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Disinfecting the Guardian Climate Change Forum: Moderation Rules!

February 8, 2011

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.

* * * * *

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 This was in the days of the first forum engine, twice superseded since then, but it was the start of a long love/hate relationship between me and Comment Is Free.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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 1:46 pm

    Thanks for the summary. I’ve only been reading the G since mid-2008, so the historical context is helpful.

  2. TrueSceptic permalink
    February 8, 2011 3:53 pm

    It had to happen eventually. When your standards are even lower than some denier sites, where does that leave you?

    BTW I think you meant “moot” at the end of the first para. 😉

  3. February 8, 2011 5:06 pm

    Your post gives me hope. It is a sad fact of life that the opportunity to freely express ideas online is seen by some as an opportunity to write illogical and often mendacious rubbish. Those who specialise in these tactics repeat libellous statements. With the recent actions of Abrahams against Monckton and the legal action by Weaver against Ball, the bullies are being put in their place.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 8, 2011 5:39 pm

    Truesceptic – I did indeed. Thanks for that…

    Anthony – indeed, it was good to see Cuccinelli have his wrists slapped, although he’s still at it, I believe.

  5. A Rebours permalink
    February 8, 2011 7:48 pm

    Yes, how crazy is it that?!? Who’d of thunk it that the mods would actually get medieval (::coughs, warm period, splutters::) on the CIF dungeon trolls!?

    Now all we have to do is set up camp over at the Daily Fail and Deliingpole’s blog and…

    Oh dear. I fear w have a long way to go.

    🙂

  6. February 9, 2011 11:36 am

    I also noticed that a lot of posts were being culled but didn’t realise what the implications were until you expressed them here.

    I rarely if ever contribute for the very reason that anything sensible got buried under an avalanche of denial but may be more encouraged to add my tuppence worth.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 9, 2011 12:12 pm

    Hi Lazarus – that’s exactly what I fear happened – people who wanted to join the debate were put off by all the bile and contrarianism. It’s up to you of course, but if you can bring yourself to give it another chance, you might be pleasantly suprised (I hope so anyway).

  8. February 9, 2011 2:45 pm

    It’s improved no end, Graham. There have always been what might be called “genuine skeptics” posting on CIF, and somehow I don’t mind them as it gives the chance to expand on some moot points in the political debate, and it is mostly debate that takes place, but the hordes of astroturfers and random trolls made things almost impossible. Thankfully they do seem to be thinning out. Like you I’ve had posts deleted but I almost have an automatic response when reading a post that is so blatantly untrue that it cannot be allowed to stand unanswered. I much prefer to chew over the issues themselves in an environment that doesn’t require a head-vice!

    Cheers – John

  9. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 9, 2011 3:22 pm

    John – welcome, very nice to see you here (ARebours turned up yesterday in another thread too – almost becoming the ‘alternative Guardian’…)

    The collateral damage is a tricky one, because like you I feel an obligation to rebut the disinformation. Lucky then that it’s thinning out, so we are left to actually address the topics. In the last few days I’ve had constructive discussions with two posters whose output previously stuck to a more hard-core line. Perhaps some ‘sceptical’ posters are finding it easier to be amenable and less doctrinaire now the trolls are back under the rock they came from.

  10. john permalink
    February 9, 2011 4:01 pm

    Hi Graham

    Yes, there used to be a useful technology website called the Register. That’s been taken over by out-and-out deniers. They claimed they had a
    ‘we’re fair ‘cos we’re horrible to _everyone_’ policy, but this came apart at the seams when they harped on perceived irregularities about Jones and East Anglia but
    were utterly silent on Michaels’ alleged porkies to US Congress. And a study about reduced heat flow in the North Atlantic across a line of latitude was *proof* of the
    falsity of CC, but a study about increased heat flow into the Arctic was …… ignored.

    Oh, and it’s ‘principal’.

  11. February 13, 2011 4:52 pm

    You know Graham. This again is spot on. I have more or les retreated from CiF debates over climate change too. The deniers have become more then vitriolic, and are angrier then ever. And getting nastier and personal too. To refute each comment with detailed scientific analysis takes far too long, and still they come back, taking not the slightest bit of notice. It still seems to be going on, to an extent too.

    As I said elsewhere, I’ve been commenting a little, over at the Telegraph on Delingpole’s blog. He is one scary character and nasty with it. He says he sees his blog as the British equivalent to Fox News.

    I hope the Guardian don’t delete all sceptical comments, there has to be debate and that way some of the skeptic’s will change their views.

