Monday, 19 November 2012

Our comments policy

When Liberator launched this blog, we decided from the outset to have a comments policy – it is set out in the right-hand column.

If you have ever seen any other politics-related blogs, you will know why. A small but vociferous band of infantile trolls and obsessive bores can ruin it for everyone else. To experience this at its worst, take a look at one of Britain’s most popular political blogs, Guido Fawkes. To read the comments beneath any post is to stare into a cesspit.

Then look at another popular blog, Political Betting. This ought to be (and often is) a really useful exchange of inside knowledge. But to find the gems, you have to wade through a lot of dross. A handful of regulars dominates proceedings, trading in-jokes and off-topic banter. The comments beneath each post read like a drunken conversation in the bar of a private club, not an open and intelligent public debate.

Liberal Democrat Voice is quite heavily moderated, with byzantine commenting rules and filters set up to intercept all kinds of potentially offensive words or phrases. Even so, the comments tend to be dominated by the same handful of (mostly right-wing) obsessives, who chip in on every topic in an often aggressive manner, while adding little to the sum total of human wisdom.

There is an understandable perception that most political trolls are right-wing libertarians, and indeed many are. But the right does not have a monopoly. Look at the comments posted under any story on the Guardian’s website (especially if it’s a story about the Liberal Democrats) and you will see that Labour Party supporters can troll with the best of them.

Irrespective of ideology, these abusive commenters have certain features in common. They are overwhelmingly male. The passive-aggressive tone suggests they are mostly young. The frequency of comments, 24 hours a day, suggests they need a life. But there’s something else. They never use their real, full names, preferring to post anonymously or hide behind a pseudonym.

You do wonder about the psychology of these people. Why resort to anonymity? A few people may have a genuine motive, such as a politically-restricted occupation, but it is doubtful this applies in many cases.

One obvious motive is cowardice. If you are going to be abusive or use intemperate language, how much easier when your real identity is concealed. You can say things you would never dare say to someone’s face.

Another motive is a desire for unearned status. If you are Fred Bloggs, a 23-year old student with no serious political track record, your opinions are likely to carry little weight, and trying to compensate with a commanding tone simply looks pompous. But invent a pseudonym and adopt a spurious authoritative voice, and delivering grandiloquent put-downs is much easier to do.

Why should any of this matter? It’s a free society, and we should be able to take the rough with the smooth, surely? It matters because, for anyone who isn’t an inadequate young man sitting in front of his computer 24 hours a day and venting his spleen, a torrent of boorish comments is, at best, tedious and, at worst, highly intimidating, especially for women or anyone (male or female) unused to the rough and tumble of politics.

Here on Liberator’s blog, we welcome comments and debate. We simply ask that you exercise some courtesy and help us facilitate intelligent debate. We don’t want a few headbangers spoiling it for everyone else.

That’s why we ban anonymous or pseudonymous comments. It’s a blunt instrument but the most expedient means of eliminating abusive comments. You may not like this policy, but it is our blog. You have no automatic right to comment here, and we are not obliged to publish everything you say. Marks and Spencer is free to trade, and I may freely choose whether to shop there, but I have no right to take a dump in the middle of their stores.

Our rules in no way infringe your freedom of speech. If you are part of the annoying minority that wants to trade abuse, there are plenty of other places online where you can do it, and they are welcome to you.


  1. It's interesting how one's views on pseudonymity vary depending upon the circles one moves in. From my perspective, most of the pseudonymous people I know are of a type which actually IS persecuted online - female, trans, gay, nonwhite - desperately trying to hide the fact that they are NOT cis white men so they don't get picked on. My own internet pseud has been mine for nearly fifteen years now, and I met both of the partners I live with while using it, so it's rather precious to me, even though everyone knows that miss S B is me, so it's not really anything to hide behind (if it ever was).

    Obviously your comment policy is your own affair, and I in no way wish to impinge upon your autonomy, but I thought it was an interesting thing.

    1. Jennie - Fair point. My perspective is that of the political blogosphere (where this blog is, of course, located). I have found most anonymous or pseudonymous comments to have an unpleasant tone. Since female, trans, gay and non-white people are no more unpleasant than average, I must assume that the motives for anonymous/pseudonymous status in this part of the blogosphere have nothing to do with gender, sexuality or ethnicity.

    2. Yeah, I dabble in political blogging, but I come from fandom which is overwhelmingly female, and I started in Harry Potter fandom, where I used to do online role play. I played Filch, and we had some Monstrous Regiment moments, when we realised that ALL the male authority figures and most of the male students - Snape, Lockhart, Lupin, Dumbledore, Fred and George - ALL of us were actually girls.

