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The Onion: even better than the real thing?

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.

An interesting Reason magazine article via MetaFilter, where MeFite Tiresias isn’t impressed by interactive journalism:

A part of the problem, for me, has been the newsmedia’s endless parade of “What Do You Think?”s — the slew of worthless interactive content, the endless ratings, and, dear God, the comments, the comments on fucking everything…. they just turn even the most serious subjects into mere entertainment for a certain kind of person who may not know too much about a subject, but now has the ability to argue passionately about it.

Which is a pretty good description of some interactive sites, particularly those newspapers whose comments sections are usually populated by idiots, bigots and bores. *cough*Evening Times!*cough*

In the current issue of NUJ house magazine The Journalist, Victor Noir writes about viewer interaction:

I gather from a BBC source that half the images they get are of people’s cats…

Cats.

Another who worked at a BBC regional studio says that viewers were asked to send in pictures illustrating the weather. What did they get? Snaps of bedraggled-looking moggies in the rain.

It’s the future of news!

It wouldn’t be so bad if the desire for interactivity at all costs didn’t infect pretty much everything. A good example of what I mean is last week’s Location Location Location: Best and Worst Live programme (hey, I’m waiting for baby Bigmouth to come along, I’m bored…). It’s a fairly lightweight bit of TV – various stats (crime, average salaries, percentage on sickness benefit, that sort of thing) compiled into a league table of the best and worst places to live in the UK. And it was interactive, so when a particular place was mentioned, the viewers were exhorted to get in touch and have their say. And they said one of two things:

MY TOWN DOESN’T SUCK YOU SUCK

Or:

MY TOWN SUCKS

Which meant a 20-minute programme lasted for three and a half days (although to be fair, some of that was phone-in-scandal-induced panic of the “If you’re watching this on video and you’re too stupid to realise that this is no longer live, don’t call! Don’t text! PLEASE, IN THE NAME OF GOD DON’T GET IN TOUCH!” variety, which amused me immensely.)

Tiresias again:

There’s nothing really wrong with it, you know, it’s just shooting the shit and we all do it, but now it’s not really just shooting the shit. It’s being published and legimitized, and this middle of the road, well-meaning but ill-informed drivel is pretty much setting the tone of the debate.

60 replies on “The Onion: even better than the real thing?”

From an interview with Drew from Fark, also on Reason:

The problem with [crowdsourcing] is that if you have the masses involved in something, everything devolves into racism and dick jokes… I tell people we’re Web 3.0. We’ve accidentally stumbled on the next step in the evolution of social networking, which I call “editing.” It’s a novel concept.

I think that’s where things are heading. It’s fine to say “we want the crowd to pick the news,” but when they’re picking Viagra and porn, you obviously can’t have that. The logical conclusion is that at some point you have to bring a little editing into the equation. That’s what we’ve been doing all along. If most social networking sites are a social democracy, then Fark is a benevolent dictatorship.

The phrase “you credulous, pea-brained cock” really needs to be used more often in print :)

Another issue is sock-puppetry and astroturfing. Popular forums are targeted by certain groups, who flood them with messages sympathetic to their cause. Passing readers, assuming comments represent public opinion at large, are led to believe that certain views are much more popular than they actually are.

One example would be the alleged targeting of the BBC’s godawful “Have Your Say” space-filler by the BNP – every thread mentioning immigration (and some on completely unrelated subjects) are stuffed with comments blaming all the country’s ills on immigrants. Not that you can’t find people in your local pub who believe this, but, they are a minority in real life As Tiresias says, the views are legitimised by appearing on the web (people will believe anything they see in print).

Another example would be GIYUS (Give Israel Your United Support) (or “GIYUS a break” if you like), who’re responsible for the the Guardian’s endless discussions about the Israel/Palestine issue being flooded with mendacious propaganda justifying the worst excesses of the Israeli regime. GIYUS are quite open about their tactics, and even have a downloadable application which warns you when the issue is being discussed online and prompts you to post – although it’d be easier just to visit the Comment Is Free site every day (I really wish the Guardian would just talk about something else for a change).

Good point, yeah. The user-generated content isn’t representative of what the public thinks as much as, it’s representative of what *the sort of people who are motivated to submit comments to the site* thinks. And that’s an important difference, because in most cases, most of the time, most of the people have got better things to do. So what you’re often (not always, but often) left with is the organised pressure groups and people who’ve got nothing better to do.

So on the Herald, for example, there’s a half-dozen hardcore scots nats who seem to post on *everything* political and they, along with a few hardcore labour fans and the odd tory, are the main commenters – until, say, abortion or creationism is discussed, at which point the pressure groups turn up. And there are certainly a few BNP types who seem to come out of the woodwork on various Scots newspaper sites whenever immigration is discussed.

I’m taking the piss a bit with my “if you’re watching this on video please don’t text, because the programme’s over” comments, but then again… if people aren’t smart enough to realise their texts won’t get on air when a live programme is finished, why are we soliciting their opinions in the first place?

I dunno, I sometimes wonder if some media outlets are going too far in the wrong direction. Yes, hacks can be lazy/biased/wrong, yes, readers and viewers often know more and can add useful stuff. But not every reader, or viewer. I don’t care what the man in the street thinks about the sub-prime mortgage market, because the man in the street doesn’t know anything about it. You might as well ask a dog. The whole point of journalism is to tell people stuff they don’t know, surely?

mendacious propaganda justifying the worst excesses of the Israeli regime.

