Dealing with denialists in the blogosphere is part of the skirmishing within the 99%, we said to a class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It doesn’t touch the power elite that makes the most consequential decisions in society. They know well enough what climate science is telling them. They also have interests to protect.
From the Q&A following a lecture on April 12, with a bit of adapting:
Q: You do have some denialist readers on your website, for sure, and I was just wondering if you think that they are professional denialists who are supported by the energy industry, or do you think they’re just misled amateur denialists?
RP: Here’s some of what I’ve seen. We didn’t allow comments for a long time because I had seen environmental and other blogs and online news stories overrun in the comments section by low-grade, hostile ideologues, denialists, and such. Sometimes there was so much piling on, so quickly after something was posted, that it looked like sites were being monitored and a hit squad would jump in at the first opportunity. Or, alternatively, I would see comments sections that quickly went off-topic from the substance of the post or news story. I thought, we want to maintain a certain tone here, we’re not going to give space to just anyone who wanders in from cyberspace and says things that don’t relate meaningfully to what the site has been developing in its climate change and government accountability content. And we don’t have time to babysit the site all day long.
But over time a number of the climate blogs have managed to develop a good-quality dialogue in their comments sections. We now have a moderated comments policy – comments have to be approved before they go up. If a comment is really inappropriate to the site and its contents, we’ll just block it. And once you do that, people see that the site isn’t a free-for-all.
Once in a while we get a whole bunch, and that’s when it looks like it’s orchestrated, or maybe just instigated. One time I posted something at about 4 a.m. about a vote that had been taken on the House floor in the middle of the night – I was up watching it on C-Span – on an amendment to a budget bill that would have de-funded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I recorded it and blogged it with a transcript of the exchange on the floor. So I had the story on that, and other sites used a link to our coverage. It was noted prominently on some of the denialist and contrarian sites. We deplored the vote, while they crowed about it as a victory.
And right away a lot of negative commenters landed on us. We posted some of the comments, but a lot of them were just not worth subjecting other readers to, and we blocked them. Then a couple of commenters accused me of censoring them. I replied, it’s not censorship, it’s editorial policy.
Q: Do you think the ability of people to comment so easily on the Internet and state their opinions has contributed to the large rift we see now, with the parties not getting along, and not budging, and generally more extreme political attitudes? Do you think online commentating has contributed to that?
RP: I don’t know to what extent it’s driving it and to what extent it’s just another manifestation of a more general problem. The Internet does allow people to weigh in with real flamethrowing. If you thought you were going to have to defend your position with facts and information, and step forward and defend your views against critique, and be held accountable for what you were saying and how you were saying it, and if your reputation would suffer if you were seen to be – like, say, if you used the standards for legitimate journalism. But of course there’s no accountability, people can just flame.
But I think the most consequential decisions in society are being made within what the Occupy Wall Street movement calls the 1% – the highest level government executives and key elected officials, the highest level corporate executives in the financial sector, the energy industry, the national security establishment, and so forth. And they know better. They know well enough what climate science is telling them. They also have interests to protect. They don’t base their positions on what’s in the blogs.
A lot of the other stuff we see is just skirmishing in the streets among the 99%, as it were. And some of it tends to dumb down what ought to be higher-level discourse, and keeps people fighting among themselves, sometimes over side issues. It keeps a lot of divisive energy going among the relatively powerless citizens in the 99%. The Tea Party people hate the liberals and the liberals trash the Tea Party people and so forth. Maybe that is advantageous in some ways to the power elite, because it keeps people from keeping their eye on the ball as to figuring out what is going on at the top.
I think most of the radical and especially the uncompromising views have come in on the conservative side, the right-wing side. The Republicans have moved a lot to the right; I don’t see the Democrats moving toward the radical left in a comparable way. I see Obama as basically a centrist, liberal-centrist – Wall Street-friendly in how he’s handled financial policy, seeking compromise, a health care policy that doesn’t really reduce the power of the health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, an energy policy that doesn’t really reduce the power of the oil companies, the fossil fuel corporations, and so forth.
The hostility we see in the public discourse, the way it’s structured now, gets in the way of holding powerful officials accountable for their actions. So much of the controversy generated around the candidates and the election is like a sideshow, it’s hardly even really about what the power elite is doing at a strategic level, in any way that will hold them accountable on the basis of the election results. And it seems to be hard for journalists to even figure out what they’re doing and convey it in a useful way, or for the public to understand it and act on it.