      Political blogging is weird because the Westminster bubble stuff is very male dominated, but if you broaden your description of politics, there's a lot of girls out there; it's just that the Westminster Bubble types don't pay attention to them. It's a bit like comics, sorry, sequential art... Massively, overwhelmingly female, except in superhero comics, which somehow manage to still be a sausagefest AND pretend that the rest of the comics world doesn't exist or isn't important.

      Sorry, seem to have managed to clamber aboard feminist hobbyhorse again.

      Anyway, blog comment policies are an interesting place, and a lot of it depends on the level of work you want/are able to do. I agree that Guido, CiF and LDV all involve some horrific comment threads, and luckily my blog has never ended up that way, so I've never had to firefight it. I auto-moderate anon comments, but anyone who has an openID can comment without moderation (although I reserve the right to reactively moderate, and I CAN edit comments). This seems to work for me, but if I started getting more than a couple of thousand readers, more of whom wanted to comment, I could see it getting annoying.

    3. "Sausagefest". Brilliant! May I borrow this phrase?

  2. Ok, I'm going to take the bait. I'm a member of the LDV editorial team although I'm not posting this on their behalf. I'm just intrigued as to why you think that the LDV policy is "byzantine" when actually it's not much different from yours. Essentially, we both ask people to be polite, be who they say they are and be on topic. In the area of pseudonyms, we're actually more liberal than you because we do allow them as long as there's a valid email address. We'll also accept submissions from people who need to be anonymous for work reasons as long as we know who they are.

    "You have no automatic right to comment here, and we are not obliged to publish everything you say. Marks and Spencer is free to trade, and I may freely choose whether to shop there, but I have no right to take a dump in the middle of their stores.

    Our rules in no way infringe your freedom of speech. If you are part of the annoying minority that wants to trade abuse, there are plenty of other places online where you can do it, and they are welcome to you."

    That's a really interesting one. It's bang on as far as I'm concerned, but when LDV says something very similar people cry outrage and scream about censorship. And some of them are Liberator types.

    I would argue your submission, by the way, that most political trolls are right wing. My Twitter feed is full of abuse mainly from Labour and the SNP. I'd say that the majority of the comments I send back to their authors for amendment on LDV come from the left because they are either personally insulting the author, someone else in the comments thread or making libellous or unpleasant insinuations about people who could sue us.

    I have to say, though, that although I'm experienced at getting abuse from the likes of the cybernats, they are a bunch of cuddly teddy bears compared to the people who have a go at you if you dare to write anything with a feminist slant. Some of the things people have said to me in comments which never see the light of day since I've been writing about things like Page 3 and porn are incredibly offensive. I don't deserve to be raped, I am not a prude, I don't have a problem with either nudity or sex, but I'm not afraid to call out a patriarchially unbalanced society when I see it. Although sausagefest is a much better way of putting it.

    We've discussed elsewhere the "play the man not the ball" phrase. It jarred with me as I thought as a society we tried to use more inclusive language these days. That phrase does tend to reinforce your very blokey image. I loved the phrase that Jennie used about you, that you were the grumpy old men of the party. She meant it entirely in a good way. The party couldn't do without you, although I'm not sure that I agree with her that your instincts are always bang on. I subscribe to Liberator and regard it as essential reading for anyone interested in what goes on in the party but a bit more inclusivity would be welcome.

    The whole point of this comment, though, is to ask why your comments policy is fine while LDV's virtually identical policy is "byzantine". I really don't get that.

    1. I think LDV’s comments policy is byzantine for two reasons. Yes, its broad aims are similar to ours. But this blog’s comments policy is expressed in just 141 words, whereas LDV’s runs to 857. (Moral: Never write documents by committee). And LDV automatically filters a long list of banned words and phrases. (Moral: Trying to anticipate every possible contingency inevitably creates complexity).

      You say your policy is more ‘liberal’ than ours but LDV and this blog have different objectives. LDV aims to provide a forum for all-comers. This blog’s role is primarily to augment the magazine. So unlike LDV, we have no interest in allowing the likes of ‘Jedibeeftrix’ and ‘Oranjepan’ to hijack every debate.

      The reason LDV attracts accusations of censorship is because of its automatic filtering policy. On several occasions, comments I’ve submitted have been held up because of a technical infringement (i.e. an innocent use of a word or phrase that might be offensive in another context). LDV has the added problem of a lack of consistency, since its different daily editors act with varying levels of severity.

      For example, on one occasion, I referred to "Tory nutters" and, after a delay, my comment was published but with the phrase amended to "Tory MPs".

      Our system of banning anonymous and pseudonymous comments is much simpler. Bluntly, none of the arseholes ever use their real names, and our ban deals with them simply and effectively (and also requires far less work).

