Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

The Moderation Game

UPDATE : See this latest post on the Mail website : Is there no lower limit to the depravity of these odious people LEO McKINSTRY: Sorry not to join the liberal wailing: heroin traffickers deserve to die

Yesterday morning I was dismayed to be waking to the news that Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, had been executed in China after being convicted of drug smuggling.

There will be plenty of reaction to that news – this blog is not primarily about his execution, but around the way in which comments on on-line articles and blogs can be manipulated to give false impressions of public opnion.

Before I come to that though I’d like to say that I was a little disappointed that people in the UK seemed to make such a big issue of Akmal’s bi-polar disorder. I’m sure it’s an issue the Chinese authorities should have discussed – but let’s be absolutely straight about this – it would be just as wrong that he was executed irrespective of his mental health.

In the UK we don’t execute people. We haven’t done for 45 years. Prior to that a capital sentence has effectively not been available for crimes other than murder, for almost 150 years.

So to execute someone for drug smuggling – a crime which would only attract a relatively modest prison sentence in the UK  – is absolutely outrageous. It’s barbaric in the extreme, and reflects very poorly on the nation of China – who still have a large number of capital offences, including the making out of false invoices to avoid the paying of tax Capital offences in the People’s Republic of China (something to think about if you’re one of the British musicians who routinely ‘smuggle’ expensive guitars back from the US).

As I say – outrageous and disgusting.

Let me back to those comments though …

I read an article on the Mail’s website : Akmal Shaikh: Vigil for death row Briton due to be executed in China at 2.30am on Monday 28th December, and clipped the web page.

However as I write, the link to the article, is no longer valid, but the links to the comments now link to this page : Gordon Brown leads furious outcry as China executes British drugs mule by lethal injection

The article has changed somewhat – now reflecting the fact that Akmal has now been executed by lethal injection (although the URL seems to indicate that this was by firing squad which the report clearly does not say).

The “death row Briton” is now “British drugs mule” which doesn’t sound quite so nice, and Gordon Brown’s protests to the Chinese appear to be the major focus of the new story, but all in all this is. to be fair, a very balanced article – as the original one was. It’s acknowledged for instance that there was “cross party outrage” about the execution – and Mr Shaik’s mental problems are presented as fact. There is extensive coverage of Mr Shaik’s family background, of the campaign by Reprieve to try to overturn his conviction, and lots of coverage on the barbaric execution practices of the Chinese government  – all done in a professional, and fairly objective way.

Then we get to the comments.

Well the first one I read on the revised story says :

“Sorry but he had it coming”.

Which is actually somewhat tame compared to some of the others :

“if he is a drug smuggler he deserves to be executed never mind thee.s mamby pambys (sic)”

“Gordon Brown urging China to give a reprieve makes me sick. That just about sums him up. Look after the interests of low life scum while the country is collapsing around his ears. Lets count the days until we get rid of this idiot.”

(I guess that reader missed the paragraph where David Cameron supported Gordon Brown’s intervention)

“Let him rot he deserves it !”

Let’s have a closer look though – the comment about “thee.s mamby pambys” was dated 26.12.2009 – that’s actually three days before this article was supposedly published, and two days before the article which I read – which does make one wonder which article the responder thought he or she was commenting on.

Most of the comments have very little sympathy for the executed man. Many of them have been “rated” up or down – with some of the most vehement comments getting 900 or so positive ratings, whilst the ones with the lowest are – yes you’ve guessed it – comments which question the wisdom of executing Akmal.

But let’s remember

“The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.”

So this must be genuine public opinion that’s so overwhelmingly in favour of turning back the laws on capital punishment to the mid 19th Century.

Well no, because the comments “have been moderated in advance”

This of course means that the Mail decides which comments go up, which don’t, and actually could well mean that it decides which scores are allowed on the rating system – though they don’t say that.

