Thursday 27 December 2012

Wisdom of the crowd or online lynch mobs?

It was not my original intention to publish a trilogy of posts (see the first and second) expressing scepticism about digital technology – not so much the technology as the associated shallow culture. But this, the third, was prompted by a remarkable interview with Jaron Lanier, one-time digital pioneer and visionary.

Lanier was one of the leading gurus of ‘Web 2.0’ futurism. Now, he sees the monster he helped create as a mortal threat to political discourse, economic stability, human dignity, and society in general.

The article is worth reading in full, but Lanier’s views on the effects of web culture on politics are particularly noteworthy. He is especially critical of the idea that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ will result in ever-upward enlightenment. It is just as likely that the crowd will degenerate into an online lynch mob:
As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture – the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites – as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
Most people have a capacity for cruelty but online anonymity enables them to unleash that cruelty with impunity. Worse, the web enables like-minded cruel people to cohere rapidly, via twitchy social networks, into a cruel mob.

On this blog, we have a relatively simple comments policy (see right-hand column). The kernel of that policy is to insist on everyone using their real, full name because it forces them to think twice before commenting. We refuse to accept anonymous or pseudonymous comments, not because all anonymous commenters are arseholes but because all arsehole commenters are anonymous.


  1. "all arsehole commenters are anonymous."

    I really, genuinely would question that assertion.

    Miss Jennifer Dawn Rigg LLB (Hons) (Hull), BVC, CertOSH level 3, AFHC, and under the impression that she is the only person so far to have used her full legal name.

  2. I suspect some part of this article may be aimed at me after Simon and I had a disagreement about his post "What If...?" from 05/12/12, in the comments for which I was described as unidentifiable. I shall content myself by pointing out that research does not always seem to be a priority - something I believe I mentioned previously. While I neglected to leave my name - a genuine mistake for which I apologise - given the link to my blog, it is discoverable in, at most, 3 clicks.

    With best wishes,

    James Brough

    1. Sorry to disappoint you, but this article is not about you. It is not "aimed" at any individual.

  3. "all arsehole commenters are anonymous."

    Simply not the case. Just off the top of my head, my blog has had comments from Mike Power (a political tweeter who sent me death threats), Neil Craig (someone known to many Lib Dem bloggers, who for some reason believes that Paddy Ashdown is a genocidal war-criminal rapist and that all Lib Dems are secretly Nazis), and Ben Henley (one of the most vile excrescences I've ever come across, who has something against all Lib Dems but has chosen me in particular to be the victim of a campaign of harassment lasting several months).

    In general, the worst thing you can expect from an anonymous commenter is the odd bit of easily-deletable nastiness. By contrast, the very worst people are those (usually UKIP supporters or right-"libertarians") who hold vile views, are proud of those views, and become abusive and threatening when they see anything that disagrees with them.

    What tends to actually produce reasonable results, in my experience and that of most other moderators I know, is not insisting on a 'real name' (which, apart from anything else, can't be proved -- I could set up a Google account in any name I wished and no-one reading would be any the wiser), but just using any form of sign-in system. If people are using a persistent online identity, whether their real name or something like Lord Bonkers or Millennium Elephant, say, then they have a reputation attached to that identity which they won't damage lightly. That doesn't, though, take care of the really bad types, who just have to be banned.

    This is not, by the way, a complaint about your comments policy -- your site, your rules -- just pointing out that right off the top of my head the very worst commenters I've ever had, including one who I had to call the police about, are all counterexamples to your blanket statement.

    1. I don't dispute your experience, but such non-anonymous abusive commenters are the exception rather than the rule. And Jaron Lanier's basic point remains valid, which is that anonymity has facilitated a poisoning of political discourse.

      Liberator's policy on anonymity was motivated by a desire to avoid the sort of comments you find on other sites, not only the anonymous abuse that is commonplace on, say, Guido Fawkes, but also the pompous Walter Mitty types you find on Liberal Democrat Voice (notably 'Jedibeeftrix' and 'Oranjepan').

      Nobody would accept people turning up at Liberal Democrat conferences or meetings wearing a face mask and refusing to say who they were. Why tolerate it online?

    2. As I say, your site, your rules.

      I definitely agree that political discussion on the internet is fairly horrific, but I don't think that anonymity is what has caused the problem. Rather, I think people in general take so many of their behavioural cues from body language, facial expression and tone of voice that a lot of people don't really get, on a gut level, that they're talking to another human being without those cues.

    3. Agreed that people lack exposure to behavioural cues. But why the anonymity? Why the need to create an online political persona? This is supposed to be democracy, not World of Warcraft.

    4. Well, of course there's the fact that the secret ballot is one of the key aspects of democracy...

      I don't use pseudonyms anywhere online, except on sites where my name is taken as a username, but a few reasonable reasons why someone might want to:

      If their political activity conflicts with their work -- for example, I am a member of No2ID, but the company for which I work was one of the bidders for the ID card scheme.

      If they have an established online identity and want to be linked to it. If someone has many friends on a site where using pseudonyms is the norm, and has little online presence elsewhere, using their pseudonym elsewhere aids identification rather than hinders it.

      If they are, for example, gay or trans but not out to work colleagues or family, they might want to discuss those issues using a name that can't be traced back to their offline identity. The same might also apply to, say, someone who has very different political opinions to their spouse.

      They might have the kind of ridiculous name that would, itself, derail the conversation ("Yes, my name *is* Hitler, no honestly, it is...")

      They might be a well-known figure trying to have a discussion without their fame being a distraction.

