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Sydney Institute: Political Abuse and the Web 15 March 2011

Tom Switzer addresses the audience at the Sydney Institute

While I found myself agreeing in small parts to the speakers at last week’s Sydney Institute, I could not agree with the pessimistic views on politics on the web. The Sydney Institute is a forum for discussion on politics and current affairs. Despite it’s decidedly conservative leanings efforts are usually made to present a somewhat balanced debate when a panel format is employed. Except in the case of last week’s selection of speakers.

, a freelance editor and writer mourned her loss of editorial clout because now anyone can publish. from The Spectator was rallying against the vitriolic comments on the blogosphere. Bernard Keane from Crikey was left to defend “the internet” which he did by unnerving the older audience with an argument that seemed to award credit for democracy but debits for insularity and fragmentation of debate once held by mainstream media.

All of the arguments made on the night have been made elsewhere with far more nuance. I have pointed to George Megalogenis’ assessment of the effects of the internet on politics by quoting relevant parts of his last Quarterly essay previously on this blog. In short the internet is quickening the news cycle, resulting in declining standards from an overworked journalistic corps. I have also pointed to discussion and essays on blogger’s snark, a topic of much discussion on the night. While one cannot argue that the internet is an idealist think space of well thought out arguments it is distorting to only point to those parts that are particularly nasty.

The discussion, or lack thereof was particularly unfocused with no one willing to define the terms clearly. There was no distinction in Tom Switzer’s assessment between amateur bloggers, blog commenters, writers and Wikileaks. The only thing they have in common is that they are distributed on the internet, and that was enough to attract Switzer’s ire. The definition of politics spanned the broad spectrum of the Marieke Hardy profile of Christopher Pyne on ABC’s The Drum to Wikileaks disclosing of Afghan nationals in leaked reports. One is commentary/satire, the other political activism (or journalism?). It was clear Tom Switzer disapproved of both with no debate from the other speakers about the merit of either.

Switzer conceded that blogger’s are changing the news landscape by creating greater scrutiny and accountability and even breaking news themselves. But his closing note was that “the voices of the sensationalists are louder than ever”. While I sat there, I couldn’t agree more.

Shelley Gare’s criticism of political debate online was confused in her own reflections on writing (one needs time away from the PC to process thoughts), and the diminishing role of the editor in the current media environment.  In her experience and opinion comments dwarfed articles, achieving nothing and contributing less. She decried the entire Q&A twitter stream, particular the contributions of well known journo @laurieoakes and @lesliecannold (Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher) and described the content and Twitter integration on Q&A as “facile and frivolous”. She wondered why anyone, let alone people of any repute would display such “random narcissism”.

Gare cited the site Larvatus Prodeo (and its comment policy) as a sole example of civility online amongst the “hate speak”. I think it was remiss that no one pointed to vibrant online communities that self moderate debate in the comments section as can be found on New Matilda. New Matilda was recently saved by crowd sourced funding. I was one such donator, and no doubt everyone involved in the effort values the publication’s independence, humour and provocative nature. If only the NM publisher’s were invited on the panel.

Lastly was Bernard Keane from Crikey describing that no one in the “ghettos of agreement” and “echo chambers” online, need come across divergent opinion. Interestingly he said that he has found his articles cut and paste onto football forums for debate. Surely this can only be a good thing as engagement with issues increases. Keane did speak well to the increased accountability that governments will face from audiences more informed of specialist issues.

I think that the more thoughtful political discussions will be had on specialist sites that attract loyal communities. The Q&A twitter stream is a mixed bag of thoughtful comments and heckling. Mainstream news sites struggle to balance focussed comment discussion with engagement when hate speech is only a field submission away. Any mainstream  site suffers quality  in the comments section. One need look no further afield than YouTube.

On the night I saw it fit to comment on the work of Open Australia—an initiative that opens political debate and awareness at a local and national level. Hopefully I did my bit to promote web virtue in a room of web cynics.

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