Funny that, I thought Israel was governed by a democratically elected government, unlike, say, oh any other Middle Eastern country. Also that Israeli Arabs all have the vote, unlike most of their brethren, have the highest life expectancy of any Arabs, and that the biggest opposition to giving parts of Jerusalem to the PA came from the Arabs living there. Thank you for letting me know that all of that is just propaganda. I expect you’ll be telling me that Saudi Arabia is a fine example of a modern liberal state next. What would I do without you?

Did you use the GIYUS software to find this thread, Stephen? ;-P

Seriously though, you’ve just provided me with a fantastic example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. While I don’t question the stats you quote, none of them excuse the human rights violations Israel carries out in the OTs, its disregard for international law, its nuclear weapons programme, etc. A sensible discussion of this issue on the web is impossible when people like you turn up, as you always do, and present us with the ludicrous proposition that anything other than total, uncritical support for Israel equates with believing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (what have they got to do with anything?) to be a “modern liberal state”. I brought that particular issue up because it’s a great example of the phenomenon I was describing, something you have demonstrated better than I ever could.

I quite like this ‘defending a one-sided view via non-sequiturs’ game of yours, though. How about this?:
Mark E Smith has had huge amounts of critical acclaim in his long career, and won awards for his music. Anyone who even mentions his alcoholism or arrest for domestic violence probably thinks Harold Shipman is a great example of humanity.

“I don’t care what the man in the street thinks about the sub-prime mortgage market, because the man in the street doesn’t know anything about it. You might as well ask a dog. The whole point of journalism is to tell people stuff they don’t know, surely?”

Definitely. The man in the street tends to know bugger all about anything. And why should he? We’re paying journalists to find this stuff out, and they’re sticking their microphones under shoppers’ noses. When I give money to Cancer Research I don’t expect them to use it to go about asking people in the street if they know of any cures.

I think this thread needs a pre-emptive on-topic reminder. The tactics of pro-israel or anti-israel groups on comment-enabled sites is on topic, but pro/anti-israel argument isn’t. That’s what Comment Is Free is for, heh.

We’re paying journalists to find this stuff out

Well, that’s the other issue – in many cases user-generated content is there because the media outlets see it as a way of filling space for free. So you get photos of cats instead of proper, professional photography that makes you go “bloody hell”, and you get an echo chamber instead of proper reporting.

The other factor in comments – as Charlie Brooker wrote about a few weeks ago – is the legions of people who exist solely to be offended about things, whether it’s family values campaigners or hardcore muslims or Apple fans. So you end up publishing a loose collection of professional whingers, idiots, activists and fanboys, and the good stuff – the people who actually *do* have something interesting to say – gets drowned out.

There are always exceptions, of course, but my moan is aimed at the people who go “yeah! Let’s make it interactive!” just for the sake of it.

The BBC site is a good example right now: most read/emailed story is that Dumbledore is gay. Kinda proves Drew from Fark’s point about letting the general public pick the news.

>>Funny that, I thought Israel was governed by a democratically elected government, unlike, say, oh any other Middle Eastern country.

I didn’t realise that you weren’t allowed to criticise a democratically elected government. Sorry. Someone better tell all the anti-bush people because I think they don’t know.

I had very quick look at that GIYUS thing and the first thing that confused me was – why is it a “warning sign” that a small number people think that the National Socialist policies on transport in the 40s were reasonable? The BNP are nutters but I don’t think it’s due to their views about buses.

“why is it a “warning sign” that a small number people think that the National Socialist policies on transport in the 40s were reasonable? The BNP are nutters but I don’t think it’s due to their views about buses.”

The Nazis built motorways. The Nazis were bad. Therefore motorways are bad.
German people like motoways, therefore they must be Nazis. Bonkers. It’s not like there aren’t motorways in Israel, or every other country in the world. Maybe we’re all Nazis.

And then there’s Fanta, of course ;-)

IIRC some of the more mental Nazis were against the autobahn, because they would allow too much intra-German ethnic mixing – Swabians would be able visit Pomerania, Prussians would be able to get to Bavaria, etc.

How many comments in are we? Someone page Godwin ;-)

David,

Of course you can criticise democratic governments. What Stephen was objecting to was the use of the word “regime”, which implies a lack of democracy.

I wouldn’t defend user-generated content on news sites, ’cause it’s invariably shite, but I honestly don’t understand the criticism that BNP members comment on immigration stories, pro-lifers comment on abortion stories, etc. Of course they do; that’s what they’re interested in. If you are going to have comments from members of the public, you can expect them to concentrate on their specialist subjects. That’s really nothing to do with user-generated content, in fact. For a story about the stock market, you can expect interviews with the Chancellor and some stock-brokers and an economist and probably not the head of a teachers’ union or an anti-abortion group. That’s as it should be.

If you are going to have comments from members of the public, you can expect them to concentrate on their specialist subjects.

What someone’s interested in ranting about and what they actually know about aren’t necessarily the same thing, as the comments on news sites or radio phone-ins often demonstrate. A typical set of comments on immigration is 99% bollocks, for example, with people parroting things they’ve heard from a friend of a friend of someone who works for the broo so it must be true, or a few “it happened to me!” stories that appear on various sites under various names with almost identical wording. Which is why…

it’s invariably shite

> What someone’s interested in ranting about and what they actually know about aren’t necessarily the same thing, as the comments on news sites or radio phone-ins often demonstrate.

Yeah, but interviews with proper experts often demonstrate the exact same thing. After that tornado hit London last year, ITV News interviewed a leading tornado expert who explained that it seems unusual because tornados usually only make the local news but, in fact, tornados are more common in Britain, per square mile, than anywhere else in the world and there was nothing even slightly extraordinary about the event. Channel 5 interviewed a climate expert who said it was because of global warming and we’d be seeing more of them over the coming years. At least one of these people had no clue what they were talking about. Ditto pretty much any story on economics, of course. And the BBC’s frankly fucking moronic reporter explaining the EU’s anti-Microsoft decision the other week by using Word as an example of an application that’s bundled with Windows.

