latest, The web they want
Comments 38

Does Owen Jones really believe the internet is hurting democracy?


by BlackCatte

OwenJones2

Over at the Guardian’s shiny new “the web we want” section there’s a veritable onslaught of the “problem – reaction -solution” method of manipulating public opinion. Several articles are currently running over there, all of which can be broken down into the following:

The problem is “abuse on the internet.”

The reaction is “this is killing democracy/harming minorities/destroying online communities.

The solution is…well, so far that’s only being discussed in hints and whispers. Posed only as leading questions, or elisions in the discourse. Shielded from us with interrogation marks and weighted silence. But it’s clear what it is. What else could it be?

In a piece titled Is it too late to stop the trolls trampling over our entire political discourse?, Owen Jones offers a classic example of the method being employed. He starts by citing a number of experiences of abuse he’s undergone as a Guardian columnist, which are intended to illustrate the problem.

It was a pretty standard far-right account: anonymous (check); misappropriating St George (check); dripping with venom towards “Muslim-loving” lefties (check). But this one had a twist. They had found my address and had taken screen shots of where I lived from Google’s Street View function. “Here’s his bedroom,” they wrote, with an arrow pointing at the window; “here’s the door he comes out at the morning”, with an arrow pointing at the entrance to my block of flats. In the time it took Twitter to shut down the account, they had already tweeted many other far-right accounts with the details.

Then there was a charming chap who willed me to “burn in everlasting hell you godless faggot”, was determined to “find out where you live” so as to “enlighten you on what I do to cocksucking Marxist faggots” and “break every bone in your body” (all because he felt I slighted faith schools). And the neo-Nazis who believe I’m complicit in a genocide against white people, and launched an orchestrated campaign that revolved around infecting me with HIV.

These things are obviously deeply unpleasant, and anyone would find them shocking and disturbing. But he assures us, this isn’t about asking for sympathy. It’s about making a “point.” Which is…

Political debate, a crucial element of any democracy, is becoming ever more poisoned.

In other words – the Reaction. Being Jones, and probably anxious to preserve some credibility in the real oppositional media, he equivocates even more than most around this touchy subject, running round in circles, pointing out one second that “social media has helped democratise the political discourse”…

…forcing journalists – who would otherwise simply dispense their alleged wisdom from on high – to face scrutiny. Some take it badly. They are used to being slapped affectionately on the back by fellow inhabitants of the media bubble for their latest eloquent defence of the status quo. To have their groupthink challenged by the great unwashed is an irritation.

“But…”

There’s scrutiny of ideas, and then there’s something else. And it is now so easy to anonymously hurl abuse – sometimes in coordination with others of a similar disposition – it can have no other objective than to attempt to inflict psychological harm.

So, on the one hand we have the reality of a wonderful new open forum that “forc[es] journalists…to face scrutiny.” On the other we have some anonymous commenters hurling abuse. Is this supposed to be a painful ethical choice? New unparalleled public accountability versus a few trolls. Hmm…yes that is a tricky one. Jones is inventing a paradox where none exists. And he does it again…

Columnists could once avoid any feedback, other than the odd missive on the letters’ page. Now we can have a two-way conversation, a dialogue between writer and reader.

“But…”

…the comments have become, let’s just say, self-selecting – the anonymously abusive and the bigoted increasingly staking it out as their own, leading anyone else to flee. Such is the level of abuse that many – particularly women writing about feminism or black writers discussing race – have simply given up reading, let alone engaging with, reader comments.

And again…

Being forced to confront opinions that collide with your own worldview, and challenge your own entrenched views, helps to hone your arguments.

“But…”

sometimes the online debate can feel like being in a room full of people yelling. Even if others are simply passionately disagreeing, making a distinction becomes difficult….Is the effect of this to coarsen, even to poison, political debate – not just in the comment threads and on social media, but above the line, and among people who have very few meaningful political differences? I worry that people will increasingly avoid topics that are likely to provoke a vitriolic response.

In this fashion, whirling like a spinning top, Jones does everything he can to sink himself and us in a completely ridiculous faux dichotomy. Some of his attempts to provide counterweight to the obvious fact that the internet is a great force for freedom are merely silly, some are frankly dishonest (could anyone rationally maintain that hordes of anonymous trolls are forcing all serious commenters “to flee”?). All his equivocations are designed to make us accept a priori that real debate on the internet is being undermined by “abuse” and that something needs to be done about it. They are an attempt to make us accept there are some types of people that may not have the right to express themselves.

