It’s been an interesting couple of days moderating comments submitted to AustralianPolitics.com.
Recently I posted the text of an article that the Minister for Trade, Craig Emerson, circulated on Twitter. It dealt with media bias and media treatment of the Gillard-AWU matter and the Slipper-Ashby sexual harassment case.
Over recent days, I have approved a couple of comments on this post but deleted dozens of others.
I’ve been struck by the viciousness of the comments about Emerson. Many comments retailed salacious stories. The meaning of some comments was hard to discern. Many just attacked Emerson and the government in general terms. I won’t reproduce the most scurrilous and personal but here are some examples, as submitted:
“Before Dr Emmerson starts slagging off about media bias perhaps he should come clean about his adultery…” [etc, etc, snip, snip and many more like so, only more explicit]
“Reads more like a love letter than a critique. At a loose end over the Xmas break, are we! What the NBN hasn’t passed your way yet? Are downloads are so slow your getting fidgety? Try a satellite connection. Half the price and fast enough to put a “smile on your face”, until your back in Canberra, that is.”
“Emerson is a complete and utter fool. He has proven that repeatedly by his ridiculous utterances. As for Gillard, her misogyny speech was probably the most disgraceful speech I have heard from a leader of this country. For that alone, she deserves to lose the next election. Thankfully, it is not that far to go before this disgraceful, incompetent pack of losers are tossed out.”
“So Mr Emerson when you refer to “Some editors and a few journalists are blatantly biased.” are you referring to Oakes, Grattan, Harcher, Coorey and just about every journalist on the Fairfax payroll whose primary interest is to be the Gillard cheer squad! If, as you say “That has always been the case.” perhaps this is why The Age and SMH are dying mastheads. Then in your final statement, the punch line, you state “But the real problem is the abandonment of professional standards to give effect to that bias. All subtlety is lost.” I guess this is referring to the loss subtlety and one-side argument for climate change, or whatever term the Labor Government chooses to introduce re;clean energy, dirty power etc; and reference to those that challenge the idea as climate skeptics or deniers”
“I just wish Craig Emerson would go away for a long time. He hyperventilates, interrupts, claims high ground which he is not standing on. If it meant we would not hear from him again, it might almost be worth reigning in the press!!!”
“How can anyone take Emerson seriously after his childish “Whyalla Wipeout” performance. Its clear his intellect hasn’t passed the pre-school level. In any case he is certainly not we should be able to expect from senior government minister.”
“he should look to his own actions .. he should also make the party’s followers aware of how their policies are part of the big jigsaw puzzle which has a very red centre and should watch this video to make everyone aware of what they are dealing with here and in the USA…
“Is emerson serious? Hell the media, with the exceptions of a few, were bought and paid for, to the tune of $1 billion plus, by Kevin Rudd. The Lame Stream Media is a joke in this country, Labor suck ups, that should hang their heads in shame, for their fawning attitude, and refusal to hold the ALP to account. Hey Craig, if you wanna criticise something, why dont you take a good hard look at your past indiscretions… [snip, snip]
Along with the anti-Emerson abuse came a number of conspiracy theorists. The one quoted above wanted to post a link to a nutty American video about left-wing destruction of Western society. Another wrote about a long list of suspicious coincidences, of which my favourite was the claim that Lionel Murphy used to be Julia Gillard’s boss at Slater & Gordon before he was given a seat on the High Court. All nonsense, of course.
A number of things bother me about these comments. There’s the abuse. There’s the shabby allegations of personal impropriety. There’s the poor expression and inadequate punctuation. There’s the factual ignorance. There’s the lack of awareness of what constitutes debate and discussion.
At one level the comments are not particularly offensive but I don’t want them on my website. To me, they’re junk. They add nothing to the issues raised by Emerson.
I suppose it’s a subjective judgment on my part. These examples don’t do justice to the full range I’ve received but overall they strike me as ill-informed, angry, illogical and occasionally nutty.
Whilst I’ve trashed comments before, I’ve never deleted so many on the one topic in such a short space of time. Clearly, there’s a network of people who have been agitated by Emerson’s comments on the media. Social networking opportunities allow them to easily disseminate links.
No-one has yet complained to me about my censorship. Perhaps they never will. All I know is that I increasingly look at submitted comments and wonder why I bother. I’m not interested in providing a free-flowing forum on this website. I prefer comments which add some information or value to the stuff I post.
I’ve never felt the need to draw up a comments policy for AustralianPolitics.com. It’s always seemed somewhat self-important and pretentious.
For most of the 17 years the site has been online, comments were not possible because the site was composed of static files. Since 2007, the site has existed on the WordPress platform. Since this isn’t a conventional blog site dominated by opinion pieces, commenting has never been very prominent. Most people use the site as a resource and rarely comment.
In the past couple of years, commenting has become more popular, not on every post, but on a minority.
Over time, I became concerned about the impact the comments were having on the site’s presence. For example, the section dealing with the Australian Constitution started attracting a lot of bizarre comments.
A variety of conspiracy theories began appearing. They seemed to consist of many people who believe the Constitution is some kind of crusade against the people. Wild debates about the validity of the Constitution began. A contemporary version is the idea that the Australian government is some kind of corporate entity subordinate to Wall Street.
I began to see comments about the constitutional validity of having a female Governor-General. Some people regarded local government as unconstitutional. The anti-fluoridationists argued state governments were engaged in a conspiracy to poison the people. Others felt that they could not be compelled to pay parking fines. Worst of all, bush lawyers started dispensing legal advice to other commenters. And on it went.
I have little interest in debating the merits of many of these “issues”. My simple position is that these are the views of cranks and the ignorant. I will not contaminate the site with this nonsense.
So for several months in 2012 I disabled all comments. This resulted in a deluge of private emails via the Contact page. In addition to the odd people who seem to think they are writing directly to Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, the conspiracy theorists kept coming. They were joined by the regular contingent of SEO shysters.
Since I prefer to offer lines of communication, I reopened the comments, but only on Posts, not on Pages which are designed to organise and order the site’s content.
Moderation of comments seemed to be the only logical solution. And that’s how it is at the moment.
Other than this post, I still don’t intend to write a Comments policy. The reason is simple: it should be obvious what’s acceptable.
Don’t abuse people. Don’t denigrate people. Don’t retail rumours about private lives.
I don’t care what your political views are or which party you support. Just be civil.
The problem, of course, is that it isn’t this simple. Some people genuinely don’t believe there is anything wrong with how they express themselves. For them political discussion equals carpet bombing opponents. They interpret the deletion of their comments as censorship.
I make very few claims for this website. As I say on the About page, it is what it is. It doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive guide to Australian politics. It’s no such thing. It started as a site for my students, became an archive that I used for my own purposes, and developed into a resource that attracts around 250,000 unique visitors each month. Around 25,000 search terms deliver visitors to thousands of different pages every month. All I know is that I keep adding stuff to the site and the traffic keeps growing.
Accordingly, what the site says to visitors is my responsibility. And I don’t want them to think that this is another place where people vent their spleen, where abuse substitutes for discussion, or where invective holds sway.
My position is simple. I welcome comments. I love questions. But I do all the work on this site. I pay for it to appear. No one else has any say in it. It’s my judgment as to what enhances the value of the site.
That’s why I won’t post the drivel I’ve read over the past couple of days.