On anonymous commenters

Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (Penny Arcade)

The problem with getting your news online is that there’s a real danger you might be exposed to the comments section. Now, I’ve been online a long time, and I’ve mixed things up on Usenet, mailing lists, hobbyist discussion boards, and blog comments, and I have never seen anything as ugly, as unintelligent, or as bigoted as the comments I’ve seen on places like The Globe and Mail’s and CBC News’s websites. Comments on news sites, as someone said in reply to one of my tweets, are “mostly whitenoise and claptrap from politicos and other nutjobs.” It’s almost enough to make me stop reading the articles themselves.

The problem seems to be the usual one: what happens when you let people sound off anonymously (see the classic and pertinent Penny Arcade comic above). It’s bad enough that some news sites are reconsidering allowing anonymous comments; in more than one case, they’ve been forced to disclose the identity of a commenter so that they could be sued for defamation.

But who are these nutjobs — these people who seem to spend their entire lives spouting invective online — anyway? The Boston Globe’s Neil Swidey explored the issue by interviewing a number of their website’s “heavy users.” Problematically, none of the outright trolls wanted to be interviewed: “But here are the people I didn’t hear back from: the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.” Because they’d turn to stone if they did, that’s why.

Some Canadian advice about the British election

Watching the British elections, and the rather strong performance of the Liberal Democrats, I’m reminded of a couple of provincial elections that took place in Canada: Manitoba’s in 1988, and British Columbia’s in 1991. Both of those elections have the following in common with the current British election campaign:

  1. The incumbent party is deeply unpopular and is facing electoral defeat.
  2. The official opposition party, however, is still held in suspicion by a large part of the electorate.
  3. The leader of the third party puts in a strong performance during a televised debate, introducing an unpredictable element into the campaign.

In 1988, the Manitoba NDP was facing collapse, but unpleasant memories of the last Tory government were fresh enough in enough voters’ minds that they more comfortable voting Liberal, particularly given the high personal popularity of their leader, Sharon Carstairs, who’d clobbered the two main leaders in a debate during the previous election in 1986.

British Columbia’s Social Credit party was also imploding in 1991, but the electorate was sufficiently polarized that traditionally right-of-centre voters were unwilling to vote for the goddamn socialists (i.e., the NDP). Again, a strong debate performance by then-Liberal leader Gordon Wilson gave voters an alternative to holding their noses. (Wilson had to go to court to be included in the debates; he made the most of it when he got there.)

In both cases, the third party finished a strong second, with the incumbent party reduced to third place. We’ll see what happens in the U.K. tomorrow.

Now, televised debates are old hat here, as are three-way campaigns; the Brits, never having had debates before the three held during this campaign, lack such experience. I doubt these conditions will ever be repeated: the two top parties, whoever they are, will not underestimate the third-party leader again. The dynamic of the scrappy third-party leader calling bullshit on the other two will simply not recur.

Similarly, Nick Clegg’s challenge will be to avoid losing momentum: lightning does not strike twice. The Manitoba Liberals dropped to third place in the following election two years later. And while the B.C. Liberals eventually absorbed the remnants of Social Credit and took power in 2001, Gordon Wilson lost the leadership only two years after that breakthrough election in 1991, for rather sordid reasons. If the electorate hands you a gift, do not fritter it away.

The system worked

People are pointing to last week’s attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight as evidence that the aviation security system failed. Narrowly defined, it did fail, in that someone with explosives managed to get on board a plane and tried to set them off. But I would suggest that we’re defining the subject too narrowly.

The fact that the airport screening system failed does not mean that Al Qaeda therefore succeeded — because, obviously, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not blow up the plane. If you consider passengers and flight crew part of the air security system, then the system worked, because they subdued him before he could carry out his plan. (Since 9/11, passengers have known that they have to resist terrorists, not cooperate with them, in order to survive.)

It comes down to what your security system’s goal is. Are you trying to prevent terrorists from commandeering or blowing up planes in mid-flight? Then it’s okay if they’re stopped in the plane by the flight crew, other passengers or air marshals. But if your goal is to prevent them from even boarding the aircraft, then you’ve got a much taller order. You can’t harden every target in the aviation sector.

So instead we get the latest round of lunacy applied to every passenger, and argue whether keeping everyone seated or shutting down all their electronic devices an hour after takeoff or an hour before landing, or banning carry-on bags, will make any difference at all. It won’t, if only because terrorist attacks are so profoundly rare. And because, as Bruce Schneier points out, we’re spending all our time trying to prevent a recurrence of the specific tactics of the last attempt — about which see this Globe and Mail article and this opinion piece by Schneier. Lots of individual freedom taken away for hardly any benefit.

We’re making a big mistake by focusing on airport screenings and no-fly lists. (You might have noticed that the bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and Mumbai had nothing to do with airplanes.) Counter-terrorism is more than that.

The point is to stop them. Does it matter that the passengers and flight crew stopped him, so long as he was stopped?

If we freak out because we foiled a bombing attempt, then the terrorists don’t have to succeed in their plots to win. They don’t even have to try very hard.

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