Anyway, what I meant was that two quite different criticisms have been made in this thread. There’s the fact that the idiot public haven’t a clue, which I agree with, and would add that most of them can’t write (“invariably shite”). But then there’s this other criticism:

Popular forums are targeted by certain groups, who flood them with messages sympathetic to their cause.

The user-generated content isn’t representative of what the public thinks as much as, it’s representative of what *the sort of people who are motivated to submit comments to the site* thinks.

That’s exactly the same as non-user-generated content, is all I was saying. And as for this:

Passing readers, assuming comments represent public opinion at large, are led to believe that certain views are much more popular than they actually are.

I take it that McGazz personally is led to believe no such thing, so he’s managed to read these comments safely, just like the rest of us. I’m sure he has a reason for supposing that most members of the public can’t manage to do something that we can, but I disagree. I may be pretty intelligent, but I’m hardly Newton: as a rule, I reckon that, if I can figure something out, so can most other people.

>At least one of these people had no clue what they were talking about.

How do you know? Are you an expert on hurricanes or climate change? Were you sitting in your inverted ‘artisan chair’, snorting in derision at these *obvious* morons? To liken a member of the meteorological/scientific community to some witless choad spewing out barely coherent nonsense on HYS is baffling in the extreme. Surely you can see the difference?

>I reckon that, if I can figure something out, so can most other people.

Sadly that’s not the case. Most people are credulous non-thinkers who will believe anything they are told by the media. Sadly these same people also seem easily swayed if a large group express an opinion on a public forum.

Still, if you think it’s ok to spread racist hate and pro-life nonsense (alongside creationism, corporal punishment, etc) then fill your boots.

I think you’re both wrong. It’s not that people are stupid, or conversely that they’ll figure out when they’re being told crap; it’s that most people can’t be arsed researching everything, and of course people tend to stick to things that sound right to them. You see it in otherwise well-informed people panicking over the latest health scare, or in the received wisdom that surrounds everything, or the tales of councils spending all their money on asylum seekers instead of the English. If it sounds right, it tends to be believed.

And of course the tone of journalism sets the tone of the comments, such as yesterday’s news of the world piece about immigration that used very emotive language: “A MILLION immigrants are set to pour into Britain in the next FIVE years… with the blessing of PM Gordon Brown.” Figures are “hidden” and “smuggled out”, and the result is a comments thread like this one, where irony is clearly in short supply:

“I would just like to thank Brown and that clown that went before him of forcing me to have to leave the country I used to love!”

“I have at last decided to emigrate to Australia. I just can’t put up with millions more immigrants coming here.”

“I have had to leave my beautiful country to live in Denmark because I feel like an alien in my native South London”

“I got out of England two years ago and I dont miss the place at all.”

Still, if you think it’s ok to spread racist hate and pro-life nonsense (alongside creationism, corporal punishment, etc) then fill your boots.

If it’s not okay, what’s the solution? Ban speech of which you don’t approve?

>it’s that most people can’t be arsed researching everything

….or anything in most cases. Sadly I think that a lot of people really don’t think particularly (or at all) deeply about the opinions they are given….if the contrary was true then papers like the Sun wouldn’t be such massive sellers.

I think the best example of what I’m getting at (in the original post) is the endless comments on McCann-related news stories. Absolutely nobody commenting knows anything at all, but it doesn’t stop the comments. Or daily telegraph poils where fewer than 20% of readers didn’t know whether Madeleine had been murdered or not. The other 80-odd percent clearly had some kind of inside knowledge…

>If it’s not okay, what’s the solution? Ban speech of which you don’t approve?

Not at all, but by giving the kind of people who guff that nonsense out of their pie-holes any respect (as in the ‘I’m sure the masses know the difference between *opinion* and *polemic*’ model advocated by Reeves) by claiming *actual* experts are no different is a blinkered attitude at best.

I’m all for freedom of speech, and believe that most mouthbreathing, reactionary cocktards will show themselves up for the bigots they are without censorship being resorted to, ever.

Reeves’ assertion that most people in this country are smart enough to tell the difference between someone on the TV who makes their living by being an expert, and someone on the internet trying to spread a specific agenda, makes no sense when he prefaces it by claiming that there is no difference between the two.

>Is that their fault, or the journalists? Serious question.

I think it’s self perpetuating. The ‘public at large’ obviously want ‘dumbed down’ gossip about stars, packaged with half-news and hearsay, as the tabloids sell very well indeed. The papers are trying to make money, the money is in pandering to the public…..so more and more witless gossip and non-thinking gets peddled as ‘fact’ (it’s in black and white in the paper/on a screen – it MUST be true)

Sadly the vast majority of people (as far as I can tell) are happy to believe whatever they’re told, as thinking about things is just too damned depressing/hard for them.

claiming *actual* experts are no different is a blinkered attitude at best.

I’m not sure. I’ve certainly done an “expert” piece about something I knew sod-all about – was asked to talk about one thing, presenter decided on a different subject altogether – and probably been less reliable than a Man From The Internet. And an awful lot of the crap that appears in print is based around information from supposed experts. Maybe the problem is that there are two kinds of experts: genuine experts, and people who call themselves experts.

That, btw, is where comments come into their own – when a supposed expert gets it wrong and the real experts pop along.