      Or they might just dislike their name and be taking advantage of the freedom they have online to choose one that suits them better.

  4. The secret ballot is not analogous. The ballot is secret but we know who is on the electoral register. And no anonymous person can stand for election.

    I agree there are limited circumstances in which anonymity is justifiable but none of the cases you cite are typical or common, apart perhaps from an established online identity, and that is no excuse.

    The problem is the fallacy of 'cyberspace', the notion that the online world is somehow beyond the rules and norms of society. No-one talks about 'phonespace' or 'printspace'; 'cyberspace' should be regarded as an equally absurd idea.

  5. "none of the cases you cite are typical or common"

    Isn't the point of liberalism that we stand up for the atypical and uncommon?

    None shall be enslaved by conformity. Why should I conform to your expectation that I should use my given birth name instead of a name I prefer?

    I know several people that have, or wish to, chang etheir name. English law, specifically, allows for name change by common usage, deed poll is not a requirement, you can call yourself what you like.

    Pseudonymity is not anonymity. Like Andrew, I have always preferred to use my own name-that is actually to prevent me from losing my temper and say things I would rather not.

    I do however have a friend (in America) who is in the process of changing her legal name to "Azure Lunatic"-that is entirely her choice, but I suspect you would object to her comments under your, um, interesting interpretation.

    A former Google employee whose blog I read is known almost everywhere simply as Skud (you can google her easily under that name), her work as a web developer and political campaigner is done under that name.

    However, the idea of writing under pseudonym in political and public discourse is hardly new-Publius wrote the Federalist Papers, perhaps one of the most influential series of political tracts in the last 300 years-we know now who Publius was (two people, both significant figures later on). Private Eye has a series of columns written by people within professions, the medical column in particular is regularly useful. They simply couldn't do so under tehir own name.

    One of my branch members won't attend branch meetings, even at my house, as his job is incredibly restricted. A friend lives in hiding under an assumed name for fear her ex husband and her parents will find her and her children, for reasons I won't outline openly.

    These reasons are, fortunately, uncommon. We stand up for those that don't conform to the expectations of normality, not those who are fortunate enough to be able, or willing, or happy with, their real legal name. That's part of what the party I joined is for.

    As Andrew said, your site, your rules, but it's not good practice, it's against several basic liberal principles. It's also of tenuous justification and doesn't, genuinely doesn't, heighten the quality of discourse-see many many Facebook comment threads, including those on public facing sites using Facebook comment systems, for eveidence of that.

    You ask for "real, full name"-Jennie actually bothered to work out what that was. I'm Mat Bowles.

    But everyone knows me as MatGB online, it happens to be my name plus initials, but there are a number of letters I can put if I can work them all out.

    Your assertion that "Those who hide behind pseudonyms or who post anonymously are usually juvenile and boorish"

    Is palpable nonsense. It may be true that some of those that "hide" in such a way may behave in that manner, but it's definitely not true of all of them.

    "lacking the courage to express their aggressive, snide or pompous opinions in person"

    Some people I know (as touched upon above) have genuine, real fears for their life in avoiding their real names. Others have to be careful or wish to keep their professional life separate, ir simply wish to avoid using a Google trail.

    At a very basic level, your policy and assumptions are exclusionary, you exclude those who don't conform to your expectations and especially those with genunie fears, this includes some members of the party and those who we fight to protect.

    Hardly liberating.

    1. There is nothing particularly liberal in opting for anonymity. As you concede, legitimate reasons for anonymity are rare, and most people who remain anonymous are not doing so for the best of motives.

      Your sentence "everyone knows me as MatGB online" betrays the problem. Most people don't know who you are, only a small band of people in your particular neck of the (online) woods.

      Anonymity, as you say, may not necessarily lead to abuse. But as one can see by looking at the threads on Liberal Democrat Voice or Political Betting, it creates a solopsistic world of incestuous debate that is incomprehensible or tiresome for anyone who isn't an insider. And that is a diminution of political discourse.

  6. "There is nothing particularly liberal in opting for anonymity."

    There's even less liberal in denying someone the right to opt to do so.

    I effectively changed my name at the age of 12, owing to the fact that it reminded me of a particularly unpleasant experience that I wanted to forget. You have said that "legitimate" reasons for wanting to use a different name are rare, thus conceding that they do exist. Rare they may well be, fortunately, but I don't see this as a reason for a policy which discourages some people from posting.

    As has been quoted above, "None shall be enslaved by conformity." These are words which I would hope might have considerable resonance here, as opposed to a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all approach, the upshot of whch appears to be fit in, or get out.

    James Brough

    1. But James, no one is denying you the right to opt to remain anonymous. If you want to hide behind the alias "magister" to play Fantasy Politics on Planet Cyberspace, you are at complete liberty to do so.

      This blog, however, is on Planet Earth, and is intended for real people to discuss real issues under their real names. And nobody's real name enslaves them by conformity, even if they're called 'John Smith'.

    2. Thank you for proving my point...

      James Brough

    3. Your point has not been proved. All you have demonstrated is a dogged belief that online political discourse should not be subject to the same courtesies as debate in the non-virtual world.

      A few people have a genuine reason for anonymity but most do not. It's not their 'right' I question but their discretion.


Please note before commenting: Please read our comments policy (in the right-hand column of this blog). Comments that break this policy will not be accepted. In particular, we insist on everyone using their real, full name. If you have registered with Google using only your first name or a pseudonym, please put your full name at the end of your comment.

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