Purpose of this Document
On the afternoon of the 17th of March, announcements were made both on h2g2 and the DNA hub first explaining and then implementing a special moderation policy "for the duration of the conflict" in Iraq. This has sparked a large amount of discussion and debate, spread across several forums, and I thought it would be useful to attempt to summarise the key points and arguments raised.
I intend to continually improve and extend this document, and welcome any help and suggestions offered by other researchers. Specifically, I do not fully understand all the arguments being used, and will therefore find it hard to summarise them appropriately; although it may become obvious which ones I personally lend weight to, this page is intended to be genuinely unbiased, and so I will be very happy to correct such biases with the help of others. Oh, and I will be quoting key comments directly from postings - if you want to disown such a quote, please let me know that as well.
Finally, I should point out that this page is being prepared from an h2g2, rather than DNA, perspective, as there are certain differences - both historical and technical - between h2g2 and other DNA sites, which have strong bearing on some of the points raised. The policy, of course, was made at the BBCi level, but this page concerns the implications of that policy in the context of h2g2
Clarifications to the Guidelines
The initial announcement of the policy was necessarily brief, and the Guidelines themselves are perhaps not as clear as they could be. Some discussion has therefore been dedicated to seeking clarifications of key points in the policy:
- It has been discovered and pointed out that the Great Debate is not the only messageboard on which the BBC have allowed discussion of the conflict. Mina explained:
For your information. We only listed one board because it was felt that most people on h2g2 would naturally prefer that one.
Discussions will be run on the following messageboards:
- Today, Asian Life, The Great Debate, 5 Live.
- The Where I Live sites will run one message board, initially in premoderation
- A premoderated area for children who wish to talk about the conflict will be run on the Newsround messageboard.
- A premoderated area for younger teens will be run on Onion Street
- A premoderated area for older teens and young adults who wish to talk about the conflict will be run on the One Life board
- The question of what happens to hidden posts once the conflict is deemed to have finished has been raised, but I have not yet found an answer.
- The policy on comments in nicknames was initially unclear, but has now been updated.
Arguments in Favour of the Policy
The BBC must ensure a "balanced and informed" debate.
This is the first reason given in the official statements, and revolves around the respected position that the BBC's reporting is held in - and we must not forget that they are funded and closely constrained by the UK government. They therefore wish all debates held on their servers to uphold their neutrality.
Counter-argument: If all users were allowed to post their own views (as long as they did not break the permanent House Rules), the resulting discussion would reflect as balanced a set of opinions as the researchers involved in it. Or, as Peregrine put it*:
Are you suggesting that, because the majority of posters to this site do not subscribe to the idea that War is justified in the present circumstances, the BBC should do away with their comments until such times as enough pro-War subscribers have found to balance the budget ? I fear you will be waiting a long time, old bean.
With respect to the "informed" part, it has been pointed out that this is actually harder elsewhere, due to the differences between h2g2 and other boards - for details, see the "technical" argument against, below.
It allows the BBC to concentrate its moderation resources.
The current situation is obviously going to lead to a lot of strong feelings, which will result in a large number of discussions with a high potential for antisocial behaviour. Since there are only a finite number of moderators, they would have a very hard job trying to keep the potentially huge number of discussions all in line. Therefore, the BBC has attempted to reduce their workload to manageable levels by limiting where this particular topic can be discussed.
Counter-argument: For the last few months, h2g2 has successfully been operating under a peer-based "Reactive Moderation" system, whereby the moderators only see those posts that are flagged up by complaints from other Researchers. This places most of the extra work involved in heated discussions on the participants in those discussions themselves, who will be reading them anyway.
Defence: Firstly, there are still likely to be more posts requiring the attention of the moderators than at other times. Secondly, such self-policing would be less likely to pick up on certain types of posts which the BBC would not want to be found hosting - see the next argument.
Alternate counter-argument: Many people do not see themselves as users of the BBC's services, but as users of h2g2, and thus see the offer to go elsewhere as missing the point. See the arguments against below for more details.
The BBC does not wish to publish illegal or inflammatory material.
In the extreme situation in which we now find ourselves, there is a very real risk that people will use any public forum to distribute information or views which are ill-thought out, malicious or dangerous. The BBC do not want to even unintentionally be the carrier of such information or opinion, and therefore wish to be extra vigilant due to this increased risk. As the guidelines state:
It's important that rumours and viral propaganda, such as those circulated by email, are not published on any BBCi Community. We will remove anything that appears to be propaganda or false rumour.
Counter-argument: Although the BBC is hosting this site, it is the researchers who are writing the posts, of whatever form, as is stated in the disclaimer on each page. Subcom. Deidzoeb summed it up thus:
Even in the worst case scenario that you painted, Otto, that someone was inspired to violence based on discussions from h2g2 (which could happen anytime even when wars aren't happening), or inspired to believe lies about a person based on discussions from h2g2, no reasonable person would blame the BBC or h2g2. We would blame the people naively accepting unsupported rumors or blame people who actually torched McDonalds, whatever violence they might be inspired to.
Defence: Sadly, not everybody is reasonable about such things, and many parts of the press and legal systems of the world do not yet understand who to give responsibility for such actions. The BBC could very easily find itself being condemned simply for failing to prevent a particularly nasty comment appearing. Otto Fisch pointed out that this has recently happened over the "publishing" of gagged information on the Celebdaq message board. Later in the same post, he predicted the potential consequences:
Even if the worst case scenario doesn't come to pass, imagine the headlines if some really unsuitable content gets in under the radar.