What makes me suspicious about this, is that when I checked the site on Monday, there were only 60 odd comments, despite the story having been there for many hours, and despite some of the comments being rated by 500+ viewers – which to me indicates a very heavy censoring of the likely number of comments which came in, and if they’ve been edited, it seems clear that they’ve been edited very heavily to favour the pro-execution comments. This I deduce from the cross party consensus in revulsion at the execution which the article itself reports – there simply MUST be far more people objecting to the execution than was presented then.

A few days later (today) we then find that the number of comments jumps dramatically to well over a thousand, but remember that usually the visitor can see just a selection of the “newest” comments – which are obviously moderated so that the selected few are shown; the “oldest” – which were obviously moderated in the same way; the “best rated” – which tends not to change much, the oldest nastiest comments tend to be the ones; and the “worst rated” – ie. The ones that show any glimmer of a dissenting voice.

This is steering the view presented of the comments coming in in a particular direction. Very wrong in my opinion. It’s manipulative and untruthful.

And of course the mail still claims that the comments don’t represent its own opinions.

If on-line news source have any integrity they should publish details alongside the comments they show – showing how many comments are received, how many were rejected, the reasons they were rejected for, and a permanent link to the article which the comments were originally submitted in response to. It’s not acceptable to publish a comment that was a response to one article, as if it were a response to a later revision – it is dishonest.

I will return to the issue of comments on this site again – there are some serious issues at stake – and though I have (again) picked on the Mail to illustrate one aspect of these problems, they are by no means restricted to that publication.

I’ll be doing some thinking in the meantime – I wish some of the comment moderators on various websites would do the same.

December 30, 2009 Posted by | news, politics | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tom Harris taking a stand against nasty comments

After my blog a few days ago Comment is Free – but at what cost ? I was heartened to see this piece Land of Angry by seasoned blogger and Labour MP Tom Harris (aka on Twitter as @TomHarrisMP ).

It seems Tom has become so fed up with nihilist commenters that he’s changed his comments policy and  in future

“if your comment is, in my view, needlessly offensive and snide, I’ll delete it without explanation or apology”

I think he’s entirely justified – Tom has for a long time allowed serial ‘offenders’ to freely publish some downright offensive comments, and I am glad that he’s changed his stance.

It would be good to see some other mainstream political blogs following suit – LabourList for one.

That’s all for now

Oh and by the way :

Happy Christmas everyone !

December 24, 2009 Posted by | blogs, politics | , | Leave a comment

Comment is Free – but at what cost ?

I was fortunate this morning to travel to work on a half empty train, with a double seat and a table to myself. So what else could I do but pull out my laptop, & set about the usually pleasurable task of looking at my Twitter stream, and clicking a few links. I soon found myself reading an article on the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”” site by Tessa Jowell.

The article examines the idea of using a “mutual” ownership model – such as that employed by co-operatives, and other organisations – notably the “John Lewis Partnership” as a way of managing public services in the future. It was an interesting piece and one that appealed to me – I’d particularly like to see co-operatives becoming involved in the sponsorship & governance of trust schools and academies, and would be interested to learn of other areas of public service where this might work to the public benefit.
This blog’s not really about what Tessa Jowell had to say though (although I’ll try to link back in the next few days to articles that do comment on the article and related issues).
No – What struck me was the nature of the comments that followed the piece.  I think it’s fair to say that I got a bit annoyed by them !

Not that they were particularly unusual – anyone who’s read the BBC’s Have your Say pages, or the comments on Labour List – or even Conservative Home, will recognise the brand of comment on display here.

We were treated to one after another unrelentingly negative comment – often sneering and mocking – and in my opinion, designed merely to provoke anger in the author, or in those with a similar point of view.

It does seem to be a definite tactic in “having a go” at particular politicians – to just talk them down with negative comments –  possibly unrelated to anything they’ve said, and paint a black picture of the author’s beliefs, integrity, political party, and – well just about anything they can besmirch.