Sadly the vast majority of people (as far as I can tell) are happy to believe whatever they’re told

Ah, but you’re setting yourself up as an expert. Statistically, you’ve only met a tiny percentage of the 60-odd-million people in the UK, let alone the billions in the world, so maybe you’ve just been unlucky ;-)

> How do you know? Are you an expert on hurricanes or climate change?

No, but I understand basic logic. Here are the two statements:

1.    A tornado in London is a completely normal climatic event, indicating no change in the norm of the last few centuries.

2.    A tornado in London is highly unusual, indicating a recent dramatic change in climate.

One of these is wrong, Alex. Not only must one be wrong, but one of the people must be without a clue. Either tornados are normal events in Britain or they aren’t. So either the first climate expert believes in non-existent evidence of something that isn’t true or the second climate expert is completely unaware of the meteorological record.

> Most people are credulous non-thinkers who will believe anything they are told by the media.

Yes, that’s what I thought the complaint was. “Sadly, most people aren’t as clever as me.” I know that keeps me awake at night.

Sadly I’ve spent the last 7 years working in call centres, talking to thousands and thousands of people (when I was at 192 I spoke, on average, to about 900 people a day….did that for nine months). I’ve done share campaigns, billing, customer service, Tax Credits, credit collection…. I’ve spoken to hundreds of thousands of people over the last decade and they have been (mostly) very stupid indeed.

Either I was MASSIVELY unlucky and just got called by the 10% (or whatever) of people who are genuinely thick, or I spoke to a representative cross-section of the British Public on a daily basis.

>Yes, that’s what I thought the complaint was. “Sadly, most people aren’t as clever as me.” I know that keeps me awake at night.

>I reckon that, if I can figure something out, so can most other people.

Using your own ‘basic logic’, one of these statements can’t be true.

As for your point about the tornado in London –

One ‘expert’ was a meteorologist, the other ‘expert’ into climate change. Are you able to see that perhaps BOTH these men were right? From a strictly statistical point of view a tornado in the UK isn’t (apparently) that unusual, but global warming could probably cause an increase in them. Unfortunately I didn’t see either experts, and am forced to rely on your memories of the event, memories that will be coloured by your desire to make a point from them.

>>using Word as an example of an application that’s bundled with Windows

Actually that’s not completely inaccurate. If you buy a copy of windows you don’t get word. But Microsoft’s OEM agreement with pretty much every PC manufacturer is to bundle Word preinstalled with every copy of windows. Effectively it is the same thing.

“What Stephen was objecting to was the use of the word “regime”, which implies a lack of democracy.”

Does it? I certainly didn’t intend to imply that. Merriam-Webster doesn’t mention a pejorative sense, dictionary.com doesn’t do so explicitly, while Wikipedia hedges its bets, claiming that “[i]n the Western world, the everyday use of “regime” is usually used with a negative connotation”, but also saying “[t]he term need not imply anything about the particular government to which it relates, and most political scientists use it as a neutral term.” No references for either, natch.

“I take it that McGazz personally is led to believe no such thing, so he’s managed to read these comments safely, just like the rest of us. I’m sure he has a reason for supposing that most members of the public can’t manage to do something that we can, but I disagree.”

If you’re right, then the obvious question becomes – if everyone can spot astroturfing a mile off, why do the BNP/GIYUS/Creationists, etc, go to such lengths to do it?

> Actually that’s not completely inaccurate.

Depends. It’s inaccurate when you’re giving an example to explain the concept of bundling to people who know nothing about it. “Effectively it is the same thing” is the sort of thing you say in discussion with people who already understand the concept.

And I have to say, last time I bought a PC, it didn’t come with Word. Last time my work bought PCs, they had to pay extra for Word, and it had to be installed separately to Windows. My parents had to pay extra for Office, which didn’t come with any of their PCs. I know you know more about OEM agreements and such than I do, David, but there seem to be a lot of PCs being shifted out there without Word preinstalled.

> Using your own ‘basic logic’, one of these statements can’t be true.

Er, yes. Quite. That was my point.

> From a strictly statistical point of view a tornado in the UK isn’t (apparently) that unusual, but global warming could probably cause an increase in them.

Yes, obviously, but that isn’t what was said. Expert 2 didn’t say that global warming could lead to an increase in tornados; she said that the tornado was an unusal event and was therefore evidence of global warming. It’s a usual event or it’s an unusual event; it can’t be both, and which it is is not a mere matter of opinion.

> memories that will be coloured by your desire to make a point from them.

On the contrary: I have quite pointedly not said which one I thought was more credible or why. It was merely an example of the fact that using proper statements from learned experts instead of members of the idiot public doesn’t remove the problem of people on the news coming out with stuff that needs to be critically appraised and discarded.

> Reeves’ assertion that most people in this country are smart enough to tell the difference between someone on the TV who makes their living by being an expert, and someone on the internet trying to spread a specific agenda, makes no sense when he prefaces it by claiming that there is no difference between the two.

You’ve completely misunderstood what I wrote, Botten (presumably because you’re vastly more intelligent than everyone else). I didn’t say that most people are clever enough to do anything at all; I said that, as a rule, I assume that other people can figure out stuff I can figure out (and I think, in this discussion, it was kind of implicit that I’m talking about everyday judgment calls here, not, say, the nature of qualia or something specialist like that). That assumption might sometimes turn out to be wrong, but it’s the alternative to going through life thinking that everyone out there is inferior to me. The trouble with your position, Botten, is that, just as you think you’re cleverer than the rest of the public, pretty much every single member of the public out there reckons they’re cleverer than you. Working in call centres, yes, you talk to lots of people who seem thick, most of whom put down the phone and complain that they’ve just spoken to an utter thicko. So, with your approach, the rest of us can either think “Botten’s wrong: I’m cleverer than him and everyone else” or “Botten’s right: we must all of us think as he tells us.” How likely do you think it is that anyone will choose option two?

