Peter Faris goes meta

While it’s very unedifying when people are stirred up, I enjoy the odd ‘meta’ discussion, or at least thinking about what the right principles are for discussion in the blogosphere. So I was intrigued to see them eloquently expounded in Crikey today – by virtue of the publication of an email to Crikey.

From: Peter Faris QC
Sent: Tuesday, 7 October 2008
To: ‘Jonathan Green’
Subject: How to deal with hate comments on a blog


I have changed my mind — I do not think is useful for me to do a Crikey blog. This change of mind is propelled by the comments on the Crikey pages in response to my Henson piece.

The two or three serious, on-topic comments are swamped by a deluge of personal abuse. A good number of the comments are hate comments.

I am as thick-skinned as the next commentator, probably more so, but there is no point in having dialogue with people who have a visceral hatred for you personally. The dialogue necessarily goes nowhere.

I am a long-time blogger. I have been through all this before. That is why I have shut down the comments on my personal blog. People can read it or not — if they dont like it, too bad.

Crikeys venture into online comments whether from published articles (like mine) or from actual blogs will raise these issues.

As I say, I am not being sensitive to the hate comments — its just that by inviting or allowing such comments the debate gets nowhere. I would be very happy for a comment which attacks my argument and demonstrates that I am wrong. Healthy debate is important. The problem with hate comments is that they are neither healthy nor a debate.

Whilst I dont care, Crikey will find that some contributors will not want to expose themselves to this sort of hate and abuse by writing for Crikey. And if they do, they might sue Crikey for publishing defamatory comments.

There are no satisfactory solutions. I went through all of this on my blog some years ago.

The possible solutions are these:

1. Some form of censorship. I imagine any form of censorship is completely unacceptable to Crikey. But let us pause and think about that. Crikey will be sued if it permits publication of defamatory comments (which most of these hate comments are, one way and another). If you dont believe me, talk to your lawyers.

So for a start, you must censor defamation. Racial and religious vilification is a criminal offence in Victoria so you must censor that. So now we are driven to the point that all comments must be reviewed simply to protect Crikey from criminal or civil action. The next question is: at what stage does this review take place? At the moment the comments appear immediately. One alternative is to set up the blog so that all comments have to be approved before they can appear. This is done be the comments coming to Crikey as an email and a designated person approves them.

Alternatively, Crikey can publish Rules as to acceptable comments and the website can be constantly monitored for breaches, with offending comments removed. So, if you are forced into some form of censorship, how much further can or should you go? What about hate comments? What about offensive comments? What about comments that are off-topic? What about comments that are simply abusive and do not contribute to the debate?

Believe me, if you want to run a website that is open for comments you will have to consider all these things at some stage. Every person who runs a blog is faced with the same decisions.

2. Some form of personal responsibility by the comment maker tends to discourage hate comments. Anonymous comments should not be permitted. Anonymity attracts this problem. All commentators should have to register in their correct names with a valid email address – preferably the name and email address would be that used for the subscription service of Crikey. These would be published along with the comment. The writer of the piece (like me) puts their name to it. Comments should be the same.

The irony here is that Crikeys web pages will become a victim of its own Left wing culture: the free-wheeling, no-censorship, anything-goes approach is fine as far as it goes. But it will go too far.

In the end, I think the great value of Crikey (and the reason why I write for it) is that it provides a courageous alternative to the mainstream media. Inevitably the Left will be attracted to it. But, at the moment, the Left sees themselves as owning Crikey and many object to any other voices (like mine).

Crikey, by publishing me, is simply providing the sort of balance we see elsewhere. Phillip Adams writes for The Australian and that woman whose name I cannot remember writes for the Herald Sun. Any serious publication must have space for the other POV. But that is not what the majority of Crikey. Some of them try to frighten away contributors they do not like by hate and bullyboy tactics (refer some of the comments about why does Crikey publish me).

So I think you have challenging times ahead with your web pages and good luck with it.

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Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

I do wonder about the libel issue. Plenty of comments are slanderous. I was called a communist by a Troppo commenter (and a right wing trog over at JQs). This would certainly have me running to my lawyers if it were published in the Age. But I would no more sue a blog commenter than I would a loud bloke at the pub.

But does everyone have that attitude? Is there any implied dilution of the right to not be libelled when you post on a blog? If not, why do blogocrats allow comments at all? At the very least I would expect to see disclaimer windows popping up all over the palce.

Regarding what to do about hate comments if they arise, Soons method is very elegant replacing the hate words with love words. But you have to wonder about the legality of that as well.

Bottom line: Australias libel laws are so onerous I really am surprised that we all get away with saying what we say in this very public forum.

Joshua Gans
15 years ago

If your description of Soon’s method is accurate, I love hate it.