      Regarding the political allegiance of trolls, I suspect that your different experiences reflect the different political culture in Scotland. As I said in my original post, the Guardian’s comments are stuffed with Labour trolls.

      Finally, for the record, we are not ‘grumpy old men’! Liberator’s editorial collective comprises women as well as men, aged from the mid-30s to late 50s. I can assure you that, if there’s less copy in the magazine written by women than by men, it’s not for want of trying.

  3. Simon covers this very thoroughly, but omits one very simple difference.

    Lib Dem Voice keeps a list of those who it will block all comments until they are moderated to go through. It does not publish this list, nor will it necessarily notify individuals that they are on it; but the list exists all the same. There is no known criteria to be removed from the list.

    McCarthyite, and also self-defeating as LDV asks those writing articles for the site to comment. Why comment if your comments are delayed for so long that they do not appear in the context of the debate?

    Liberator's policy, by contrast, merely deals with anonymous trolls.

  4. Liberator policy is inconsistently applied based on partisan and subjective views of the editorial staff. Ample evidence of that is present in the selective decision to remove a legitimate post which Google posted under a person's first name on another thread which criticised a partial and factually inaccurate article elsewhere, but (rightly) left Jennie's comment on this post untouched. Far from merely "dealing with trolls" we have here evidence pointing to a biased comments policy. As for criticisms of LDV, people in glass houses etc.

    Graeme Cowie

    1. @Graeme - I removed your first comment [on an earlier post about the party's internal elections] because you did not use your full name, contrary to our comments policy.

      You then re-published your original comments under your full name, and neither these nor your subsequent comments have been censored, even though they employ intemperate and insulting language. You have had your say.

      Our comments policy is not "inconsistently applied based on partisan and subjective views". No one has ever been moderated or censored on this basis.

      May I remind you that this is Liberator's blog. It is our space, not yours. We make the rules, and we've set them out clearly. You are merely a guest and you have no 'right' to comment here. Your organisation, Liberal Reform, therefore does not have the right to equal airtime on this blog, any more than we could demand the right to plaster our views all over Liberal Reform's website.

      Your tone and paranoid accusations are disproportionate and febrile, and you are making Liberal Reform look ridiculous. Which is why I have not censored you.

    2. Poster not the post...

      Why did you not remove the posts by "Jennie" on this thread? Does she not have a surname? For the avoidance of doubt you should not remove her posts, just like you should not have removed mine. To insist on the display of someone's full name lacks logical basis, and this is a critique on your comments policy. Specifically relevant given that's what this post is about. Your failure to act in a consistent manner raises serious questions about the true reasons for censoring individual posts of Simon McGrath and myself.

      This is of course Liberator's webspace and you can do with it as you please. In so far as you make it a publicly accessible forum with a clear set of standards and criteria for participation however, you invite yourselves to criticism when you treat people in apparently identical situations differently.

      I do not represent Liberal Reform. I am a member but I do not represent them. I do not seek "airtime" on "your" blog on behalf of Liberal Reform. I contribute as an individual accessing the internet, an interested party in my capacity as a Lib Dem member and supporter, and on the specific subject matter as an interested party in the public discussion of a sub-party unit of which I am a part in Liberal Reform. It is in my interests that they are not lied about (such as people claiming they ran a slate in the internal elections when they didn't) and to seek a published correction when people have made those incorrect statements.

      I'll take no lessons about intemperance and insult from someone who posts about the forces of darkness to describe people within his own party.

      Graeme Cowie

    3. Your's and Jennie's situations are not analogous. I did not remove Jennie's post because, when one clicks on the word 'Jennie', one is taken to Jennie's Blogger page where it clearly says 'Jennie Rigg'. It is therefore very easy to establish her identity. When one clicks on 'Graeme', in contrast, one is taken to your Blogger webpage where your full name does not appear anywhere.

      Meanwhile, allow me to remind you of your original accusation, which was that it was "fraudulent and defamatory" to suggest (a) that Simon McGrath is a founder of Liberal Reform, or (b) that Liberal Reform ran a slate.

      Go to Liberal Reform's website and the 'latest news' item titled "Elections to Internal Party Committees", dated October 15, 2012 (at It says:

      "There’s a fantastic number of candidates, including two founding members of Liberal Reform:

      Simon McGrath for Federal Conference Committee
      Nick Thornsby for Federal Policy Committee.

      We hope you will consider supporting them."

      Then go the page titled "Who We Are" (at, where it says:

      "We hope to soon establish a membership and hold elections to our committee. While we are doing so, our committee will be made up of members who have helped in the building of this project:

      Mike Bird
      Zadok Day
      Nick Thornsby
      Nicole Sykes
      Simon McGrath
      Charlotte Henry"

      And you accuse me of lying?