by Ralph Brauer | 6/16/2009 05:07:00 PM
The recent hijacking of a thread on this blog and then the hijacker’s defense of this act as “free speech” moves me to comment on a separate thread which I hope will stimulate a discussion of conduct on this blog and others.

Let us begin with the obvious—as well as know there is not now, nor ever has been, an absolute right to free speech in this country. We need not go into the long and fascinating history of First Amendment rights to know that at various times our government has seen fit to curb “free speech” and that some of those have proven misguided (the Alien and Sedition Acts) and some have stood the test of time (Lochner). The common thread that runs through government actions and court decisions hinges decisively on the concept of context. The argument is not over whether there should be pure free speech, but in what contexts and for what reasons should it be restricted.

To cite an example, we would not permit someone to stand in the middle of a busy intersection and shout away about some issue—not only for his or her own safety, but also for the safety of drivers and pedestrians. So the question is how to regulate speech in the context of blogs.

First, a blog is not a newspaper or television program; it is governed by the owner of that blog. This person may reject any comment or contribution she or he wishes and not give any reasons for it. That may drive away commenters and readers, but it is not a violation of free speech in either a constitutional or personal sense. If I invite a guest to my house and that person proceeds to behave rudely I may ask them to leave.

I believe this same principle applies to blogs. One reason stems from the unique nature of “speech” on a blog. People think of speech as something verbal, but in the context of a blog it is also time and space-related. Quite simply comments take up space and by taking up space they also take up time. Unlike a public square where I am free to ignore someone speaking, I am not free to do so on a blog.

Comments appear sequentially and like it or not I must scroll through that space to get to the next comment. If the comment is something I do not care to read I can scroll through it quickly, but I still have to scroll through it. Now one irrelevant or even obnoxious comment is easy enough to scroll through and ignore, but when an individual or group of people chooses to hijack a thread and continually publish comments that are totally off topic then that person is not merely a nuisance but threatening the entire community of the blog.

It means that every thread, every discussion on that blog is in danger of being disrupted by irrelevant comments. Since one of the prime attractions of a blog is the discussions such hijackings threaten the very existence of that blog. People quit reading the blog because every thread is hijacked. People quit commenting because their comments get swarmed over by the hijackers.

So what constitutes hijacking? Ruling out one off-topic comment is obviously a bit draconian. Some good discussions on this blog have resulted from comments that may have at the time seemed off-topic. No, hijacking consists of more than making irrelevant remarks—it consists of doing it again and again in the same thread and multiple threads.

Since this is a historical blog, a historical example may help. John Quincy Adams made a pest of himself with his constant petitions to the House of Representatives to suspend the “gag rule” that prohibited petitions against slavery. Adams would write his petitions and they would quickly be dismissed. What Adams did not do was to interrupt every debate in the House and launch into a speech in favor of his petition. He did not “hijack” House debates to push his own cause. As we know, eventually Adams prevailed and the gag rule was suspended.

Some people may have seen my comment about checking IP addresses as something out of 1984, but I was dead serious. The net is an anonymous place where one person under a variety of aliases and pretenses can hijack a thread all by themselves using as many names as they wish. The only way to stop such blog-threatening behavior is to track the source of the comments and see if they are all coming from the same person.

While the recent hijacking may be just an isolated case that may pass, it does give people on this blog a chance to discuss the etiquette of this community. One reason I came here is because the discussions are always high-quality and to the point. I would hate to see this blog become awash in hijacked threads.

That the hijacking should proceed from the most notorious and despicable historical fraud of the last half-century is especially disconcerting. A personal historical story may help explain why I feel so strongly.

One reason my grandfather was especially hated by the Nazis was that he campaigned to ban the brown shirts and other paramilitary armies from Weimar Germany. These gangs of uniformed thugs would roam the streets intimidating and sometimes physically assaulting anyone with whom they disagreed. Some political groups countered with their own groups of thugs. All this thuggery was defended as “free speech.” My family’s house was once machine-gunned on successive nights by the Communists and then by the Nazis.

To his death my grandfather maintained that Weimar Germany might have survived had the government acted decisively to curb this street violence, but they did not and it escalated into the Holocaust. As one of the leaders of post-World War II Germany my grandfather campaigned again to be sure that not only were groups like the brown shirts banned but also supported Germany’s strict anti-defamation laws.

So the question for this blog is how do people feel about hijacking? How do we define it? What can we do about it?



Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/16/2009 8:41 PM:

My first thought is a technical one: I've always preferred threaded comment systems to serial ones because it is, actually, easier to ignore discussions you're not part of, avoid commenters you don't care to engage. Even relevant discussions can sideline other relevant discussions, in a serial system.

But I don't believe that the blogger system which this blog uses can support that, so it's pretty much a moot point.

On the larger point, there are always going to be people who believe that their issues are more important than mere civility. When their points are irrelevant but innoffensive, we tend to ignore them, or suggest other fora. Short of imposing a moderation system, there's not too much we can do, I think, otherwise.

In this recent case, though the discussion did get a bit sidelined, but the community made a strong statement against that kind of intrusion and those ideas. Our editor knows that we have no further use for these commenters, and should keep their interjections to a minimum.


