The lavishly-funded leftist blog for academia, The Conversation, has hired a new manager specifically to make contributors converse more politely. Cory Zanoni, an RMIT psychology graduate and social media guru, got the job of Community Manager in January. He was hired after complaints last year about vulgar comments on the articles with the responsibility for ‘creating a space for intelligent discussion’.
On February 13, Zanoni wrote, “I was appointed following concerns by some readers (and shared by editors) that there was a lack of civility in many comment threads. My brief is to fix this, not just for those who already comment but also for those who would take part if they felt it safe to do so. We want The Conversation to be a place for intelligent discussion and we think there’s more we can do to achieve that.”
Nice Mr Zanoni has now published the site’s new guidelines calling for all-round politeness, except towards climate skeptics, of course, who are to be banned for pointing out that the world ceased warming 17 years ago. Some extracts:
Keep comments relevant to the article and replies relevant to the initiating post. We reserve the right to delete off-topic comments to keep threads on track.
For example: in an article about the policy response to climate change, comments made about denial of climate change will be considered off topic.
Explain why you disagree or agree with something. Your reasoning is as important as your opinion.
“This article sucks” will be deleted. “You’re an idiot” will be deleted.
Take responsibility for the quality of the conversations you participate in…Report posts you think violate these standards.
What we’ll do
We reserve the right to remove comments that breach these standards…”
Idly googling nice Mr Zanoni, I came across this twitter exchange, under Mr Zanoni’s new job title:
Let me confess. I’m not sure that I want to know what c—kspanking is. But it’s interesting that the newly-installed Community Manager of The Conversation, appointed to enforce higher standards on Conversation users, is tweeting things that – to put it mildly – don’t seem to raise the tone of online exchanges. And tweeting them, too, a bare 48 hours before publishing civility guidelines for The Conversation.
On at least one other matter, Zanoni’s perspective is unlikely to raise an eyebrow in arts faculty common rooms, the ABC or Fairfax:
I declare an interest. The Conversation people give Quadrant a hard time, unaware how easily our feelings are hurt. Here’s an example, “Tony Thomas, I’ve just had a look at Quadrant Online and am really shocked at the partisan outlook (rubbish) in this publication. Completely at odds with the reality of the science.” That’s why I’m being scrupulously fair in this piece.
At a time when mainstream media are hacking staff numbers to vestiges, the scale of The Conversation is disconcerting. It has Andrew Jaspan, the warmist ex-editor of The-Age as Executive Director, a managing editor, a chief operating officer, 18 sundry editors, an external relations director, the community manager, four developers, three in finance, an admin officer, and an apparently unfilled slot for a multi-media manager. Chair is Bendigo Bank supremo Robert Johanson, heading a 12-person board, plus there is a six-person editorial board. I’d guess the salary bill at $4m or so.
Plus there’s another 16 staff in the new UK office.
Jaspan laments that 12 of 39 Australian universities have so far declined to donate for yet more editors and suchlike. Hats off to UNSW Science, which recently flicked across $10,000, probably enough for the morning tea biscuits.
Strangely, donors to the site include Misha Ketchell, managing editor of The Conversation; Liz Minchin, Queensland editor; and Georgine Hall, just a lowly ‘Editor’. Some of the site’s most ferocious commentators are also listed as donors.
Andrew Jaspan invites personal questions, so last December I wrote to him,
“Hi Andrew, Does your organisation publish a public annual report and annual accounts? Have any of the 27 university members disclosed how much funding they are contributing to your group? If you are not legally obliged to make the accounts public, would it not be good to do so voluntarily?”
I still await his reply.
Key sponsors of The Conversation are founders CSIRO, and the universities Melbourne, WA, Monash and UTS. Strategic partners include toffy law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, CBA and the Victorian Department of Business (eh? I thought we had a Liberal-led government in Victoria?).
Jaspan says the Australian site gets 1.4m unique visitors a month, thanks to content “which is curated by professional editors while together we make every effort to adhere to high standards and ethics.”
A swathe of The Conversation’s output (motto: Academic rigour, journalistic flair) is non-contentious – academics writing ‘pop’ pieces on their research into Pacific Islanders, maths education, beetle behavior, whatever.
But on climate, The Conversation is an exclusive playground for left and green authors. Skeptics, including myself, enjoy giving the authors and authors’ fans an occasional poke by reminding them about the halt to warming. This drives the site’s warmists berserk, such that even middle-of-the-road readers are appalled at the abuse levels and drop The Conversation from their reading list. (Some skeptic commenters – not me – can be rude too, although most try to be gentlefolk).