It’s usually right-wing supposed Conservatives doing this, against Labour authors. However Labour supporters often attack Gordon Brown & some other Labour figures for either not being extreme enough, or being too extreme, whilst other Tories of this ilk seem to delight in doing down David Cameron – who to my way of thinking is their only hope of winning the election (not that he’s a small hope).
Let’s dissect one example directed at Tessa Jowell to give a little flavour :

Oooh good, a member of the Labour party wants to lecture us on accountability.

This is the same Labour party that took us into an illegal war on the basis of lies. No-one resigned.

This is the same Labour party whose Chancellor was so disgusted with the Prime Minister’s continual lying that he told him there is no reason why I would ever believe another word you say. No-one resigned

This is the same Labour party that kept reinstating Peter Mandleson every time he was disgraced. He resigned, but didn’t mean it.

This is the same Labour party whose Home Secretary paid for her husband’s pornographic films on expenses, and who didn’t feel the need to resign.

When I want someone to teach me about accountability, I will not be looking to these people for guidence. I will go to someone who has even the glimmerings of understanding of the concept.

I reproduce it in its entirety – not that I want to pick on its author “Dougal the Dog” – who refers to himself as a “Well educated, laid back conviction Right Winger and proud of it” –  particularly – but it’s the first on the list, it’s typical of many of the other comments, and has been ‘recommended‘ by 132 people.
Taking it line by line then :

Oooh good, [ a nice patronising start to set the tone ] a member of the Labour party wants to lecture us [ Well no not really – it’s an article in the Guardian – not a lecture – politicians are supposed to communicate their views – it’s part of what they do ] on accountability. [Well, again – no not really – it’s a suggestion about making public bodies more accountable to the public – if she’s lecturing anyone on accountability she’s lecturing the Government – but she’s not really doing that. Is she ? I don’t think so – I’m not convinced Dougal the Dog does either – but he’s entitled to make that inference ]

This is the same Labour party that took us into an illegal war [ It’s the same Labour Party all right that took us into a war, one which former ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock recently opined was “legal but not legitimate” – which is something we could debate and discuss. We can’t in fairness though simply state that it’s “illegal” – that would possibly constitute libel. Doesn’t stop Dougal though. Dougal also fails to mention that it wasn’t just the Labour Party that took us into the war. It was heavily supported by the opposition parties. In fact of the 149 MPs who voted against going to war, all but 10  were Labour MPs – it wouldn’t be stretching things too far to say that it was actually the Conservatives that enabled Tony Blair to take us to war – but let’s not split too many hairs – the war did have massive public support at the time – despite a very significant minority who opposed it (most of them Labour or Lib-Dem) ] on the basis of lies. [ Well there’s an inquiry take place at the moment isn’t there – which prompts me to think that Dougal Dog might be better off waiting until the inquiry had finished its deliberations – or perhaps he could state his opinions in a more open spirit of debate rather than spitting it out as what appears to be an incontrovertible fact (It’s not) ] No-one resigned. [ No one, at all – except perhaps if you count the leader of the House of Commons – Robin Cook. Oh and Secretary of State for international Development Clare Short  – so actually if we’re still worried about lies I’d have to say “Dougal the Dog : Liar Liar pants on fire !”]

This is the same Labour party whose Chancellor was so disgusted with the Prime Minister’s continual lying that he told him there is no reason why I would ever believe another word you say. No-one resigned [ Is it really ? Well it passed me by ! Is he talking about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ? We read lots of things about a supposed pact and a supposed rift – I couldn’t find those words anywhere on the web though so I’m guessing neither of them said them. Oh and by the way if you are talking about Tony & Gordon – Tony’s not the PM anymore – he  er … resigned !   Neither do I find though that Alistair Darling has said it about Gordon Brown  – I’m assuming that Dougal is referring to the recent reports that Gordon Brown blocked proposals by his chancellor. Well I’m a Headteacher and I’ve occasionally over ruled proposals made by my Deputy Head. Doesn’t mean I don’t have faith in her though. If Alistair Darling had blocked Gordon Brown’s plan – now that would have been a story ! ]

