trash quite regularly, and all of us have realised that feeding the trolls is ill-advised, since our efforts will be consigned to oblivion when the mods turn up.
So here’s my message: if you have been put off by the intemperate and dissolute rubbish that disfigured climate change discussions in Comment Is Free, take heart. Have another look, because the comments, while still contentious, hot under the collar and argued with vigour, are starting to look like the kind of thing you would expect from a site whose heritage is the broadsheet, whose advocacy is one of culture, and whose participants are primarily adults trying to take responsibility for the world they live in, and work with each other to understand our bewildering society, face realistically the problems we all face, and understand our part in both the problems and their solutions.