Not only does this make it more possible we will accept the coming attempt to impose draconian internet censorship (for trolls only of course), it also makes erstwhile liberals who pride themselves on their “left wing” credentials feel a tad less queasy when looking in the mirror. Owen is trying to convince himself as well as us that it won’t be real people with real opinions they’re disenfranchising, just a massive army of faceless, anonymous monsters out to be mean to women and minorities, just for the sake of meanness. ‘Yes, he wants us to think, ‘free speech is essential to the human soul and the survival of even vestigial democracy – but it’s being ruined by the trolls, so let’s just kill them quick so the lovely journalists no longer have to live in fear of someone telling them they’re wrong’

After all didn’t the man who said “I do not agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it” just forget to add “unless you’re rude or loud, or make someone cry.” Didn’t the authors of the First Amendment that declared “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” just accidentally miss out the bit about it only being the freedom to say nice things that everybody liked, and if people started being rude the whole thing should just be canceled immediately.

The important thing is we allow ourselves to join this faux debate and angst about it in ever-decreasing circles, using ever more tortuous, knotted arguments, turning and turning until we’re dizzy enough to get behind statements like this:

why would – for want of a better word – “normal” people seek to express political opinions if the quid pro quo is a daily diet of hate? Won’t those from private schools, where a certain type of confidence and self-assurance is taught, become even more dominant in debate? Will women be partly purged from the media by obsessive misogynistic tirades – I know of women who turn down television interviews because it will mean being subjected to demeaning comments by men on their physical appearance. Will only the most arrogant, self-assured types – including those who almost crave the hatred – be the beneficiaries?

See that, oh Reader. It’s called “sophistry.” And it turns anyone who resorts to it into a terrible negation of their best self. Just hope it never happens to you, or you too might find yourself telling the world you’re worried about the possibility that uncontrolled free speech might end up being elitist, because only men from public schools will be tough enough to go online while people are being rude.

But it’s his final paragraph that has the real kicker…

Online debate is revolutionary, and there are few more avid users than myself. But there seems little doubt that the political conversation is becoming more toxic. And it is democracy that is suffering.

Ah, there we have it. The first hint at the solution. Kill free speech to save “democracy” from the Troll Hordes. You heard it here – from Owen Jones.

The terrible thing is that Jones is a respected commentator, who has a considerable following and probably well above average financial security. He could have refused to take part in this macabre charade the Guardian has launched. He could have written an unequivocal piece pointing out that rudeness and abuse is the price we all have to pay for freedom of expression. That people, unfortunately, have the right to be jerks, even if we all hate them for it. That there are laws already in place to protect us from real threats, slanders and libels. And that only an idiot, or a man with an agenda would suggest this is even slightly up for debate.

But he didn’t. And that will remain a matter of public record. We hope he feels he made the right choice.


38 Comments

  1. Oh dear Mr Jones is a sensitive little flower isn’t he. In the days when the Guardian was a progressive paper opposed to imperialist wars, the then editor C.P.Scott who opposed the British war in South Africa, (1899-1902) had to get police protection from jingoistic mobs who attacked both the Guardian building in Manchester and Mr Scott’s home. Of course things have changed, the Graun doesn’t oppose imperialist wars any more, it endorses them. Moral of the story, if you can’t take, don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen. Unreasonable of course, but this is politics, not a debating society, and passions tend to run high. And BTW use of the Z word is prohibited, Mr Freedland would not like it.

    Like

  2. Stevemill says

    What I missed from his article was any evidence of such heinous behaviour on CIF. Death threats are one thing; getting modded for observing that conflating criticism of Islam with a mental illness, which is what the term ‘Islamophobia’ does; is straight out of the old Soviet dealing with dissent playbook is another matter entirely.

    Like

  3. tezla valve says

    I’d love to know what Owen Jones thinks ‘The Establishment’ is. I’d buy his book, but I think MI5 get enough money from TV licence payers.

    If the applied Hegelian dialectic (problem/reaction/solution or thesis/antithesis/synthesis) is the ‘means’, then I suspect Plato’s ‘Republic’ is the ‘ends’ i.e. totalitarianism, destruction of the family, and eugenics.

    Like

  4. Mihangel apYrs says

    there used to be a time when one could be assertively vocal at political hustings and other meetings.

    Whatever happened to Baby Jane?

    Like

  5. Eric_B says

    There is definitely something going on. They even have a CIA colour revolution style logo.

