About a year and a half ago I decided to embark on an experiment, albeit one without a hypothesis. It had been weighing on my mind for some time that Ireland’s major media outlets were –are- playing a decisive role in normalising the discourse relating to the politics of the ongoing bailout. This role is going largely uncontested, day to day, which is not to deny the importance of the various impressive periodicals getting produced.
I don’t have a great deal of time to devote, in my own writing, to analyse and synthesise matters of interest with the amount of detail I might like. At best I can grab a half an hour here, half an hour there, every other day. Ideally I would like to devote more time to it. For the moment, that isn’t feasible.
What was feasible, I thought, was some kind of exercise in undermining the formation of opinion. Nothing major: just the odd grain of sand in the vaseline. For a while I’ve been fascinated by the idea that comment threads on news sites are barometers of general opinion. I don’t know if they adequately reflect anything. But I regularly hear people say: don’t read the comments, they’re depressing, or something similar, as if this were indicative of a broad trend.
And indeed, the comments usually are depressing, at least from the point of view of someone interested in seeing the world not go further down the toilet under neoliberal technocracy. A lot of the time they make for terrible reading too. However, I think it is clear that people do read them, in order to gauge what others at large are thinking.
I also think they read them in order to figure out what to make of the kind of ideas expressed in the article itself. We don’t live in a society where there is open discussion of radical political ideas. In Ireland you could live for decades without ever hearing ideas relating to (say) socialism and its history discussed in anything other than the crudest of caricatures. Socialism, according to the dominant discourse, is something that we all thought was a good idea at one point, but it was tried in Cuba and didn’t work, and we have all grown up and moved on.
So I started to post comments around different websites, the Irish Times in particular, also The Journal, and occasionally a couple of others. But as well as posting the comments there, I’d share them on Facebook, Twitter and this blog. I tried to write them in such a way that they could make sense as standalone pieces: so that you didn’t have to read the article to make sense of the comment.
When writing them I would also try and be as politely adversarial as possible, without coming across immediately as a troll. There was an element of trolling to it though; I had no interest in getting involved in a debate with any of the other commenters. What interested me, on the whole, was trying to undermine the premises of the piece itself. To use a sporting analogy, as far as I could, I tried to get in with a crunching challenge early doors.
The thinking behind this was that when someone reads the comments it has a bearing on their perception of the content of the piece, and that an encounter with a radically dissenting opinion, cogently expressed, prevents the normalised discourse from taking hold. I think this is especially true when you have a piece founded on some truth held to be self-evident -for instance that the budget deficit has to be cut in line with Troika guidance- and the next thing you see is someone talking about how wonderful or sensible it is, or haranguing about how it doesn’t go anywhere far enough in targeting the unemployed, or public servants.
From trial and error over the years I have found that a crunching two-footed tackle, rhetorically speaking, really does have an effect on the flow of the commentary, but there is no point engaging 150-200 comments in. Either do it early, or do it whenever it has all died down and your contribution will sit just below the line.
All the time I was doing this, I was ambivalent about my undertaking. I don’t like the idea of generating revenue for private enterprises that don’t pay me anything and on the whole help to bolster neoliberal rule. So in keeping with the stipulations of the Irish Times website, I didn’t link to the comment I had left on any of the other sites where I posted it. And I tried, where possible, to write things that demonstrated the specific ideological function of the publication in question.
Then there is also the ambivalence generated by the way online interaction is represented by the same institutions that want you to take part in their ‘conversation’, their ‘community’, their gladiatorial contest, fray, whatever. If you look at the Irish Times website, there is a picture illustrating their comments facility: a man in a suit standing alone atop a craggy promontory, apparently bellowing into a loudhailer, with no audience in sight. It is not the sort of thing to get involved in if you are out to burnish your self-image.
At no point did I expect or desire it, but to the best of my knowledge I didn’t receive a single reply from any of the authors of the pieces I was critiquing. This is despite the fact that I tried to make my contributions address some aspect of the substance of the text, i.e. to take seriously what was being said. Ludicrous as some of John Waters’s columns are, I think he was onto something last week when he said candidly that he did not write for online readers, and certainly not online commenters, whom he described as ‘the lurking mob’, but rather for those who read the printed paper (conveniently, the latter do not make a habit of answering back). That attitude extends well beyond the aqueous one’s own columns.
In fact, over the course of writing, online anonymity, pseudonymity and traceability became the focus of media attention. The phenomenon of ‘cyberbullying’ was regularly conflated with ‘the lurking mob’ of pseudonymous online political commentary, such that writing a pseudonym, in the eyes of some, made you a danger to society at large.
I continued to use the Twitter handle ‘hiredknave’, which certain people on occasion interpreted as a form of vulgar abuse, rather than an obscure reference to William Blake. It isn’t that I need to protect myself from anything, though I do think the possibility of anonymous and pseudonymous writing is vital for democratic discussion. It is rather because I think my own name is irrelevant to the matter under discussion.
So I think there is a tendency to minimise the importance and the substance of online comments on such sites, and to simultaneously present them as a danger to democracy, or the work of self-aggrandising maniacs, or as ‘little wankers [tautologously?] masturbating in a room and hiding behind the computer’ (Eoghan Harris), or as in thrall to pathetic delusion.