    Lobma

  12. The King In Yellow permalink
    February 17, 2011 5:54 pm

    Hmm, well the moderation seems to have slackened off in the last week sadly.

    The usual deniers are still around and still spewing off topic, trolling and abusive comments and zombie arguments.

    And on the last point it has occurred to me that these zombie arguments are like the ‘twitchers’ in the remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’:

    All the best.

  13. The King In Yellow permalink
    February 17, 2011 5:55 pm

    Gah !
    http:// www .youtube.com/watch?v=jrIxsdY8iy4

  14. February 17, 2011 7:59 pm

    Yes it’s been hard-going today, for sure! George’s pieces do tend to attract such attention. Complete (and I suspect willful in some cases) misunderstanding of both the papers and the RC discussion of them was widely evident. The trouble is I feel duty-bound to refute denialist posts, which then feels a waste of time when my responses are canned too!

    Cheers – John

  15. David Socrates permalink
    February 18, 2011 11:51 am

    Graham says: “The principle argument circled the wagons of temperature rises, because after 1998’s anomaly, the principle sceptical argument was that the warming had stopped.”

    For a literate man you are not very hot on spelling are you?!

  16. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 18, 2011 12:00 pm

    David – we’re discussing the putative end of the world, anarchy and stupidity in Guardian forums, the difference between censorship and moderation, and the best you’ve got is a pedantic remark about spelling – like my failure to employ the right version of principal made it impossible for you to understand what I wrote.

  17. February 21, 2011 4:37 am

    I assume you’ve seen this? Confirmation that elements of the denialosphere is organised, active, well-funded and truly “a machine”.

  18. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 21, 2011 6:55 am

    Hi Byron – yes, it’s been discussed over at the Guardian, but I didn’t realise quite how bad things were. And King is right, the initiative seems to have fallen away, as with so many well-intentioned plans.

    What’s curious to me is that just after the Guardian geared up, a whole raft of new and rather better equipped deniers showed up. I’m reluctant to believe in conspiracies, but it’s hard given the evidence that Romm’s produced to believe that the Guardian isn’t a key target since it is such a prominent MSM advocate.

    And it is fitting to remark once more that if these chumps had any science, they wouldn’t need to try to pervert the public discourse at every turn, would they?

  19. February 21, 2011 8:17 pm

    This latest development as reported in the Daily Kos site and discussed over at CP is of considerable interest here – for some time George, myself and others have been discussing the topic of possibly automated astroturfing i.e. taking things a step further from bog-standard astroturfing. It does not surprise me one bit.

    It was the fact that comments would avalanche in within minutes or even seconds of one of George’s pieces appearing that made several of us start thinking about the possible explanations: these developments are thus quite revealing…..

    Cheers – John

  20. The King In Yellow permalink
    February 28, 2011 4:53 pm

    Well after the debacle on Caroline Lucas’ latest article, with the trolls hurling abuse, breaking Godwin’s law, off topic comments and sheer drivel the Grauniad had better sharpen its act up, and have added a comment to that affect in the ‘what should we cover thread’ as an extension to Monbiot’s astroturfing issue.

    All the best.

  21. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 28, 2011 7:07 pm

    King – it’s true what they say about good intentions, clearly. My worst fear was that the nu-moderation would last a few weeks then deteriorate back to its former self. Seems like that’s coming true – the only sustained improvement is that the trolling is more on-topic than before!

  22. The King In Yellow permalink
    March 1, 2011 12:12 am

    ” the only sustained improvement is that the trolling is more on-topic than before!”

    Hmm not sure if I recognise that statement – it seems even more random, contradictory and vitriolic than before. 😦

    All the best.

  23. Ruth permalink
    June 9, 2011 1:56 am

    Unfortunately the Guardian is guilty of 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.

    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.

    Ruth

  24. June 9, 2011 9:09 am

    Ruth, what is it about Libya that cannot be said?

  25. KingInYellow permalink
    October 2, 2011 6:27 pm

    No, its worse than ever, apparently comparing Greens with Pol Pot is entirely reasonable.
    There is something seriously wrong with the moderation at the Grauniad CiF pages.

  26. Raymon Heath permalink
    January 29, 2012 3:32 pm

    Nice analysis and eloquent prose :o) Pitthewelder

  27. December 4, 2012 4:13 pm

    Everybody is entitled to their opinion. That does not mean that all opinions are equally valid. Some people have studied the subject; others have just blogged and written shouty books and articles on it. If you think the likes of James Delingpole or Nigel Lawson know more about the climate than climate scientists, that’s up to you. I don’t believe them or any of their friends trolling the internet. They just aren’t very convinciong.

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