Blogger AndrewMc on 6/16/2009 9:06 PM:

It would be nice to have a threaded system, but alas blogger does not support it.

As for tracking "anonymous" through hir IP, etc---no, and here's why:

As tempting as that may be in the case of some moron Holocaust denier, once that door is opened there's no going back. That is to say, if I try to track down even one anonymous person's IP, it throws into doubt this blogs entire policy of anonymity. It would make it impossible for me to claim with any sort of honor that anonymous postings on this site are, in fact, anonymous postings. PH would lose all credibility in this area.

It's a common myth that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. As far as I can tell, no locality has a law specifically banning that. Instead we hope that people are smart enough to police themselves. When they aren't, the assembled theatergoers will boo them out, and perhaps the manager has to show them to the door. They can return, but they'll be escorted out again if they can't behave. Same thing here.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/16/2009 11:16 PM:

It's a common myth that you can't yell fire in a crowded theater.

No, it's a shorthand for the principle that not all speech acts are protected by the first amendment: speech acts which result directly in physical harm to others can be considered criminal endangerment, disorderly conduct, incitement to riot.... there's a few other categories into which it could fall.

Blogger's comment system doesn't include a way to ban commenters from blogs that allow open comments, nor does it log the IP addresses of commenters, so IP tracking wouldn't really do us much good in any case. We might be able to do more if we switched to something like haloscan comments, but I've never used them on a blog of my own so I'm not sure what capacity they have. That said, I'm not convinced that banning postings from an IP address which has produced denialist/racist/etc. comments in the past would constitute a violation of our standards on anonymity, as it involves no actual identifying information becoming public to anyone but the blog owner.


Blogger Winter Rabbit on 6/17/2009 12:33 AM:

Well, let me give an analogy. I'm too tired from packing to point out where it's not precise.

I had a friend who has a daughter, I watched her grow up via substituting and being around my friend at her house and so on. Her mother was a like a mentor to me and dear friend. I got a sweat lodge a couple years later. My friend's daughter came, then 17, and a man was there. He interrupted the ceremony by talking over her. I told him to stop in between rounds, yet he kept doing it. And if that didn't make her feel uncomfortable enough, he came in for a huge sweaty hug (he was over 50) after the ceremony. She said she'd felt very uncomfortable by it and it angered me seeing him do it. I informed him by phone the next day he couldn't return and he tried to get around it, but the land owners concurred, and it happened that he was in disputes with them as well.

Point is, I wasn't prohibiting his religious freedom, and nobody else would put up with him either. He could still pray alone - or with someone else.

Having said that, I'm glad I don't have children - they'd hate me because they wouldn't date till they were at least 30. I'd be overprotective (in theory), realize it (hopefully), and let them date at 16. But I'd like to think I'd find the middle ground between doing what I could do, and recognizing they'd do it anyway.

All that's just ideas though. I neither have children nor a blog. I hope that contributes something positive to the discussion though.


Blogger Unknown on 6/17/2009 4:13 AM:

I'm not going to advance my opinion on this because I don't want to get in Andrew's way -- it's very important that a blog have one and only one chief on issues like this. But I will say, Ralph, that I think you've let the anonymous commenter get too much under your skin. I generally think that the disruptiveness of any troll can be measured by the amount of time he or she causes other blog participants to waste on him or her. In this case, you've written a whole separate diary just based on a couple of heinous comments that have been deleted.

I appreciate your concern, but this site is not and will never be MLW. I trust in Andrew's ability to handle this, and I don't see the need for wallowing in this particular brand of meta.

Just my two cents.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 6/17/2009 8:42 AM:

While we're on the topic (sort of), what's up with MLW? I went over there after the last few references and tried to figure out what crisis was brewing, and couldn't make heads or tails of it, because most of the people involved refused to actually name the "other site" or the people they were having a problem with. It was pretty surreal.

I disagree with Jeremy, by the way: I think there's real value to a community discussion which produces an enforceable consensus, because it gives everyone involved a greater stake. And summer is the season for metadiscussion!


Anonymous Ralph Brauer on 6/17/2009 12:15 PM:

Perhaps there was a bit of overreaction, but I think I explained why this issue bothers me. However, what I should have made clearer is that while it was a mere gnat in terms of thread hijacking (on MLW they can go on for 20-50 comments), I am a great believer in being proactive--that is, I thought it would be good to have a discussion of the issue before it got out of hand.

As for the fire example, it comes from Schenk, which first proposed the "clear and present danger test." My rather simplistic point in citing this is that this country has always held that free speech CAN be restricted depending on the context. Blogs are not the same context as newspapers or a street corner.

Remember that after things had quieted down and AH attempted to restart the conversation, the thread was hijacked for a second time. On a personal note, I had thought to comment, but after yet another hijacking did not because I thought it would just bring on another irrelevant comment. Frankly I also lost my train of though because I was angry at the hijacker.

BTW, one thing I forgot to add was that I thought our editor did an excellent job of handling the situation.

As for tracking, I thought Google analytics gave you some ability to do that.


Blogger Unknown on 6/17/2009 1:43 PM:

Ahist, the "other site" in that discussion is The Wild, Wild Left, where I used to be an admin and with whose proprietor and commenters I'm still friendly.