Usenet and Discussion Moderation: Religion and Politics

Here’s a long discussion in a Usenet group devoted to bicycling that begins when a veteran, reasonable, commenter announces that he is leaving the group because he is tired of the vicious personal attacks and speech-suppression attempts that increasingly accompany discussions of technical topics as well as anything that veers toward politics. The commenter singles out another contributor for having driven him to decide, finally, to stop commenting.

A few posts later, the accused individual responds with: “All you have to do is not talk about politics and I wont bring up your more disgusting political views.” Which kind of proves the first commenter’s point.

I didn’t come into the discussion until somewhere around the 300th post, where some guys are arguing that religion in general has killed more people than secular totalitarianism, and that all religions are equally responsible for genocide and terrorism. The few people who point out that Stalin, Mao et al weren’t religious, and that maybe Islam is a bit more of a problem today than are Christianity and Buddhism, are dismissed and sometimes insulted by the others. This discussion has almost 500 posts by now.

Some of the people who contribute to this discussion and other discussions in this newsgroup are very knowledgeable about bicycle technology. However, on other topics, particularly politics, they tend to be tiresome cranks. Some of them appear to be crazy. And without moderators to prune out the abuse, the cranks quickly drive off the reasonable commenters.

I think this is just the way it is on the Internet, and that anybody who wants to create a productive discussion environment must be ready to spend a lot of time and effort moderating discussions.

6 thoughts on “Usenet and Discussion Moderation: Religion and Politics”

  1. I agree with this. I am glad that my blog is fairly unpopular at the moment because any of my posts that are slightly controversial draw insane packs of idiots. No discussion, just name calling. When I and my blogmates write we intentionally don’t use proper names/places so as not to draw Google hits from insane people who will just name call. I learned this the hard way when I used the name of a popular rapper – I was amazed how many people just sit around an google this particular persons name. And how stupid they all were.

    I am hoping that eventually my blog will be large enough where I can register each and every commenter, maybe up to 100 and leave it at that. That way reasonable discussions can be had and I won’t have to moderate anything. I think this is the only way to moderate large blogs in the future. Registering commenters one by one, or making the blog accessable only to registered invitees. I think Midas Oracle has a commenter registration policy if memory serves. More than likely for the reasons above.

  2. In the real flesh and blood world, few meetings are held where anonymous and random people can wander in and say absolutely anything with no consequences.

    People who want intelligent conversations in the flesh and blood world would not voluntarily seek out a milieu which is equivalent to an unmoderated comment string on a blog.

    It is a miracle that sometimes you get an intelligent conversation on a blog. It is a miracle that occurs less and less frequently.

    I think over the last several years that has become a lot less common as more and more people have become aware of blogs and the bad has driven out the good.

    Gresham’s Law is a nearly universal principle

    Also, bloggers are self-selecting, and commenters are self-selecting.

    It is no surprise that a race to the bottom ensues.

    There are clearly many, many poeple who just cruise around looking for the chance to say something vicious.

    Much like the settling of the West, the first pioneers were all pretty much similar in their thinking and got along decently, as the area got established, mobs began to fill in the area and the initial communal spirit necessarily withered. A rule-based system with property lines and clear delineations of right had to follow on and replace model based on a spontaneous shared consensus.

    In a few years the idea that people would just have a comment field that any random stranger could put something on will seem naive and quaint. It already is starting to.

  3. If Lex is right, how sad.

    I’ve noticed that pattern increased in occurence in the last, say 1/2 year – but thought maybe it’s me, my fault, that I inadvertently stepped on someone’s toes. I reread my comments – and can’t see anything remotely on par with vicious reaction and name-calling that it triggers.

    A day ago’ example.

    Russian-speaking part of the blogosphere right now is buzzing about events in Tallinn, where a memorial to a Soviet Soldier got removed by authorities and that started riots (more or less organized) invoking French ones of the last years. I have no particular interest or knowledge of the local situation, so I steered away from commenting, until I came to the post on a friendly blog, where an author, Russian expat in Poland, critisises Tallinn’s mayor for being hostile to Russian population and even said “it’s suicide to behave like him”. I offered to extrapolate Estonian situation to Poland; asked what did she thought would happen if the number of ethnic Russians in Poland would reach 30% and they’d demand from Polish government a parallel system, a state withing a state: dealing in their own language, having their own schools and universities, etc. Especially if the memory of HOW the Russians came to this land would still be fresh in people’s mind? Immediately I received the following comment (and I quote):

    ” Amazing how these Jews reveal their fascist nature every time they talk. Another candidate for Judenrat!”

  4. I recently inherited a large discussion forum ( that’s been running for nearly 10 years straight. We’ve always had fairly strong moderation, and it’s always been the source of some complaining, some of which was justified (we have had some overzealous moderators and admins over the years.) Recently a group broke off and build their own nearly identical board (.com) in response to some moderation issues. On their board, the level of moderation is much less.

    Both boards have essentially the same set of discussion topics. In the religious/political section, the discussion on .com rarely goes more than 5 posts without getting personal or going way off topic. The discussion on .net, while not up to Chicago Boyz standards, typically remains civil throughout.

    What I find most interesting is that I, as a mod/admin, rarely have to step in to enforce those norms. I make maybe 2 or 3 official moderator actions over the course of an entire month. What’s happened is that, over the course of many years, we’ve constructed a set of cultural norms that are in many ways self-enforcing. The sort of things that touch off flamewars on other boards merely provoke a “heh” or “try again, without the insults” on ours. It’s all simply a matter of culture — when people grow accustomed to flaming and insulting and sloppy reasoning, they either do the same (because it’s easy) or leave. It takes effort to build something better than that. Once it’s built, it practically runs itself, but it takes a long time to get it to that state.

  5. Interesting observations, LotharBot.

    I think that successful cultures on the Internet, as elsewhere, are generally much more complex than they appear at first glance to be, and are generally supported by rich institutional networks. That the institutions may be informal does not make them less real or effective.

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