The other day George Monbiot made the following observations:
“Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilized than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterized by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.
Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible – which appears to be the point.”
I have been noticing this as well. Whenever there’s a story about me or Greens or climate science, it seems to attract the same nasty invective. Abuse so intense it seems designed to shut down debate. Other observers have pointed out that the vicious comments hit within minutes of posting. An hour after a story is on line, the worst of the abuse dies down. I have come to the conclusion that most of the abuse is part of a phony Astroturf effort at the “vox populi.” Sadly, these internet fora allow for anonymous comments. Unlike the rigor of a letter to the editor, the only controls on comment pages is the occasional moderator decision that a comment is too abusive to remain public. Nothing whatever prevents one lobbying company or political party from setting up a room with 20 different computers, with separate accounts, and 2-3 guys who move from screen to screen in a constant round of guerrilla propaganda. My brother calls it intellectual vandalism.
There is a solution of course. The media could start insisting that those who post or have access for “thumbs up/thumbs down” use their real names when they get an account. And that comments include real names and locations. Anonymity, whether from paid internet trolls or volunteers, encourages rudeness. The level of respect in public discourse is lowered — even beyond the websites themselves.
The other solution is to fight back. As a proposed New Years resolution, I would like to suggest that Greens take on a pledge to select a particular site and monitor it. Every day. Respond to climate deniers. They won’t listen, but other readers may follow your links to science and accurate information to rebut the Lord Monkton wanna-bes. That class of person is never troubled by being completely discredited. They just keep repeating incorrect nonsense. The reason to respond it is to raise the bar, assist others who may be actually interested in the truth.
The evidence Monbiot cites that paid lobbyists are using internet fora to shape public opinion rings true. On a wide range of Green concerns, we should all take the time to balance those pages with solid, respectful comments.