Bullard on blogging: How not to be civil online

The recent furore over online civility took a new twist with a seasoned journalist in South Africa attracting a lot of attention for comments he expressed in one of his columns. Name and shame offensive bloggers was perhaps intended to foment discussion on the issue, but the content & tone of the article rightfully attracted the derision of seasoned, serious bloggers. Not entirely sure how sentiments such as:

I do, however, object to some anonymous, scrofulous nerd pumping meaningless drivel into cyberspace at all hours of the day and night simply because he can’t find a girl to sleep with him. These are the sort of w ackos who gun down their fellow students at university. I visited a site the other day that was so hideously racist that it would have qualified its publisher for a long spell in prison if it had appeared in print.

add to any meaningful and progressive debate on the undeniable need to figure out mechanisms for germinating and strengthening civility & veracity online. It is however not a new debate for print journalists, and much of what I’ve done with media & peacebuilding, and the central challenge of Public Service Broadcasting, is also on how best to address head-on deeply divisive and emotive issues without exacerbating conflict and with a view to search for alternatives for violence. Contrary to that which is expressed by Bullard, but fully recognising the challenges of citizen journalism to foster progressive social debate, I’ve written two articles in particular (here and here) on how new media can at the same time promote social cohesion as well as hatred. The existence of one does not define or circumscribe the other.

Blogs are here to stay and while true that many of them are parochial and biased, this is precisely what they were originally intended as a technology to facilitate. It’s a struggle to use the same technology to adhere to “higher” standards that Bullard himself would do well to ascribe to, but efforts have and continue to be made. The Liverpool ODR Forum’s Statement on Respectful Communication for example is one that strives to achieve what Bullard points to, but himself does not adhere to – respect and civility.

The responses to Bullard’s post are worth reading, if only for their own generalisations in attempting to prove Bullard wrong (which he is). Vincent Maher’s response, which is compelling overall, nevertheless states that “At least blogs do not pretend to be authoritative.” My experience suggests the contrary – many do and determining the veracity of content on blogs, and citizen journalism in general, is a vexed and evolving debate. Pierre de Vos writes on these lines in his response here.

Clearly, though the issues that Bullard brings out are worth discussing further, the manner in which he does is a cogent example of how NOT to create progressive debates online.

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