Monday, 26 May 2014

Mindless spleen

The journalist Robert Fisk has made a heartfelt plea for action to curb the rising tide of abusive and venomous comments on the internet. He says an increasing number of media sites are suspending or restricting online comments because mindless spleen is taking over from serious thinking.

He is disturbed that privacy and anonymity is becoming more important than responsibility, and instant reaction counts more than considered opinion.

He refers to the personal trauma that such vicious abuse can cause. He mentions the suicide of an Irish government minister. He could also have mentioned the many young people who have killed themselves as a result of relentless online bullying.

Personally, when I read the comments on media articles, I'm often shocked by how vitriolic and brutal they are. Under cover of anonymity, the writers simply lash out like brainless thugs.

These aren't comments in any normal sense. They don't come from a thorough and considered reading of an article. They don't show any respect or sympathy for other people's views or circumstances. They don't have any intelligent thoughts or fresh perspectives to offer. They are simply verbal kickings trying to harm some vulnerable, sensitive human being.

It's the ability to be anonymous that allows the commenters to be as malicious as they like, ignore all the usual conventions of decent behaviour, and not have any comeback. They can burst out of their hiding-places, lob a few online grenades, then disappear again, and nothing can be done to stop them except in very serious cases where the police are compelled to trace their identities.

It seems to me the media either have to ban anonymity or restrict online comments. The first may discourage some worthwhile comments, the second is a form of censorship, but surely either of those is preferable to people being scared that voicing their opinions will just unleash a sickening torrent of abuse.

Shrugging your shoulders and saying "Oh well, that's the internet for you" simply isn't good enough any more.


  1. Hello Nick,

    We absolutely agree with all that you say here. Anonymity is far too often, in our view, used as a cover for giving rein to a torrent of abuse rather than considered opinion. We are all for debate and disagreement but when this disintegrates into rudeness or, even worse, sheer venom then it is distasteful and upsetting. If, as a result, this stops people voicing their personal thoughts or gives rise to self destruction then this is a state of affairs which cannot be supported. The cost is too high.

  2. Jane and Lance: Anonymity is an online loophole that people drive a coach and horses through. A coach full of foul-mouthed, intemperate passengers.

    And yes, it's all the suicides and emotional pain that are the really disturbing aspect of it all.

  3. Wonder if the answer is to insist that there has to be a photo link to whoever is posting. It would probably be resisted by those who behave badly!

  4. I seldom read comments other than on blogs that I visit. A large part of that is due to the bad behavior of many of these comment trolls.

  5. Jenny: That's a clever idea. Of course it would have to be linked to a real name and somehow verifiable or it could be any old pic.

    Mike: I don't blame you. When I read comments on media articles, I'm flabbergasted by the stupidity, irrelevance and sheer hostility of many of them.

  6. I've just seen an entry on Facebook which started with someone reporting the killing of her chickens and developed into a full scale 'exchange of personalities'...all too like the bahaviour in some areas of the expat forum world where scorn and ridicule rule....and I am sure it is because of the anonymity.
    The result is that those with something valuable to contribute don't and the field is wide open to the loud mouthed vulgarians.

    There is a very good 'expats in France' site - Survive France - where those running it insist on real names being used and try to encourage people to put up a photograph of themselves....
    Survive France is thus, not surprisingly, a decidedly civilised site.

  7. Helen: Good for Survive France, taking common-sense measures to prevent abuse and ensure a civilised exchange of views. It's about time other websites did the same instead of just ducking the issue.

  8. I avoid comments on on-line article because of all the vicious, dimwitted foolishness that occurs. There are too many people out there who are quick to hurl racist or homophobic or misogynistic insults or to sexualize the article or its subjects. I find it disturbing and bizarre. That's what I like about the blog community - the discourse tends to stay civil. I've only had three instances where someone earned a deletion from my comment section. One was a first-time visitor who took offense at my stated dislike of Sarah Palin as a possible VP and hurled abuse at me, another was an anonymous commenter who appeared out of nowhere to make a personal attack about my appearance, parenting abilities and general character (I have no idea why) and lastly was a creepy old guy I had to ban from my blog permanently for his insistence on talking about his love of exposing his penis in public. Other than that, I find commenters here to be thoughtful and supportive and polite even in disagreement.

  9. Agent: Only three unacceptable commenters is not bad going. I've had some quite aggressive comments occasionally but I haven't deleted them. The only comments I've deleted were those from two commenters who insisted on having a private conversation that had nothing whatever to do with the subject of the post.

  10. I have had to ban two commenters from my page for their vile language, and attacking me personally. Nothing to do with the content of the post.

    I don't mind a jokey type of comment, so long as that's what it is; a joke. Some of them can be quite funny, and make me laugh.

  11. I never read comments after articles and videos because they always seem to be written by immature 12 year olds.

    A Facebook group I'm part of recently had a rash of rude comments, and all of the people appear to be using real names and pictures. One person actually came back and apologized, saying someone had borrowed her phone and had posted under her name. And I'm sure there are hackers out there doing stuff like this for jollies.

  12. I was attacked anonymously over the weekend and I will never read public comments again on my published material. Never.