This is the same Labour party that kept reinstating Peter Mandleson every time he was disgraced. He resigned, but didn’t mean it. [ Well that’s their lookout as we say in Yorkshire. On the two occasions when Mandelson resigned he did so protesting his good behaviour and saying that he was resigning essentially to take pressure off the party and the Government  – and on each occasion he was subsequently exonerated of wrong doing – so he wasn’t disgraced – and he did what was considered to be the honourable thing – If he’s then offered an opportunity to regain a position of influence at a later date then one can hardly blame him for accepting. The wisdom of offering the posts to him can be debated – but again our commenter merely states opinion as fact. Peter Mandelson was not ultimately disgraced, and he did mean his resignation ]

This is the same Labour party whose Home Secretary paid for her husband’s pornographic films on expenses, and who didn’t feel the need to resign. [ Sort of yeah – but look carefully  – did anyone think momentarily that Dougal said “the same Labour party Home Secretary” ?  No that’s not what he said – and quite right too – but I’d be willing to bet that there are several readers who thought for a moment that it was Tessa Jowell who was involved in that particular part of the MPs’ expenses scandal – no – it was actually Jacqui Smith. Our commenter does not say this – just plants the seed – so the casual reader will make the unimplied inference. Of course Jacqui Smith did have a relatively plausible explanation for this – her internet connection – which one would hope that she is able to claim for – is part of a package deal which includes her satellite TV, and submitted a bill which covered that – but also pay-per-view movies which her husband had watched and were “adult” in nature. Which were repaid in full (and one wonders why the hell the admin people in parliament paid it in the first place ). Leaving aside the fact that we’re only talking about twelve quid or so here – I do wonder about the moral maze created here – the movies were hosted by Sky TV – part of News International – that self same organisation that owns “The Sun” – who make such a big deal about supporting the Conservatives not Labour, claim that it’s “the Sun wot won it” in all recent elections, but strangely rarely debate the morality of starting each morning with a pair of female nipples, or of News International making significant amounts of money from selling soft porn via satellite to the likes of Jacqui Smith’s husband. She didn’t feel the need to resign of course – however she was sacked]

When I want someone to teach me about accountability, I will not be looking to these people for guidance. I will go to someone who has even the glimmerings of understanding of the concept. [ OK – that’s up to him – but who will he ask ? and why is this about lessons in accountability -?]

Did you notice another thing ? Not one of Dougal the Dog’s points was directly related to the article – you could argue a tenuous link with the ones mentioning ‘accountability’ – but the article was about public services, co-operatives and mutualism – If our commenter knows anything about these things then he doesn’t display it.

If  I were to go through every other similarly dismissive comment on this site it would take a long time. Most readers have neither the time nor the inclination to do this, and go away with a jaundiced view of the opinions created by the article published (and these kind of comments are by no means confined to this one, or to Tessa Jowell).

I strongly suspect that the reality is that there are people who quite deliberately place swathes of nihilistic comments on websites as a deliberate tactic to prevent constructive discussion of the subjects presented by the authors. This is a stupid approach to politics – because ultimately what matters is not which party governs, but what actions those parties take – and if the public chooses to prevent constructive discourse via interactive websites – then the ultimate result will be that the public loses its say in forming Government opinion.

I find that many of the more vociferous commenters (although not Dougal the Dog – and I’m sorry Ive picked on you Dougal – you just got lucky by being first on the list] often describe themselves as “Libertarians” – and defend their right to make negative comments as “freedom of speech”.

All well and good. Just remember though that if freedom of speech is used to negate and discourage debate and discussion you will lose a far greater freedom – Freedom of Thought !

December 16, 2009 Posted by | blogs, politics, twitter | , , , , | 4 Comments


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