"BBC publishes race hate rant"
"Traitor BBC publishes attack on our boys"
"Mina ate my hamster"
and so on.
It will make for a more inclusive debate
It will also ensure that users can easily find other people interested in debating the same subject.
Counter-argument: In his letter of complaint, Dogster suggested:
Providing a link to the "Great Debate" page is helpful, forcing people to use it is not. To suggest that this censorship is actually in our benefit is insulting.
This is not what h2g2 is for
Folks...H2G2 was not designed to be a political forum....as a matter of fact, quite the opposite. It is an informational guide. Nothing more and nothing less.(oh, and with a touch of humour to take away the blandness )
When politics get hot, it shuts down the debate...as it should.
Politics really have no place here. That is the job of political websites.
Counter-argument: six7s replied:
The threads are intended to be 'permanent' with each and every post dated
As time passes, they might well be regarded as a dynamic time capsule recording the thoughts and feelings of a diverse range of (predominantly English speaking) people throughout the world
Gaping holes appearing at key points in our history will undermine hootoo as the resource it would otherwise be
Arguments against the Policy
This is Censorship / a curtailment of our Freedom of Speech
This is probably the idea that has got people the most upset, but also perhaps the most abstract. Essentially, people feel that they are not being allowed to express their own views. Some think this is because they may be too contraversial, or even because the BBC is in league with those in government[s] who support war.
Counter-arguments: Firstly, the BBC has not banned postings on one side of the argument, but on the conflict in general - and are therefore passing no judgement on people's views. Secondly, the BBC has not banned discussion of the topic completely, but confined it to certain areas of their site. Finally, we should be thankful we at least have some freedom, unlike those in other parts of the world.
Defence: The first point is only true to the extent that the postings being denied would have been balanced, and to the extent that they would have been balanced in the same way as information in the rest of the media. That is, if you ban the source of one side of a debate from having that debate, you are left only with one half of the debate.*
The second point is best answered with the "community" argument below. The third modifies only the importance of the debate, not the underlying question.
The BBC has misunderstood the concept of h2g2 as a community
At the bottom of each page, there is a statement that h2g2 is "Powered by DNA, the BBC's community website engine". However, the official policy is that we leave this community to somewhere else on BBCi if we want to debate the current situation. Some of us have been here since before the BBC took over h2g2, and many are probably only marginally aware that they are BBCi users, rather than h2g2 ones. Generally, people use h2g2 because they like it here, and like the kind of conversation that goes on here. Sprout, Jim Lynn, and Frankie Roberto all used a similar analogy - here's Frankie's take on it:
I understand that the policy decision is one about containment and practical use of resources, but from a community point of view, it sucks. It's the equivilent of forcing groups of friends having lots of different discussions in their own, local, friendly pubs, and forcing them all into one big echoey meeting hall where they don't know each other, the format is different, and there's suddenly a huge audience.
Furthermore, some people have pointed out that they do not want to participate in threads specifically devoted to political debate, but merely want to carry on discussing "Life, the Universe and Everything" with their friends - including the rather important current affairs that deeply affect us all. For example, kea mused:
but actually i don't really want to be in a specific war discussion. i want to be able to discuss whatever is relevant within *this* community, including mentioning the war, as i go about my general conversations on h2. the war is being discussed in many places here, not just in the iraq thread etc. i won't be able to do this now. i'm thinking about other contexts that the war comes up in, as well as specific researchers i might be conversing with who won't be on the debate boards either.
The other message-boards are technically inferior to DNA
As well as its sense of community, h2g2 is attractive to its users because it is a very well-run site, and offers very usable facilities, such as the "My Conversations" system and the clear layout of the threads themselves. In contrast, the "Great Debate" board offered as a substitute is nothing special at best - with complaints including the slow speed of the servers and the lack of placeholder for removed posts. Sprout again:
The message boards are clunky steam-powered technology. I think I can safely say that if Hootoo was like a message board, I would never have got addicted to Hootoo.
One specific attribute of this board which deserves special mention is that it is only "open" during certain times - postings being hidden while the moderators get some hard-earned sleep. This severely limits its usefulness to those who are not online at these times - such as those in timezones more than a couple of hours to either side of GMT. Such users would be able only to read the day's backlog, make a comment, and hope not too many people simulposted before it appeared the next morning. In contrast, h2g2 has proved very inclusive of international users, and this is part of what makes it such a great platform for debate.
[Please note that I haven't actually read all of these, but you may want to]
- The Official h2g2 Policy
- An Article on Freedom of Speech written by Otto Fisch, some time ago
- Dogster's Letter to the BBC
- Spook's Petition Against the Policy
- Peregrine's Comment on "BBC Censorship"
There is much more that has been said that should be put here, potentially including whole unmentioned arguments or counter-arguments. So far, I have only fully read the h2g2 Announcement of the Policy's Implementation, and those threads attached to the policy itself. I intend to catch up on the other major threads, but may well miss points from those "off the beaten track". At the next update, I hope to include a list of conversations trawled and to-be-trawled. I also intend to include a section on suggested solutions - including collecting the various alternative forums and means of feedback to which links have been posted.
However, this has taken me several hours to compile already, and is merely displacement activity for the revision I should be doing. I am toying with the idea of allowing this article to be directly edited by any Researcher in some way, but until I do so, I would greatly appreciate specific and clear instructions for what needs adding / changing.
Thank you for reading (or, at least, skimming ),