    Like

  6. Michaelk says

    I was banned from the Guardian for arguing that their coverage of events in Ukraine was ignorant, superficial, distorted, partisan, biased; and showed an incredible lack of knowledge and understanding of the Ukraine’s history and extremely complex social and economic realities. My interest goes back a long way, because my family owned a large estate in western Ukraine, something my ancestors, Austrian knights, carved out with their swords as the Germans migrated towards the East. I don’t believe I was guilty of being a Troll. I just couldn’t believe how bad their coverage was, staggeringly bad, and this ‘badness’ was important and needed to be challenged. Yet my detailed criticism of their entire ‘line’ on Ukraine, was seemingly too much for them. Contrary to what Jones seems to believe, the Guardian doesn’t like qualified criticism of their output at all.

    One soon gets used to the writing and debating style of looney trolls. It can be shocking at first, but it wears off. This entire ‘abuse’ thing seems like an excuse to introduce censorship on the Internet and control all types of comments, thoughts and utterances that the guardians at the Guardian don’t approve of, because, make no mistake, it’s about control, not abuse.

    Like

  7. Secret Agent says

    In addition to the comments section The Graun should have a “safe space” comments section where admirers of hacks like Owen can heap praise on his insight and wisdom and agree with everything he says.

    Problem solved. Heap praise on me.

    Like

    • O Lucky Man! says

      Ha! Excellent.

      But yes, of course the inverse will no doubt be preferred, a small, hard to find, hard to scroll free speech box/cage will be set up on each article open to comments with a low grade, subscript-sized font where only moderate moderation will apply, while the main comments will indeed become a safe praise zone where only the happy are allowed to march along in synchronised step with the 77 brigade.

      Like

  8. Roger says

    Poor Norman Pilon, trying so hard, but nobody is answering him/her/it! Shame!

    Like

    • Hi Roger,

      That’s democracy in action. You do get to ignore points of view that you find either jejune or offensive. But thanks for noticing me. 😉

      Kind regards,

      — N

      Like

        • Does the word “irony” mean anything to you, Roger. Why so serious? And exactly how do trolls behave? And will Off-Guardian ban me for mocking Owen by pretending that BlackCatte is as thin skinned as he is? And don’t you think it a hillarious turn of events that Xhamster would cut access off to North Carolina in retribution for its bigotry motivated HR 1523? Things are so fucked up, Roger, that sometimes you have to laugh at it.

          And if you really believe that what I’m doing here is “snearing,” why don’t you come have a visit at my blog to get a sample of the real tenor of my outlook on things? That’s a personal invitation to you, Roger. I’m merely trying to make a point.

          And when I sign off with “Kind regards,” I mean that in all sincerity.

          Kind Regards,

          –N

          Like

  9. Laix Khan says

    Jones has no real cred at all.see him talk is a massive yawn, like a pneumatic drill goes on and on to the point others never get a look in a Jones form of no-platforming detractors no wonder we need trolls.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Nice piece and well needed. The Graun is building its own mythology about Trolling, building its own narrative to suggest that some how democracy and freedom of speech can only be found if their comments are free of criticism.

    I was surprised that after the Gruans Toll House Sagas that Pro Russian commentators didn’t get a mention in Owen Jones’ piece. Interestingly those who supply anti-Putin trolling sometimes get comments deleted when they get too rabid. But are still there happily trolling away. While other commentators critical of the Grauns misinformation about things Russian are not.

    It’s rather noticeable their bias such as and article about a month ago which blatantly stated Russia has Troll Factories while the West has Strategic Communication Centres.

    Like

    • Eric_B says

      That’s right, they are building a lie. Nobody can prove they are wrong for the most part because the comments they didn’t like have been disappeared. Now they are just statistics.

      Like

  11. Forthestate says

    Owen Jones is classic Guardian material: a neoliberal posing as a liberal. He wants reform right up until the point it actually makes a difference, like all the rest of them. Here is Pilger referring to him in an article largely about Obama: “Described by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones as “funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician”, Obama the other day sent drones to slaughter 150 people in Somalia. He kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone. So cool.”

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/03/23/a-world-war-has-begun-break-the-silence/

    Like

    • Seamus Padraig says

      Exactly what I thinking when I read the article:

      “Slavery is freedom!
      War is peace!
      Ignorance is strength!”

      You can’t say Orwell didn’t try to warn us.