In short, it’s not a matter of knowing what the public are intellectually capable of; it’s a matter of recognising my own limitations in making such an absurdly difficult judgment and preferring to err on the side of non-arrogance.

And then I certainly didn’t claim that there’s no difference between experts and non-experts. What I said was that some experts get it wildly wrong, just as some members of the public do — that the problem of people talking bollocks on the news is not limited to or caused by user-generated content. You’re getting bogged down in the tornado example, but it’s just one example. Take your pick: economists and financial experts directly contradicting each other about the wider implications of the Northern Rock crisis; FBI profilers on the Beltway Sniper; the CIA and MI6 on whether Saddam tried to buy yellowcake from Niger; Michael Fish insisting that there won’t be a hurricane; the military experts who claimed that it was impossible to beat Serbia solely from the air; Labour’s certain 1992 election win; the expert prediction that a major blackout effecting New York would lead to widespread crime… Remove user-generated content, and all this crap will still be out there.

> if everyone can spot astroturfing a mile off, why do the BNP/GIYUS/Creationists, etc, go to such lengths to do it?

Now, that’s a sensible question. The answer, I reckon, is that they do actually believe the stuff they write. They’re participating in the debate. And you know, professional politicians do the same thing: they’re not interested in campaigning all that hard in their own safe seats; they want to find the people who disagree with them and try to persuade them otherwise. It works but rarely, but it makes sense.

“The trouble with your position, Botten, is that, just as you think you’re cleverer than the rest of the public…”

I think if you read back you’ll find I haven’t said that anywhere, I don’t assume to be more intelligent than the general public (though, if I did an IQ test I would, like most other posters on here, come out quite highly, unless I’ve dropped loads of points in the twenty years since I last had a test).

And if your point was so hard to get, perhaps you should try making it clearer? Personally I think you’re just doing your typical ‘I didn’t say what I just said, you couldn’t see, but my eyebrow was arched as I typed it.’ moving-the-goalposts thing.

You seem to be getting a little riled by what I’m saying, perhaps you should sit down with a nice calming glass of Irn Brw?

>>lot of PCs being shifted out there without Word preinstalled.

It’s part of the Works OEM bundle. You get word but not excel or outlook. You don’t get it on business machines though, hence your work having to do it seperately.

> Merriam-Webster doesn’t mention a pejorative sense, dictionary.com doesn’t do so explicitly, while Wikipedia hedges its bets

OK, that is genuinely interesting. I would always take it to be negative. “The Maoist regime” sounds sensible; “The Mitterand regime” and “The Attlee regime” sound faintly ridiculous. To my ears, anyway.

Did you use the GIYUS software to find this thread, Stephen? ;-P

I don’t know what the hell GIYUS is, and I’m on Gary’s blogroll, for fuck’s sake.

I didn’t realise that you weren’t allowed to criticise a democratically elected government.

Calling a democratically elected government a “regime” responsible for “excesses” is more an exercise in name-calling than criticism. A step up from “Bushitler”, I’ll grant you, but not much of a step. And I don’t care what the dictionary says, the day a quality newspaper calls the government of Britain or France a “regime” (without irony) is the day you can claim the term has no pejorative sense. I take it you won’t be arguing that you didn’t mean “excesses” in a pejorative sense.

Seriously though, you’ve just provided me with a fantastic example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. While I don’t question the stats you quote, none of them excuse the human rights violations Israel carries out in the OTs, its disregard for international law, its nuclear weapons programme, etc. A sensible discussion of this issue on the web is impossible when people like you turn up, as you always do, and present us with the ludicrous proposition that anything other than total, uncritical support for Israel equates with believing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (what have they got to do with anything?) to be a “modern liberal state”. I brought that particular issue up because it’s a great example of the phenomenon I was describing, something you have demonstrated better than I ever could.

You’ve just provided a fantastic example of the kind of thoughtless prejudice that attends any discussion of Israel. You apparently think I’m one of the people who “just turn up” because, obviously, any regular of this site could never have other than a negative view of Israel. The stats I quoted were not meant to excuse Israel of any of the things you now trot out because you hadn’t made those accusations then: you simply referred to it in the terms usually reserved for undemocratic states, and I gave you a few examples of the difference between Israel and the undemocratic states that surround it, like Saudi Arabia. That’s what it’s got to do with it.

I’ve re-read my first post and have completely failed to see the bit where I demand complete and uncritical support of Israel- unless you define any rebuttal of a criticism of Israel to be complete and uncritical support. A sensible discussion is impossible when people like you take that attitude.

But if you’re now bringing up human rights violations, I would like to re-state my point about Arabs in Israel (especially Arab women) having greater political and economic freedom than most other Arabs. There are Arab members of the Knesset. In most Arab countries there isn’t even a parliament, let alone any Jewish MPs, and Jews are specifically forbidden to live in Jordan (you know, the country that is 80% of the old Palestine?) Women cannot drive in Saudi, or even go out of the house without a male escort. This applies to foreign women as well. Aren’t they human too?

As for violations of international law, perhaps you could be more specific, so we could have, you know, a sensible discussion? Like the one about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme? Are you opposed to all nuclear weapons programmes, or just ones run by Jews?

