Disruption: Mathew Ingram

Free speech is more important than internet trolls

Ingram photo for Walrus Talk

Mathew Ingram talked about the initial disruptive effect of the commenting section on news stories. He argued that, despite the way commenting has been corrupted and subverted by internet trolls, having open comments still an important way to engage with the audience and enable free speech.

He says the tool itself is not the problem. It’s our focus on the negative usage that needs to change.

You can listen to Ingram’s talk or read it below.

You can watch all The Walrus Talks speakers from this event here: The Walrus Talks Disruption on YouTube

Hi there, my name’s Matthew Ingram and I’d like to talk to you tonight about disruption in the media, the disruption of journalism and in fact the disruption of our entire information ecosystem.

Obviously that’s a pretty big topic given what’s been happening with newspapers dying, Facebook taking over advertising, Russian trolls weaponizing fake news and so on.

That’s what I’d like to talk to you about, but that’d take way more than seven minutes and I’m very conscious of the fact that Shelley will kill me if I go over my limit.

So, instead of doing that, I’d like to tell you a story. I worked at the Globe and Mail around the turn of the century, Globe and Mail’s a big newspaper based in Toronto.

Around the turn of the century, that was the most recent century, and that was right after the newspaper launched a realtime news website, which was a big deal.

One of things we did was to add the ability for readers to add comments on news articles, that seems kind of antiquated, like I’m talking about when the telephone was invented or something, but it was kind of a big deal at the time.

As far as we know we were the first newspaper in North America to do that and to be honest it was kind of a shock to the system.

Anyway, one of the first comments we got was on a news story about a bridge that collapsed in Quebec, and this reader said that he was an engineer who had worked on bridges and road construction in Quebec, and it was common for people to add salt to the concrete mix so that it wouldn’t freeze in the winter.

The only problem was that the salt eventually ate into the rebar and things would collapse. That was probably one of the most useful pieces of information we could ever have gotten about that story at the time.

And it was someone who just volunteered it on the internet. Before the internet, someone would have spent—probably me—would have had to spend days or even weeks trying to find structural engineers who’d worked in Quebec, trying to find the person with the right piece of information.

So, at this point, I’m feeling all optimistic about how great this internet thing is for journalism, and then just a few days later we got another comment. It was on a story about Simon Wiesenthal the Nazi hunter who had just died, and this anonymous person said basically who cares about Simon Wiesenthal, all he cared about was the Jews, and besides, the Holocaust probably never happened anyway.

I think you can figure out how the rest of that comment went. Within a week or two, we had seen both the best the internet could offer and the worst that it could offer and in a way, everything I’ve seen since then with a few exceptions has been on a continuum between those two points.

As it turns out, giving everyone on the planet a megaphone with which they can make their thoughts known to everyone around them has a down side.

Who would have expected? And I think we’ve seen lately a lot of the worst of that spectrum. Thanks in part to the fact that the President of the United States is a giant troll and has given… The troll in chief, I like to call him.

And has given a lot of people the freedom to feel like they can also say hateful things. This is called shifting the Overton Window, if you’re a sociologist, in other words making behavior that was once unacceptable seem acceptable.

In a lot of ways, I think the past decade has been a process of shifting certainly for me, from what was initially a really sort of Polly-Anna-ish view of what the internet could enable and now the pendulum has swung until it’s almost all the bad things that we’re focusing on, social media can do or the internet.

Whether it’s hate speech or harassment, and I don’t wanna minimize those things, but I think it’s important to say that I believe that the truth or reality exists somewhere between those two extremes.

So, for every Russian troll farm that uses Facebook and Twitter to spread misinformation about Hillary Clinton in an attempt to swing the election to something like the Black Lives Matter movement which I hope has opened a lot of people’s eyes to the reality of what it’s like to be a black person in the US right now. And in particular systemic racism on the part of the police and other government agencies.

Or take the #MeToo movement. That’s helped a lot of women tell their stories, and in some cases even get justice and it’s exposed a culture of harassment and abuse that has been largely hidden for decades.

Things like that I think have to count as a win, or at least a partial win for the internet. So the same tools that allow trolls to harass people also allow protesters in Egypt and Iran and so on to tell their stories themselves instead of waiting for some Western journalist to do it for them.

And in fact Myanmar is a great example of both the good and the bad of the internet. Facebook in particular has been weaponized there against the Rohingya Muslims who’ve been driven from their homes, tortured and in some cases killed, and yet the same tools have allowed us to see and hear about that kind of disaster a lot faster, instead of years later when someone decides to write a book.

I’m not trying to downplay the bad that’s done with the internet, but I would like us to keep in mind the good that it can do as well.

When old things like newspapers die, sometimes new and better things are born and it’s fine to mourn the dead things, but I also think it’s good to look for and celebrate the new things that are working as well.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Thank you very much.

Mathew Ingram
Mathew Ingram is an award-winning journalist and media consultant who has spent the past two decades writing about business, technology, and new media as well as advising companies on their digital and social-media strategies. He is currently the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review and prior to that was a senior writer with Fortune magazine, where he wrote about the evolution of media and web culture. Matthew spent fifteen years as a reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail.