Paul Howes is starting out on a journey

Paul Howes has bravely entered the new-old media argument with blog post at the Daily Tele. He is a remarkably courageous man. Who would have guessed that he would come out on the same side as The Australian in condemning new media? I was surprised, given that he is already such an avid Twitter user, and that his job has for a long time demanded amazing resilience in the face of both anonymous and named criticism. The post is just a bit of a thought bubble, really, but it has been picked up in the Twittersphere and I wanted to share my thoughts.

Howes’ main point was that people should show more respect for those in public office.

Who can dispute the virtue of respect? Anyone who calls for more of it will always be welcome. As Anakin Skywalker said in The Phantom Menace, “the biggest problem in the universe is nobody helps each other.” We could start by not calling each other names like “You incompetent corrupt clown.” Howes is on safe ground here.

Why are public figures subjected to this? Everyone is subjected to it, of course, but the more people who hear or read someone, the greater the chatter about them. In a free public sphere, whatever that is, some of that chatter will inevitably be ignorant, prejudiced, unfair, disrespectful, ad hominem, etc. It always has been – but, we must admit, “new media” has added a more public, immediate and interconnected dimension to the sphere, and those negative aspects of public discussion are more potent than ever.

It may make you angry if you are a public figure, and a human being, putting forth your humble and constructive view on a matter of import to society on a website. You know the criticism isn’t all rational. The rational way for you to respond would be to accept that you can’t please everyone. If you still need reassurance, remind yourself that the criticism really doesn’t matter and eleven twelfths of it will be forgotten by lunchtime.

Maybe you can’t respond that way so easily. Maybe, as Paul Howes’ suggests, you are concerned about the impact that a slur like “gutless muppet” could have on your family.

Ask yourself this: would you want your wife to read in the paper that you are “trash”, “an absolute disgrace”, and “utterly incompetent”? Would you want your children to read that? Would you want your elderly mother to read 200+ comments highlighting what a worthless waste of space you really are?

Maybe you are concerned about the impact it could have on future generations’ preparedness to run for political office.

But the way things are going with the new media, I sometimes wonder if anyone will much want to put their hand up for the job in the future.

Or maybe it just stings your pride. Maybe your stomach sinks, and your appetite for the meal you planned on heating up in a couple of minutes disappears, as you read the queue of comments that effortlessly judge the inadequacy of your work.

In a private forum on a website I used to moderate, I once poured hours into refining a detailed and well-organised post outlining what I thought the administrators should do in a certain area of the site. It couldn’t have been read by over a couple of dozen people, absolutely no more than 100, and the actual number of replies didn’t reach more than 6 or so. But they were all comprehensive, rational, forceful and persuasive in rejecting every aspect of my post. The embarrassment seemed to hit me physically, as my face glowed hot, my palms were sweaty, my stomach dropped, and I had to leave for a walk.

This is laughably tame compared to what public figures offer into the public domain, and the torrent of visceral opinion they endure in return. I don’t believe you last long in politics without a thick skin, but you don’t stop caring what people think about you altogether, either.

Will people actually be discouraged from running for office by this kind of crazy opinion free-for-all? I don’t think so (and surely Howes doesn’t, either). However awful this new media comment-fest is, it is laughably tame compared to current process of winning preselection for either major party. Let alone the day-to-day condemnation and denouncement that the parties exchange throughout the year.

Which is why the general response to new media among politicians may be disinterested, like most of them, or disillusioned like Joe Hockey, but you’ve probably noticed: as a group, they’re not out to stop it or change it. Maybe that’s because their staff, with a few exceptions (like Malcolm Turnbull, who could probably withstand the heaviest bombardment of character abuse without blinking), are constantly moderating and deleting the critical comments from their blog posts or Facebook pages.

At any rate, the full and direct criticism of “new media” is actually coming from those involved in the political process – journalists, lobbyists, trade union officials – who have not had to fight an election (or preselection) before, and so haven’t been subject to such sustained and potent criticism before.

For these people, who entered their present jobs and had this ugly surprise dropped on them by forces beyond their control, it is undoubtedly a rude shock. This is probably where Paul Howes’ sentiment comes from – maybe some of these people would not have chosen their professions if they had known they would face such commentary.