Since Gary is a little bit busy elsewhere, I’ll repost a reminder, which was posted after McGazz’s original post. (I really shouldn’t have posted after it either, but I’m a bad person, but I’ve stopped now)

>>I think this thread needs a pre-emptive on-topic reminder. The tactics of pro-israel or anti-israel groups on comment-enabled sites is on topic, but pro/anti-israel argument isn’t. That’s what Comment Is Free is for, heh.

Stephen, there have been two warnings to stay on topic posted here, and although I think this is on-topic, I’m going to keep this as brief as I can.

My position on the Israel/Palestine issue (which, AFAIK you have no clue about) is utterly irrelevant to a discussion on online astroturfing. I chose GIYUS purely as an example of a phenomenon I was trying to describe. Everyone else here seems to have understood this. If there was an organisation that did a similar thing for the other side of that particular debate, I would have used that as an example also. However, to the best of my knowledge there is no “Give Palestine Your United Support” software out there. There’s a pretty dodgy regime (forgive the tautology) in Iran, but no one has developed an application to help people to post stacks of near-identical messages praising, say, their excellent record in health or education.

“I don’t know what the hell GIYUS is, and I’m on Gary’s blogroll, for fuck’s sake.”

Calm down – I was joking, hence the smiley.

“Calling a democratically elected government a “regime” responsible for “excesses” is more an exercise in name-calling than criticism.”

This has already been discussed elsewhere in the thread. Replace the word “regime” in my earlier post with a word you consider neutral (is “state” close enough? or “polity”?). I don’t see anything wrong with “excesses” but if you’d prefer “infringements of international law” or somesuch, fine – to me “excesses” sounds more euphemistic. If it’s that important to you, ask Gary to alter my original post to something more legalistic. As it doesn’t affect my point, I really don’t care.

“And I don’t care what the dictionary says, the day a quality newspaper”

I’d go with the dictionary over any newspaper, myself. However, a quick search reveals that The Telegraph used the phrase “Brownite regime” on 23/10/2007, the Mail used “Blair regime” on the same day, while the Times used “Blairite regime” on the 22nd. I’d provide links to the articles, but Gary’s blog software pulls you up as a spammer if you put too many links in a post.

“You’ve just provided a fantastic example of the kind of thoughtless prejudice that attends any discussion of Israel.”

No one *was* discussing Israel. We were talking about spamming, ffs.

“A sensible discussion is impossible when people like you take that attitude.”

Who are ‘people like me’ in this instance?

“The stats I quoted were not meant to excuse Israel of any of the things you now trot out because you hadn’t made those accusations then”

What accusations have I ‘trotted out’, and how do the stats you’ve quoted excuse Israel of whatever it is I’m accusing it of?

“I’ve re-read my first post and have completely failed to see the bit where I demand complete and uncritical support of Israel”

I I can’t make a statement of fact to add context to a discussion, that seems like a pretty heavy level of ideological conformity to me. If anything that can be considered a criticism of Israel is leapt upon, down to the level of lexis, then you *are* demanding uncritical support.

“Are you opposed to all nuclear weapons programmes, or just ones run by Jews?”

I’ll overlook the implied accusation of anti-semitism (is it slander or libel on a blog, Gary?), and remind you that you know nothing about my political views, and are not doing yourself any favours ranting away at someone trying to discuss a different subject, and confusing them with an imagined adversary who doesn’t exist.

Also, your question contradicts your earlier statement – how can the weapons programme be “run by Jews” if, as you said, Arabs are politically represented?

Seriously, you’re reading *far* too much into this. From what I can see, you saw two words you didn’t like in my post – which was about the internet – and decided that my intention was actually to bad mouth the State of Israel. From these two words you’ve then also inferred that I hold delusional ideas about how Saudi Arabia functions, am completely ignorant of the demography, geography, and politics of the wider Middle East, have a selective concern for human rights, and may possibly be a bigot.

We’re getting off-topic here, so anything you’d like to say in reply, or any point you’d like to clear up, send me an email (mcgazz at gmail dot com).

> I’d go with the dictionary over any newspaper, myself.

Ah, but dictionaries refer to newspapers (among other sources) for evidence of word usage in the first place. When what’s in the dictionary doesn’t match what’s in the newspapers, that is usually because the dictionary is several years behind the papers.

> If there was an organisation that did a similar thing for the other side of that particular debate, I would have used that as an example also.

You did: The Guardian.

I would like to take this opportunity to inform everyone that that was a joke or flippancy, not to be taken at all seriously ever.

Incidentally…

> The Telegraph used the phrase “Brownite regime” on 23/10/2007, the Mail used “Blair regime” on the same day, while the Times used “Blairite regime” on the 22nd.

But aren’t they all using the word to signify their opposition? The question is, would The Guardian refer to “the Brownite regime” and would The Telegraph refer to “the Thatcher regime”? I think not. And I suspect The Guardian would only use “Blairite regime” when discussing the war and not tax credits or criminal sentencing or something else they broadly supported him on.

I know this is off topic, but I’m interested in linguistics, which I hope is not too contentious a subject.

Not that anybody cares about the topic, but this was in today’s Guardian diary section:

At all ends of the political spectrum, the problem is the same. How to convey the message; how to engage. The problem is more acute for the far-right shock troops of the BNP, who know that most will refuse to read their unsavoury internet ramblings unless they are disguised to make them palatable. Here, chairman Nick Griffin spells out how it can be done. “The proper way to use the blogosphere is to draw in readers interested in a certain geographical area,” he says. “‘Yourtown Blog, by Fred the Whistleblower’, or in a certain hobby, ‘Eel Fishing Blog’, for example … Then drip, drip the politics in as an ordinary Joe with no party axe to grind. That’s where the real power of this medium lies – not the naked politics that turns off most of the population, but subtle ‘independent’ popular validation of our views and our party.” This might seem like misrepresentation. It might even upset the eel fishing community. But if the ends justify the means.

