The web has been around for around 20 years now, but sometimes it seems people have been bemoaning anonymous internet trolls for the last 20,000. The latest iteration of this ancient dance came yesterday from Paul Howes in The Sunday Telegraph.
Howes’ argument focused particularly upon the effect anonymous abuse might have on politics, and it consisted of two major points - that politics is a horrible job; and that political candidates may be driven away by the hatred they face on the internet. Then all we would be left with is a choice between “pollie-bots” and “absolute dimwits”.
I think we can all agree that politics is a tough game - the work hours, the travel, the pressure, the alienation, and Canberra, not to mention the ever-present threat of being accosted by a TV pest in an overly-literal costume. It’s a wonder they aren’t more nuts, really. Apart from Wilson Tuckey (Retire In Peace).
But Howes’ argument is self-refuting. With all the working, travelling and getting stabbed in the back politicians do, does anyone think that being called “utterly incompetent” by rangarooter34 on news.com.au’s comments section is going to be a defining factor in their career choice?
Politics would have to be one of the most stressful careers there is. Eleven years of politics made Graham Richardson look like he was 143. Comments on Twitter or at the end of news articles wouldn’t even register as a blip for politicians compared to the crap that’s dealt out daily by their competitors and supposed allies.
Here’s the hot tip, Paul: If you become a politician, your family will be far more concerned about you spending the best part of the next two decades in Canberra than they will be about what some random dude on the interwebs thinks about you.
But onto the general point Howes touches upon – that old chestnut about whether anonymous internet comments are good for society. I thump my computer desk with an inappropriately hearty “YES!”
THE ‘ANONYMITY IS COWARDLY’ QUESTION
You hear this one a lot – public figures decrying the ‘cowardice’ of anonymous commentary. As Howes says, “I dish out plenty of criticisms against lots of people. But I put my name to it.”
It’s strange, but for all the times I’ve heard people complaining about anonymous mindless criticism, I’ve never once heard people complain about anonymous praise, no matter how mindless or uninformed it is. Why doesn’t anyone ever demand to know whose hand is patting them on the back?
Let’s face it – if a public figure was at the rocky end of a Twitterlanche that had names and addresses attached, they still wouldn’t be too cheery about it. The anonymity is irrelevant, it’s the criticism they don’t like. The juvenile, abusive, misspelt criticism.
And I don’t blame them – it’s horrible being hated. During the Make-A-Wish controversy, the sheer weight of hatred directed towards The Chaser nearly tilted the Earth off its axis. But you get used to it over time. And I believe the benefits of anonymous commenting are more than worth it.
Yes, anonymous commenters won’t win any bravery awards. But why does that matter? Their identity (or bravery) is irrelevant. They have no influence. They are simply a random person expressing one unseen opinion amongst an ocean of other opinions. It’s their message that matters, to the extent that it matters at all, which is not very much.
THE ‘ANONYMITY LEADS TO ABUSE’ THEORY
There is an unspoken assumption throughout this debate that if people weren’t allowed to ‘hide’ behind their anonymity they would be less abusive. Well, as someone who has answered the Chaser phone at the wrong time, I can testify there are plenty of people out there happy to put their name behind language that would make Van Gogh cut off his other ear. Angry people say angry things.
However, let’s just say forced identity disclosure would reduce excessive criticism. Would that be worth it? Obviously the truly abusive, hateful comments should be moderated (or blocked in the case of Twitter). But I believe even dumb criticism plays a constructive role. The volume of the criticism alone tells you that you’ve hit a nerve.
It’s easy for an opinion writer to imagine themselves politely talking to a friend when they write a piece. But it’s equally easy for a reader to imagine that writer stencilling that piece to the fingertip of God, and pointing it condescendingly out of the clouds towards them. Writers can forget their work takes on the authority of the publication in which it appears. And so readers may take their words far more seriously than the writers ever intended. A lively comments section should give you some idea of how your words are being interpreted. And whether you are a socialist moron.
People don’t comment about pieces they don’t care about. If they care enough to give feedback, let them share it. I think it’s good that writers be accountable for the impact that they have. Being accountable is part of being a public figure, and I’m glad it is. It stops you from being an ass (some of the time).
THE “COMMENTS ARE MOSTLY JUNK ANYWAY” THEORY
Paul Howes put it pretty well with, “websites like Twitter, and news sites which encourage readers comments, are making it easier than ever before for the deranged and the insane (and rarely, the completely lucid) to say whatever they like about whoever they want.”
Obviously, most comments on the internet are garbage. Or about cats. I fully expect the comments for this piece to devolve into random abuse, possibly about global warming, possibly about ABC bias. But if 1 out of every 10 comments adds anything to the debate, then the comments section is more than worth it.
I often read the comments of a piece to glean extra arguments or perspectives on an issue. You simply have to mentally filter out the rubbish. It’s easy to do. Anyone who’s been to YouTube understands how comment threads work. As long as there is proper moderation, it isn’t too arduous to find the diamonds in the rough.
It’s true that comments are often unfair. But, as a public figure, I don’t think it hurts to be the target of unfair attacks every now and then (especially journos). Call it empathy training. I know I’m glad for my experience on the other side of the feeding frenzy. Well, kind of glad.
Besides, if you somehow stopped people from criticising you, it wouldn’t make you any more liked. It would just make you more ignorant.
It’s quite simple, really. Either you care what other people think or you don’t. If you care then it’s easy to find comments worth reading. If you don’t then don’t read them. Everyone’s a winner.
ENJOYING THE CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK WITHOUT THE RUBBISH
It’d be great if you could just take the constructive feedback from the web without the fighting about Bieber, and religious bigotry. But it’s simply impossible to do. Just ask South Australia, where they tried to force disclosure of commenters’ identities earlier this year, only to back down under the unrelenting fury of… internet comments.
The freer the speech, the cheaper the speech. The more difficult you make it to post rubbish, the more difficult you make it to post non-rubbish. It’s a question of whether you value the non-rubbish high enough to tolerate the rubbish.
And this is why that’s the case. These are some of the pros and cons of being a public figure:
* You get a megaphone to express your opinions and work.
* You have more influence than most.
* You don’t wear a suit to work every day (unless you’re Eddie McGuire).
* That same megaphone can be turned back on you by any journalist or other public figure.
* You have little control over your own reputation – and have a giant target placed upon everything you produce.
* One day you are going to be washed-up and mocked, probably by some cruel teenagers on public transport.
In other words, you trade a greater voice for greater accountability. Yes, the scrutiny is unrelenting and often unfair. But not everyone gets a piece in The Sunday Telegraph when they have a bee in their bonnet.
By contrast, anonymous internet commenters have almost no voice and even less accountability.
So here’s the problem with forcing internet commenters to reveal their identity. It puts them on the record. Forever. It gives them instant accountability. That’s the point of it. But this means they gain many of the negatives of being a public figure, without any of the positives. No megaphone. They’re not being paid to write, like Paul Howes is. Just inconveniences and potential downsides.
That will not only have a chilling effect on abusive comments, but on all comments.
Speech instantly becomes more expensive. All speech.
So I sympathise with politicians, and everyone who is a public figure that has to deal with ignorant, abusive anonymous commentary.
But I believe it’s worth it for society. It’s even worth it for the “victims”.
And if you disagree with me, then don’t become a public figure (as opposed to exploiting the fact that you’re a public figure to complain about it.)
First published on The Drum HERE
Chas Licciardello is a comedian and member of The Chaser comedy team.