If that is the case, it does not follow that there will be nobody left to take those jobs in the future! For they are still interesting and potentially constructive, not to mention influential. The new recruits will just be different in at least one key way: they’ll know how to handle the rough and tumble of free-wheeling internet conversation, which includes trolling.

There are different types of trolls. Some of them, like the ones from 4chan currently assaulting Tumblr, need moderation pure and simple. Others which engage more in provocation or slurs should be ignored (read: don’t feed the trolls). Others, like the kind Malcolm Turnbull seems to encounter via email, are shocked if the target of their criticism should happen to reply to their visceral tirade in pleasant terms, and when they climb back onto their seat they are apologetic and completely reasonable.

An uncomfortable majority of commenters probably reside between the second and third categories, implacably critical but lucid and persuasive. These ones aren’t trolls at all.

Many people growing up now who use forums, blogs, social networks and opinion sites will gain competency in handling trolls instinctively. They’ve known for ages that the internet is an inherently argumentative place, probably because any kind of anonymity decreases people’s inhibitions, but they never for a minute entertained the strange idea that this detracted from the value of these media as a space for debate. Tim Dunlop’s post is spot-on in indicating that this approach is not exclusively accessible by hip Gen-Yers, but it can in fact be learned by old people like Paul Howes, too.

How far does Paul Howes’ criticism of new media go? It’s hard to tell, because he’s pretty sure there’s a problem – new media is engendering less respect for public figures – but he doesn’t share his thoughts on what he wants done. This is important because there are many different things that could be done.

Probably, he just wants people to respect these public figures more. Think twice before posting that snarky comment, don’t call people names and maybe even spare a thought for that person’s elderly mother who stubbornly reads through all 200 comments calling her high-achieving cherub a waste of space.

However, because Howes doesn’t say how much social media is to blame for this lack of respect, we don’t know if just being more respectful would be enough to counter the influence of social media.

But if his solution was to go any further, then his suggestion that unregulated speech via new media is bad for democracy leads to a surprisingly heavy-handed approach to internet comments. Many sites already moderate comments to some extent. Howes would seem to desire that all sites from now on filter comments based not only on spam, trolling, etc. but also on a broader kind of criteria based on disrespect. If a comment is not respectful towards the author, it should not be published.

This shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, as there is often a strong link between respect and constructiveness. If news sites wish to remove ad hominem attacks in comments and allow only relevant responses to the issues in an article, I don’t think that is necessarily harmful. However, that link is not always present, and sometimes a legitimate perspective is expressed forcefully and in a way that might sting the author of the article. It is because of these situations that I would rather news sites stuck to a general principle of allowing all comments by default, removing only those which are “high level” dedicated trolls and maybe some spam, rather than enforcing a subjective criteria like respectfulness.

Moderation policies obviously require a great deal of detail, not only regarding the overarching purpose but also how stringently each kind of unwanted material is to be deleted. Howes isn’t specific about what he wants except more respect, so there isn’t much use trying to guess more.

He probably overlooks the practical considerations because he is not setting out to provide an intellectual critique of new media. The post is an emotional response to the kind of ignorant and uninhibited insults he saw directed at his friend Joe Tripodi. Those comments would make anyone angry, but it’s a stretch to blame the very medium through which those comments were made. As others have pointed out, Howes’ next logical target should be talkback radio.

Howes struck a nerve with some tweeps with his tangent about anonymity. This has very little to do with the new-old media debate because anonymity is not new. We’ve been down this road before, which is why any suggestion that anonymity is a sin should rightly be slapped down quicker than you can say “Grog.” The Australian was never able to make a credible case for a “public interest” in identifying people who reach a certain level of influence; Howes stands an even worse chance at proving that every commenter should disclose their identity regardless of their influence.

As Paul Wallback points out, there remains in general a significant power imbalance between those who write articles on news sites and those who comment. It’s natural not to trust the rather confronting new environment, but others before Howes have already managed to make that leap, knowing that trolls can be handled, that good content attracts defenders as well as attackers, and that anonymity is a total red herring. Paul Howes has an exciting journey ahead of him!

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