“But aren’t they all using the word to signify their opposition?”

Possibly, although Stephen’s argument was that “regime” indicated an undemocratic state, which is a different thing.

“And I suspect The Guardian would only use “Blairite regime” when discussing the war and not tax credits or criminal sentencing or something else they broadly supported him on.”

I didn’t check the Guardian – I assumed Stephen wouldn’t consider it a “quality” paper ;-)
A search on their site brings up an article about Lloyd George: “his regime helped to make post-1918 Britain a more stable democracy than any other major European power”. Also, some references to Brown’s “tax regime”, as well as the straightforwardly negative “Burmese regime”. So I still reckon I’m right to say it’s neutral overall.

Gary, cheers for the diary piece – interesting stuff, and it confirms my suspicions.

I don’t think the problem is so much that the BNP do that as that the other parties don’t. Politics is only interesting to most people when it’s bottom-up. Top-down party politics is incredibly boring, and mostly boils down to an annoying insular pedantic point-scoring contest between politicians and the media. I mean, did anyone normal actually care whether Cameron had brilliantly scared Brown into backing out of an election or had miserably failed to goad Brown into holding an election? Please.

And you can only run a Shelmerston blog or an eel-fishing blog if you do genuinely know Shelmerston or eel-fishing, so, while what Griffin suggests sounds very sinister when he puts it that way, it is in fact a good explanation of what political argument should be about: talk about the matters that concern your everyday life and put the politics in that context. If only more Tory and Labour people were running blogs about hunting pigeons in Worcester, instead of coming up with stupid nicknames for each other and gleefully shouting at a new MP for ten minutes because he accidentally uses the second person in a parliamentary debate.

> Stephen’s argument was that “regime” indicated an undemocratic state

I meant that they were expressing their disapproval by deliberately implying a lack of freedom. Possibly.

> Lloyd George: “his regime helped to make post-1918 Britain a more stable democracy than any other major European power”.

That really does sound odd to me. Although it strikes me that there are two subtly different meanings for “regime” at play here.

> references to Brown’s “tax regime”, as well as the straightforwardly negative “Burmese regime”.

A tax regime is a system enacted by a government, not a government itself. I think that use is neutral. So there’s (again, to my ears) a significant difference between “the Brown regime” and “Brown’s tax regime”. That quote about Lloyd George could be either: do they mean his government or the regime of policies enacted by his government?

I might email Language Log about this.

Personally I don’t find the term to be particularly negative (hence the original question) but I’ve always considered it to imply strictness, but not necessarily in a bad sense.

Returning to the topic, then…

Isn’t astroturfing when you pay people to post opinions they don’t hold, on matters they don’t care about, in support of some service or product, typically? Which is different from some sort of alerter which lets people who do care about a matter know that there is an opportunity to post opinions they do hold, not so? Why is it OK to post on something you happen to stumble across, but not OK to post when you’ve been told by someone or something else that a discussion is going on? Where do you draw the line? Is it OK to google for discussions?

And sock puppetry, to my mind, is a single person posing as a number of different people posting on a topic by means of multiple IDs. Although I think the wikipedia loonies also define it as anyone who is invited to participate in a wakipedia deletion discussion when they have not participated in wikipedia before.

“Isn’t astroturfing when you pay people to post opinions they don’t hold, on matters they don’t care about, in support of some service or product, typically?”

Supposedly, the word ‘astroturf’ is used because it’s ‘fake grass-roots’. My understanding of it is that groups organise people who *already hold a certain opinion pretty firmly* to appear as ordinary Joe Public types who just happen to have come to that opinion independently. An example would be Tony Blair making a speech for TV with ‘ordinary’ members of the public visible in the background (all age ranges and minorities represented, natch), all of whom are actually Labour Party activists. They’re not applauding because they’re struck by how much sense is being spoken (as they want you to believe), or because they’re being paid specifically to do so, having otherwise had no opinion, but because they already supported Blair and would have applauded if he’d read from the Argos catalogue.

“Why is it OK to post on something you happen to stumble across, but not OK to post when you’ve been told by someone or something else that a discussion is going on?”

Because it’s dishonest. I’ve never seen anyone post on a messageboard or comment thread and say “my BNP colleagues directed me here” or “I came here by clicking on a GIYUS alert”.

My original point in this thread was that, as forums and the like are designed to allow a cross-section of public opinion, when forums are astroturfed, “[p]assing readers, assuming comments represent public opinion at large, are led to believe that certain views are much more popular than they actually are”. It’s not about inviting your friends along to participate in a debate, it’s about drumming up numbers to make it look like Joe Public agrees with you.

Sock-puppetry is where someone creates one or more fake IDs so they can post their opinions while pretending to be someone else, and therefore hiding any vested interest they have.

Coming from a member of the Labour Party, a statement on a messageboard or blog like: “from what I can see, the Tories have no chance in this by-election” is going to be ignored by most as political shenanigans, but will be considered differently if it appears to be coming from the mouth of a neutral local observer, just offering up their tuppenceworth. And that’s a mild example.

S2, Stephen, you’re both making similar points so if you don’t mind I’ll group ’em together:

I don’t think the problem is so much that the BNP do that as that the other parties don’t.
Why is it OK to post on something you happen to stumble across, but not OK to post when you’ve been told by someone or something else that a discussion is going on?

Isn’t a big part of it intent, what’s being posted and the scale of it? It’s definitely a case of grey areas rather than absolutes, and I’m very tired so I probably won’t make much sense, but I’ll try anyway.