All the editors from Jaspan down, raise their hands in horror at the suggestion that their site has any Green/left tilt. Some fan of the site challenged anyone to inspect a day’s contribution of around 20 articles and say how many are leftist. I have risen to the challenge and give you the following “environment” headers ads they appeared on on February 13.
A retired geologist/engineer Peter Lang recently submitted this comment:
“It cannot be good for the country or for academia to have such Left ideological bias in our academic institutions. It would be very wise for politically impartial universities to not support The Conversation until it can demonstrate it is truly balanced and impartial. I would also urge the remainder of our publicly funded universities to withdraw or reduce their level of funding until the Conversation cleans up its act.”
He suggested that the editors be selected to balance the lefties with righties, proposing my own stern boss, Quadrant’s Keith Windschuttle,as a good choice for senior editor. Managing Editor Misha Ketchell, whose impeccable pedigree has included stints as Media Watch’s chief researcher and at Crikey!, replied:
“The truth is we have no political position and try and source a range of voices and views … We certainly don’t look for views that skew in any particular direction, but nor do we discourage academics from expressing their honestly held views.”
Another complainant pointed to a feature by Matt McDonald, senior lecturer in International Relations at Queensland University, in the pre-election phase last year. It was headed, “Why Labor should fight the 2013 election on climate change”. To McDonald’s chagrin, and despite his Labor boosterism, Abbott got in, so McDonald then wrote a feature, “Abbott’s climate ‘diplomacy’ sends the wrong message”.
The daddy of all climate articles on The Conversation was posted last month from Auckland climate scientist Jim Salinger, excoriating NZ skeptics who took the NZ meteorology establishment to court over alleged data-manipulation. The skeptics eventually lost at the High Court, and liquidated a trust such that court costs were difficult to collect. This piece attracted 443 comments — and the most graphic sledging ever seen on The Conversation, I reckon. The site’s beleaguered moderators were reduced to deleting abusive comments sometimes in slabs of a dozen at a time. The fact that “Liar” remains on the thread, suggests that the removed comments must have been NSFW (not suitable for work). Rod Andrew, identified as “editor, teacher and engineer”, blogged recently, “If The Conversation keeps publishing slanging matches like this then it is doomed as a reputable website. In fact I think it’s probably past that stage already.”
One Conversation stalwart, and donor, is a certain Mike Hansen, who has flooded the site with 2450 comments since mid-2011. He has violently attacked the editors for allowing any comments from ‘climate cranks and conspiracy theorists’ to be published. “Your moderation policy is a disgrace,” he wrote. He urged The Conversation to block ‘deniers’ from the comment sections, praising the orthodox science blog Reddit Science for doing just that. The BBC and Fairfax newspapers have taken the same line, at least until recently.
One commenter analysed skeptics as being ‘idiots’, corrupt and/or mentally ill. He weakened his argument slightly by confessing that he was legally deemed to have a mental illness himself.
What probably touched a raw nerve at The Conversation was that warmist arguments were under steady challenge. As another warmist, Michael Wilbur Ham, (2166 comments) put it:
“So as far as I can see the deniers have had 15 very successful months on The Conversation where they have stymied any real discussion on the important issues. They are winning.” He urged The Conversation – apparently successfully – to “just say that posts critical of the basic science are off topic, encourage readers to report any such posts, and posts by trolls will quickly be deleted.”
Yet another, Ian Alexander (364 comments) wrote,
“As The Conversation editors, it is time you guys ‘grew a pair’. You know these pathetic old deniers are just here to spoil the thread yet you let them continue. You know the crap they peddle is lies and misinformation but you keep posting it. Are extra hits and posts that important to you?”
Gordon Angus Mackinlay, who describes himself as “a clinical psychologist”, wrote:
“I find a great deal of the comments made by people in regard to comments made by others extremely offensive. Such comments as here from ‘Developer’ “internet nut jobs, right wing lunies and others used by the fossil fuel lobby will be along shortly to obfuscate, deny, shift goal posts, do the straw man thing, and otherwise sow doubt and confusion” serve absolutely no purpose.”
It’s an accepted principle that private blog owners can run their comment sections as they like, whether they’re perspicacious Andrew Bolt or warmist John Quiggin. As Quiggin says, “ I publish it at my own expense and in my own time. It is not a public place. There is no automatic right to comment here.”
The Conversation, being publicly funded, may make no such assertion.
Tony Thomas is always polite