  13. Writers of Letters to the Editor used to have to identify themselves. That seems like a reasonable requirement. On my site I have to approve the first comment from a person, then they go through automatically. That's a good way of filtering out the bad guys.

  14. Keith: Why on earth do people make these personal attacks which seem to have nothing to do with anything except their unvented bile?

    Bijoux: Immature 12 year olds is about right. Curious that even real names and pictures still don't stop all the insults.

  15. www: A wise decision. Just one nasty comment can be upsetting enough, let alone dozens of them.

    Jean: I was thinking of mentioning that. People writing to newspapers have to identify themselves, even if the letter is published as "name and address supplied."

  16. I read the comments because I'm an eejit! :)

    Its similar to how people act behind the wheel of a car.

  17. Susie: I don't think so, more like idle curiosity! And morbid fascination with other people's vileness lol.

  18. I have not yet been exposed to any and so am unable to offer anything sensible. If however I do get something malicious, I would report to our cyber crime police who are really quite good at tracing and taking action against these criminals. My son helped a lady friend to lodge such a complaint and though the culprit was traced to the Punjab, he was arrested and brought to book.

  19. Ramana: I'm impressed by how seriously your police take such personal attacks. Most of the time the police in the UK seem to dismiss attacks like that as just part and parcel of using the internet.

  20. Vile torrents of attack? Oh, Nick. Why oh why do you so often have to exaggerate certain of society's ills? Maybe we move in different circles. The publications I read on line will monitor comments. On the other hand nothing better than a bit of robust exchange of differing opinions.

    As to your reference to deleting a what you call "private exchange" between two of your commentators, well, we both know who they are. I found it small minded in the extreme. Say you throw a party: Do you jealously hover over those who might have a "private exchange" whilst nibbling your canapes and downing your champagne? Defeats the object in my opinion. Gatherings, whether in a room or in blogs' comment boxes are, in my opinion, there to bring people together. To start a conversation - even those which not necessarily include the host.

    The outcome of your intervention? Well, you kept me (lucky you). You lost the other 'offender'. Is that a result? Or might you have shot yourself in the foot?


  21. Ursula, you're just trying to be provocative, aren't you?

    You think "vile torrents of attack" is an exaggeration? You should talk to some of the women (and men) who've been subjected to exactly that. Like the academic Mary Beard, like Robert Fisk himself, like Nicola Brookes, like the ex-MP Louise Mensch, like the singer Katherine Jenkins, like the swimmer Tom Daley. I could name many many more. Do you not read the news? Clearly you've never been on the receiving end of this stuff.

    There's a big difference between a blog and a party, surely you can see that. Of course parties are full of private conversations on any subject under the sun, that's the whole idea of them. A blog post on the other hand is based on a particular theme and commenters focus on that theme. A private conversation between two commenters that totally ignores the blog post is to my mind rude and self-indulgent.

    As I remember, the other "offender" was commenting on my blog for the first time and I knew absolutely nothing about him so his disappearance was neither here nor there.

  22. I agree with you as any ordinary commenter would. I see no easy way out, ‘freedom of speech’ is such a holy cow that it must be preserved at all costs.

    Monitoring comments might be one way of shutting out the offenders. Ignoring them obviously doesn’t work.

  23. Friko: True, the idea of "freedom of speech" is now used to justify all sorts of bigotry and nastiness. But there have always been laws restricting freedom of speech to stop things getting out of hand. Again however, because those concerned are usually anonymous, it's very hard to prosecute them.

  24. I agree with this analysis -it is the not having to look someone in the eye combined with a general dumbing down of emotional intelligence. Heather Mallick, a journalist, calls those folks 'angry pyjamas'!
    I don't find too much of it in the blog world but on news sites -gah! Often people seem to be looking for grievances and haven't even fully read the post, it seems to me. Ah well, there are plenty of positive loving people too. Lets try and notice them as grumpiness is so catching.

  25. Jan: "Angry pyjamas" - I like it! Indeed, there's a general emotional dumbing-down so people feel it's okay to say anything at all, however noxious. And as you say, some people are simply looking for grievances and innocent people suddenly become the butt of their hostility.

  26. I shut my old blog down. I had 2, (I think women) who took offence to a book review I did. Then they went through my blog roll and followed me mocking each and any comment I made.

    Every day abuse. I swear they didn't go to work they just stalked people and gave them hell. I will never take down my looking at the comments before publishing. I have quite a lot of spam. And I also don't like they crazy volleys of insults that can go back and forth. there is no need. it hijacks your blog. if they want to vent, they can do it on their own blog.

    And so what if I am frothy etc. If you haven't anything nice to say, please don't say anything at all. There is enough hate out there. I look for blogs with like minded people. Who write what they want.

    Love one another.

    There is the other thing, that by commenting it is like a payment to the person who bothered to write something. An acknowledgement that you have seen the post and liked it, or to offer help. Maybe that is old blogging conduct. and now people are just venomous.

  27. Sol: That's dreadful that they stalked you and mocked you like that. Indeed, you wonder how people have the time to carry out such relentless harassment.

    Luckily I've never faced volleys of insults from anybody, my visitors are generally polite and sensible. I don't mind criticism or disagreement but there's no need for viciousness.

    It's worrying that emotional incontinence seems to be increasingly fashionable.