Barbarians in the blogosphere


Flame thrower In an era dominated by personality, it's becoming more difficult for school debating coaches to maintain their advice that the most effective winning strategy is for their students to demolish the argument — rather than reputation — of their opponent.

The parliamentary performance of our political leaders hardly provides a good example. Last week, Labor focused on constructing an image of incoming shadow treasurer Julie Bishop as a plagiarist, and therefore dishonest and untrustworthy. Instead they could have easily mounted an argument to demonstrate convincingly that the Opposition's economic policy was in disarray.

The emerging setting for much debate on political and social issues is online, particularly the discussion associated with blogs and other topical publishing platforms. It is proving to be fertile ground for character assassination, more than quality argument.

George Megalogenis is a longtime political journalist with The Australian who also oversees the paper's Meganomics blog. Recently he expressed his dismay at the uncivil attitude of many of the bloggers who send their posts to him for moderation.

'What a significant minority of my bloggers do is begin their posts with an assumption that everyone who disagrees with them is a "moron" ...

'Beyond Mungo MacCallum and Hunter S. Thompson, there are very few writers in the political sphere that have ever done abuse as poetry. I love their work; I often yawn at some of yours — no disrespect; it’s just how I see things.'

Megalogenis goes on to implore his bloggers to 'operate on a more humane footing', to 'talk to [their] fellow blogger as an equal, not as someone to belittle', for 'you cannot persuade a single person out there to change, or add to their world view by shouting at them'.

He participated in a discussion on the internet as the new (uncivil) Town Square on ABC Radio National's Media Report last week. Fellow panellist, former Australian Democrats leader turned blogger Andrew Bartlett compared the tendency for participants to 'shout slogans at each other' to what he had to endure when he was in the Senate. But in the end he was more optimistic:

'The battle to get a civil discussion place and an exchange of ideas is hard work, but it develops over time, and some blogs manage to achieve it.'

Online media outlets including Eureka Street know that publishing the comments of flame throwers invariably draws a crowd, which is partly what they aim to do. Moreover the desire to follow the principles of free speech, and the sometimes naïve interest in giving everyone a fair go, can give oxygen to forces set on destroying reasoned discussion, and undermine the long term worth of the publications.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, eureka street, blogosphere, online publications, heated debate, david hicks, vex news



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Existing comments

Ah, excellent Michael.

As an optimist, I guess I believe the flaming and trolling is how society plays with its new tool...and that as younger people come through the ranks, trained to use new media effectively that the power of online discussion will be realised and go through a maturing process.

Strangely, my wife and I think YouTube is by far the worst for poor comment etiquette. In the meantime...maybe we need a computer virus like this one:
Daniel Donahoo | 29 September 2008

I heard the Australia Talks program and sympathised with George. I've spent this morning removing offensive posts and pondering exactly where you draw the line. And yes, page views were up. Fights draw crowds. If you get a viable, non-subjective solution, let me know!
Graham Young | 29 September 2008

Hear! Hear! I just picked up a violently defamatory comment on Barack Obama on the National Catholic Reporter's feedback and wondered about its influence on the discussion. As a corollary, I wish our parliamentary representatives would understand that most people (at least the ones I know) intensely dislike their schoolyard verbal bullying. We turn it off when it comes up on TV.
Lenore Crocker | 30 September 2008


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