      Like

  12. Owen Jones blocked me on Twitter and called me a troll after I politely asked him what he thought would happen to Syria if Assad was overthrown as he was espousing. This was back in 2013 and while he had the privelige of influencing public opinion on a subject from the luxury of his office chair; the opinion he was trying to change could have resulted in massive loss of life and suffering , yet he doesn’t want the rigour of having to defend his rather narrow viewpoint. He made one good appearance on BBC Question Time and since then has become the darling of the liberal left bandwaggoneers who are easily manipulated by corporatist propaganda.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. The mods at the Graun have been driving away all the serious commentators. And they seem to have their own troll army operating.

    What a circus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seamus Padraig says

      Yup. The trolls at The Graun are usually the first to accuse YOU of being a troll. How’s that for projecting!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Mao Cheng Ji says

    If banning poor little me helped save democracy, imagine the miracles banning theguardian itself would do…

    Like

  15. And I’m surprised you didn’t mention this in your article:

    “XHamster.com, a porn website that, as of Monday was one of the world’s 100 most visited websites according to data from Alexa, has refused to service anyone using a computer in North Carolina. Since 12:30 P.M. last Monday the website has appeared as a black screen for anyone using a North Carolina IP address”

    I think the porn site is upset about “House Bill 1523,” the new North Carolina law that permits businesses to deny services to anyone they deem to be of questionable sexual orientation and even to unwed mothers.

    Shouldn’t be too long before the Tar Heels start massing in the streets, threatening to riot and demanding the revocation of Bill 1523.

    I mean what Xhamster did there, that’s like cutting off a person’s right hand just above the wrist . . .

    Kind Regards,

    –N

    Liked by 1 person

  16. 0use4msm says

    O.J.’s article is an attempt to justify The Graun’s recent move to phase out their BTL comments section on serious political issues. For instance, not a single of their many Panama Papers are open for comments. The same for writers who habitually receive a lot of criticism for their obvious pro-establishment agenda, like Natalie Nougayrède.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Davide says

    Very interesting that “out of control” trolls are driving away serious commentors. I had no idea that freedom of speech creates a chilling effect – pretty sure I read once that these things tend to work the other way around, but then, I still have a great deal to learn.

    Like

  18. 0jr says

    Who gives a flying rat’s butt. Wait what is a O J .Who givees a flying rat’s ass

    Like

  19. bevin says

    Jones is becoming a bellwether for The Guardian, leading the flock while tinkling gently. The real problem with discussions in The Guardian- as the existence of this website attests- is not abusive trolls, who tend to discredit themselves and, in the golden age of CIF, were easily ignored or silenced by the great weight of sensible comment; the real problem is that The Guardian actually encourages abuse and trolling. What it pre-moderates and deletes are comments challenging in a literate, reasonable manner, the sacred cows of the ruling and political classes. It rather welcomes the idiotic one liners and the snarky counterpunchers whose sad contributions consist of the conventional wisdom re-packaged, for all the world as if auditioning for patrons.

    The Toronto Star introduced below the line comments for a period and it pursued a very similar moderation policy. It rather encouraged slanging matches. It discouraged anything thoughtful (boring!!) and pre-moderated (as in deleted automatically) anything challenging, for example, Canada’s encouragement of and links with Syrian militias fighting Assad. In the end its comments consisted of little other than party political loudmouths exchanging childish abuse, and closing the feature down gave rise to very little controversy.
    I suspect that The Guardian is heading in the same direction. And that Jones and the manufactured crisis of “trolling” are preparing the ground in much the same way that his demented colleague Luke Harding is paving the way for more bloody war on Russia’s borders.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Davide says

      Totally agree with you on the climate the Guardian’s style of moderation creates.

      Like

      • Hi Davide,

        If the climate at the Guardian is being affected, it’s not the moderation, but the CO2. Get with the times.

        Color me a democracy loving troll 😉

        –N

        Like

  20. Branka Brankov says

    Owen Jones, baby face, pretending friend of People, actually, he is a liar, manipulator and FRAUD. Is Hillary Clinton his mum?

    Like

  21. What’s actually going to happen here tho catte, is that the guardian is going to go down the pan.

    Now on much brighter news, Nick Watt has been given the boot – he’s off to new night, and Patrick Wintour has been shifted over to “Diplomatic Editor” which sounds like a more money for less work – we can’t afford to get rid of him so let’s sideline him” move. Consequently there has been a lot less kicking of jeremy Corbyn and the running of Peter Mandolson created media attacks.

    Liked by 2 people

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