When Liberator launched this blog, we decided from the outset to have a comments policy – it is set out in the right-hand column.
If you have ever seen any other politics-related blogs, you will know why. A small but vociferous band of infantile trolls and obsessive bores can ruin it for everyone else. To experience this at its worst, take a look at one of Britain’s most popular political blogs, Guido Fawkes. To read the comments beneath any post is to stare into a cesspit.
Then look at another popular blog, Political Betting. This ought to be (and often is) a really useful exchange of inside knowledge. But to find the gems, you have to wade through a lot of dross. A handful of regulars dominates proceedings, trading in-jokes and off-topic banter. The comments beneath each post read like a drunken conversation in the bar of a private club, not an open and intelligent public debate.
Liberal Democrat Voice is quite heavily moderated, with byzantine commenting rules and filters set up to intercept all kinds of potentially offensive words or phrases. Even so, the comments tend to be dominated by the same handful of (mostly right-wing) obsessives, who chip in on every topic in an often aggressive manner, while adding little to the sum total of human wisdom.
There is an understandable perception that most political trolls are right-wing libertarians, and indeed many are. But the right does not have a monopoly. Look at the comments posted under any story on the Guardian’s website (especially if it’s a story about the Liberal Democrats) and you will see that Labour Party supporters can troll with the best of them.
Irrespective of ideology, these abusive commenters have certain features in common. They are overwhelmingly male. The passive-aggressive tone suggests they are mostly young. The frequency of comments, 24 hours a day, suggests they need a life. But there’s something else. They never use their real, full names, preferring to post anonymously or hide behind a pseudonym.
You do wonder about the psychology of these people. Why resort to anonymity? A few people may have a genuine motive, such as a politically-restricted occupation, but it is doubtful this applies in many cases.
One obvious motive is cowardice. If you are going to be abusive or use intemperate language, how much easier when your real identity is concealed. You can say things you would never dare say to someone’s face.
Another motive is a desire for unearned status. If you are Fred Bloggs, a 23-year old student with no serious political track record, your opinions are likely to carry little weight, and trying to compensate with a commanding tone simply looks pompous. But invent a pseudonym and adopt a spurious authoritative voice, and delivering grandiloquent put-downs is much easier to do.
Why should any of this matter? It’s a free society, and we should be able to take the rough with the smooth, surely? It matters because, for anyone who isn’t an inadequate young man sitting in front of his computer 24 hours a day and venting his spleen, a torrent of boorish comments is, at best, tedious and, at worst, highly intimidating, especially for women or anyone (male or female) unused to the rough and tumble of politics.
Here on Liberator’s blog, we welcome comments and debate. We simply ask that you exercise some courtesy and help us facilitate intelligent debate. We don’t want a few headbangers spoiling it for everyone else.
That’s why we ban anonymous or pseudonymous comments. It’s a blunt instrument but the most expedient means of eliminating abusive comments. You may not like this policy, but it is our blog. You have no automatic right to comment here, and we are not obliged to publish everything you say. Marks and Spencer is free to trade, and I may freely choose whether to shop there, but I have no right to take a dump in the middle of their stores.
Our rules in no way infringe your freedom of speech. If you are part of the annoying minority that wants to trade abuse, there are plenty of other places online where you can do it, and they are welcome to you.