In the case of political parties, there are pretty strict rules on what they can and cannot say. So they can interpret things in different ways and cherry pick statistics, which of course is against the spirit of the rules, but they can’t (usually) say outright lies and get away with it. But by encouraging grassroots supporters to post comments or to insert particular stories in blogs, potentially they could be doing that – without having to take responsibility for that.

To take a stupid example, the Tories couldn’t run a poster campaign saying GORDON BROWN EATS BABIES. But they could create a baby-eating meme where someone knows someone who works in A&E, and they had to hush up a case because it was El Gordo. Richard Gere and the hamster or *insert pop star name* and the stomach pump of man-milk, or *dj name* and the stuck vibrator, but for political reasons and spread it through comments, blogs etc.

Obviously this stuff goes on already – BNP stuff in English council elections, for example, where everybody believed the council was spending all its money on a predominantly Asian estate at the expense of a predominantly white one; utterly untrue but people believed it anyway – but online facilitates it happening on a much, much bigger scale.

In the case of coordination, again it’s intent, context and all that. People’s attention being drawn to something on a big scale gives me the heebie-jeebies – it’s not word of mouth in many cases, it’s 4,000 people being told “this is what’s going on, do this now”. That was certainly the case with the Jerry Springer The Opera thing, where people who hadn’t seen something complained en masse and demanded Something Must Be Done about something they had only been told about. And it’s been a very successful tactic used by religious groups in the US.

Again, it’s what’s posted. Are people going to a site or discussion en masse to engage and try and win people over, or to carpet-bomb them into submission or conversion? If it’s the latter it’s more of a crusade than a right to reply, IMO.

In the real world, if someone spouts some appalling racist nonsense, says that it’s been proven that wi-fi eats your legs or something like that you can debate it. With co-ordinated “grassroots” campaigns, it’s the equivalent of someone saying something appalling and then when you try to talk to them, 1 million people are teleported in to shout you down.

Does that make any sense?

God, I must be tired, because basically I wanted to say this:

It’s not about inviting your friends along to participate in a debate, it’s about drumming up numbers to make it look like Joe Public agrees with you.

And instead I took about 500 words.

I guess the point – for me – is: what do I, the reader, get from user-provided content if that content isn’t user-created but vested-interest created?

I know! It’s spin.

That’s the problem I have. It’s New Labour’s Excalibur rapid rebuttal system writ large. Shoot the messenger rather than engage with the message.

> My original point in this thread was that, as forums and the like are designed to allow a cross-section of public opinion, when forums are astroturfed, “[p]assing readers, assuming comments represent public opinion at large, are led to believe that certain views are much more popular than they actually are”.

Well, I’ll repeat my original point, then, which is that you’re a passing reader, you don’t assume that the comments represent public opinion at large, and you are not led to believe that certain views are much more popular than they really are. So what your comment boils down to is “Most people are stupider than me.”

> Are people going to a site or discussion en masse to engage and try and win people over, or to carpet-bomb them into submission or conversion?

Is it possible to carpet-bomb people into submission or conversion, though? Just through blathering ont’ Web? I seriously doubt it. You’re much more likely to carpet-bomb people into getting bored and annoyed and buggering off.

I don’t think the motives of the people posting the comments matter that much. The comments themselves are either true or not and either persuasive or not. A true and persuasive comment posted as part of a sustained political campaign is no better or worse than a true and persuasive comment posted by a passer-by with no party affiliation — because what matters is whether the comment can be debunked (if it’s true, it can’t) and whether it changes anyone’s mind. Just as a lie is no better coming from someone with good intentions than it is from someone with bad.

Something that seems to be missed here is the reason that some organisations resort to these tactics anyway: they’re small minorities. Is it not a little odd, all this worrying that people are going to have their minds changed by the sheer weight of numbers of groups who, in fact, do not have weight of numbers on their side? Take the GIYUS example. They post on Comment is Free. And we’re worried that, what, if Guardian readers see too many of these comments they’ll start supporting Israel against Palestine? That’s likely, is it?

And is there anyone here who decides to hold political opinions just because those opinions look like they might be popular? Or is the worry, yet again, that, while none of us would do something that stupid, most people aren’t as clever as us enlightened souls?

A statistic often mentioned is that, under Thatcher, about half The Sun‘s readership voted Labour (maybe they still do — I have no idea). These are the stupid sheep-like group-thinking readers of crappy tabloids mentioned elsewhere in this thread. Reading a paper that told them, every single day, that Labour was crap and Thatcher was great, half of them voted Labour. That suggests to me a greater independence of mind than people here seem willing to credit them with.

One more thing…

> But they could create a baby-eating meme where someone knows someone who works in A&E, and they had to hush up a case because it was El Gordo. Richard Gere and the hamster or *insert pop star name* and the stomach pump of man-milk, or *dj name* and the stuck vibrator, but for political reasons and spread it through comments, blogs etc.

But this has always been done. That’s not to defend it, but to say that you perhaps overestimate the extra impact user-generated comment can have on this sort of thing. Look at “Let them eat cake”: a mistranslation, expressing (if you understand obscure French bakery law) the exact opposite of the sentiment it is always taken to represent, and definitely not said by Marie-Antoinette, who did a lot of charitable work for the poor. Look at Richard III: quite a good king, apparently. If you’ve got the malice and the motive, you can assassinate a character extremely successfully without even needing the industrial revolution, let alone the Net.

“So what your comment boils down to is “Most people are stupider than me.””

I’m saying “*some* people are *more credulous* than me”, which is not the same thing.

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