There’s a danger of mistaking any sort of online political discussion with effective political activity. I was at a discussion a few months back where a few left-wing people seemed quite pleased about the fact that Facebook provided the possibility for the discussion of ideas with an intensity, frequency and range that would have seemed unthinkable a couple of decades back. Yes, but does it make any difference? I am always sceptical –well, contemptuous- of the idea that access to means of self-expression in and of itself leads to consciousness raising or substantial political change. And I also think that platforms under the ownership and control of major corporations have obvious limitations, and not just on account of possibilities for surveillance. Nonetheless, I don’t think that these spaces, especially those immediately accessible by large parts of the general public, should be left uncontested. Perhaps an army of trollsplainers is required for, at least as an interim measure.
Anyway, here’s a list of the Irish Times comments, with the name of the author of the piece commented and a brief description of what the comment is about. It’s not a comprehensive list of all the comments as I didn’t publish them all on this blog. However I will trawl through Facebook and add more to the list in time.
16/09/2013 Stephen Collins – Fine Gael: the enemies of ordinary people – Link
13/09/2013 John Waters – Internet and its discontents – Link
13/09/2013 Dan O’Brien – The role of the OECD – Link
13/09/2013 Alex White – Seanad abolition – Link
07/08/2013 Kitty Holland (report) – The Mater Hospital and abortions – Link
02/08/2013 Dan O’Brien – Economic Management Council – Link
31/07/2013 Assorted Fine Gael TDs – Progressivity vs Fairness Link
19/07/2013 David Farrell – Political reform and the destruction of democracy – Link
17/07/2013 Jennifer O’Connell – Stay-at-home dads – Link
27/06/2013 Peter Cunningham -Anglo Irish Bank and the Taxpayer as Idiot – Link
25/06/2013 Philip Lane – Obeying the feral hogs of the markets – Link
25/06/2013 Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy -Blame for the economic crisis – Link
20/06/2013 Richard Pine – Public service broadcasting and market forces – Link
14/06/2013 Stephen Collins -Potemkin facades and support for the political system – Link
12/06/2013 Dan O’Brien – Neoliberalism (2) – Link
12/06/2013 Dan O’Brien – Neoliberalism (1) – Link
05/06/2013 Bernadette Segol and David Begg – Trade unions and democracy – Link
04/06/2013 Fintan O’Toole – The citizens and the public – Link
01/06/2013 Patrick Smyth – Sovereignty – Link
01/06/2013 Gordon Jeyes – Childcare, austerity and the State – Link
31/05/2013 Dan O’Brien – Economics and the ruling class perspective – Link
23/05/2013 Pascal Donohoe – Seanad abolition – Link
13/05/2013 Kingsley Aikins – Diasporas and State racism – Link
10/05/2013 John Waters – Marxism and anti-communism – Link
09/05/2013 Donal Donovan – Austerity and social destruction – Link
04/05/2013 Stephen Collins – Democracy and professional politics – Link
03/05/2013 John Waters – Abortion and patriarchy – Link
03/05/2013 Noel Curran – RTÉ and the public interest – Link
30/04/2013 Ann Marie Hourihane – Irish health care and abortion – Link
23/04/2013 Dr Chris Hayden – Thatcher’s death and moral decency – Link
12/04/2013 Dan O’Brien, Judith Crosbie – The Fiscal Advisory Council and Thatcher’s legacy – Link
12/04/2013 Clara Fischer – Thatcher and feminism – Link
03/04/2013 Vincent Browne – Capitalism vs democracy – Link
03/04/2013 Harry McGee – The Troika and health care – Link
02/04/2013 Fintan O’Toole – Direct Democracy Ireland and the Labour Party – Link
28/03/2013 Laura Slattery – RTÉ star salaries and rugged individualism – Link
28/03/2013 John Bruton – Blaming Germany – or not – Link
22/03/2013 John O’Hagan – Marketplace diktats and democracy – Link
21/03/2013 Stephen Collins – Politics and the Serious People – Link
21/03/2013 Aodhan Ó Riordáin – Private schools and democracy – Link
21/03/2013 Author unavailable – Hugo Chávez and the Irish regime – Link
03/03/2013 Stephen Collins – The Fairytale of Irish democracy – Link
26/02/2013 Fintan O’Toole – Democracy and repression – Link
21/02/2013 Author unavailable – Food, state violence and deprivation – Link
16/02/2013 Stephen Collins – The Magdalen Laundries and the Troika Party – Link
16/02/2013 Editorial – Deployment of Irish forces to Mali alongside British forces – Link
16/02/2013 John Bruton – Real democratic freedoms and abortion – Link
21/12/2012 Editorial – Public vs private health care – Link
06/12/2012 Editorial – Spreading the pain’ of the budget – Link
26/11/2012 Editorial – Children Referendum turnout – Link
08/11/2012 Editorial – Enda Kenny and impressing Germans – Link
04/10/2012 Editorial – Hugo Chávez, neoliberalism and Ireland – Link
14/09/2012 John O’Hagan – Economic sovereignty – Link
08/08/2012 Editorial – Austerity and social solidarity – Link
07/08/2012 Fintan O’Toole – Loyalty to the State – Link
04/08/2012 Editorial – Solidarity between states – Link
24/07/2012 Canon Stephen Neill – Trusting public representatives – Link
23/07/2012 Stephen Collins – Political correspondents and framing – Link
25/06/2012 Stephen Collins – Moderates vs extremists – Link
18/06/2012 Stephen Collins – Politics – ‘Insiders’ vs the frivolous mob – Link