When we announced to our political masters that – in line with the exhortation we had received to introduce “interactivity” on the website – the new elections website would include polls, reactions and debates, they were worried. They were worried about the kind of thing that might find its way onto the institution’s website. This is understandable; even those of them who did not know the internet well knew that it is an anarchic, uncontrolled place full of mad people with crazy opinions spreading wild rumours. Well, yes it is.
So our response was straightforward: don’t worry, all comments will be moderated before publication. Not censored, mind you, moderated, an entirely different thing. We would not allow obscenity, racism, personal abuse, etc. There was no question of political opinions being a factor. Nods all around the room. Yes, it’s the only way to go.
We knew it wouldn’t be as straightforward as all that of course. We would inevitably quickly be targeted by the highly active eurosceptic online community, who invariably home in on sites they see as propagating pro-EU ideas. So be it, we thought, these are legitimate political opinions, supported indeed by a not-insignificant number of MEPs, therefore no question about publishing them, as long as expressed in civilised language.
And they duly came, and they were duly published. Even where their view of MEPs is less than flattering.
However, things got trickier when we asked the public to comment on the question of whether or not EU countries should assist President Obama in his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp by taking in former detainees who could not return to their countries of origin.
The subject was a good one. It was on the agenda of the EP during its session in Strasbourg and there were strong opposing arguments expressed by the different political groups, not just on the fringes but within the mainstream. We wrote an article quoting some opposing positions in the parliament, and invited our readers to join in.
Suddenly that nice distinction between moderation and censorship didn’t seem so easy to draw. We received dozens of comments, as it happens almost all from men in Denmark, expressing very similar views, boiling down essentially to “no, we don’t want those Muslim terrorists here, there are already more than enough.” The difficulty came from that typical and utterly unfair elision between “Muslims” and “Muslim terrorist”. Some comments simply complained about the number of Muslims in Europe, while others objected more specifically to the idea of those specific Muslims who had been in Guantanamo coming to Europe. While it is quite easy to perceive (but can we assume?) the same underlying racist attitudes in these two categories, we did not feel we could treat them equally for the purposes of moderation. Where the sentiments expressed were based purely on an attitude to Muslims (e.g. “there are already too many of them in Europe”, “Muslims out!”, etc.), we decided that this was beyond the pale, or as we rather formally put it: “expressed views advocating discrimination on grounds of religion, views in contradiction with the fundamental principles of the EU …etc). So we did not publish. Where however the comment objected to, say, “those participating in a war between Islam and the West”, or “Muslim terrorists from Guantanamo”, we felt that, however contentious – and for many objectionable – the sentiments, it could be considered an expression of political opinion. So we published.
Suddenly that nice distinction between moderation and censorship didn’t seem so easy to draw.
I confess I remain unsure, but we had decided on a liberal moderation policy precisely because we had to avoid any accusation of censorship. Moreover, we all know that attempting to silence extreme voices often has exactly the opposite effect. What, however, does worry me is the phenomenon whereby a small group with similar opinions can target and dominate an open debate and leave a very one-sided impression. It would be nice to have more contrary views, (such as the Thinkaboutit blogger who suggested – I paraphrase – “six per country and it’s fixed”). The fact that our debates are time-limited may also be a factor. I have mentioned in the past the tendency of online debates to “self-correct” over time. But we, for many good reasons, close our debates after a few days. It is possible that this means that only the most motivated, thus frequently those of extreme and/or self-reinforcing views, will be quick enough to have their say.
At a deeper level, one could say that the problem is always the same, on and off-line, that all political arguments tend to be between those who feel strongest about an issue, with the relatively unengaged and often more moderate majority remaining silent.
So is this sort of interactivity a good thing? Have we bitten off more than we can chew? First, we are doing it because we were asked to. Second, we were asked to because it has been understood that successful communication via the web requires this – we cannot afford not to do it. Third, we knew there were risks and that we would be confronted with this problem at some point. Last, it doesn’t always have to be this way – other debates have been more balanced.
So we have to keep trying. We are committed to the idea that Parliament’s site has to be open and interactive. But moderation is no panacea, it cannot answer all the questions that will arise.
Perhaps our brand of moderation needs a little help from another form of moderation, one predating our kind by many centuries, the kind which says a man “must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible”.
I would love to know what readers of this think about all this.
For the record, Parliament voted 542 v. 54 against and 51 abstentions in favour of taking in ex Guantanamo inmates if asked.
I leave you with a EuroparlTV report on this matter – this predates the Strasbourg vote.
(CC) Photos: bencrowe on Flickr.