Thursday, 22 December 2011

How to manage the agenda of a forum if you don’t own it: Discussing Israel.

The decision of Palestine to apply for membership of Unesco prompted a discussion entitled: "Why would/ should Palestine not request to be permenant member for UNO?" on the popular (150,000+ members) TED: Ideas Worth Spreading forum on

I decided to participate in this discussion with the aim of using the skills described in my first blog as cyberrhetoric to try to ensure that the discussion explored multiple perspectives on the Israel Palestine debate.  It is well known that Israel is expert in cyberwarfare and expends substantial resource in trying to manage its online profile. 

Getting involved in this discussion was like embarking in a major adventure without leaving my kitchen table.  Running to well over 1000 often lengthy posts, it remained one of the top discussions in the TED linkedin forum for over 2 months until it suddenly disappeared.  By the time it was deleted my understanding of Israel and Palestine had gone from being outdated and patchy to being comprehensive over history and shockingly (to me) far more aware of recent current events than the Western media seem to be.
The purpose of this blog is not to explore the content of that discussion, but instead to look at some of the battles I had to fight to try to ground it in multiple-perspective reality and also to remind readers of the importance of light, impartial and transparent moderation in forums.

The first, most shocking attack came when I had been contributing to the discussion for about a week and one of our home computers from which I had been posting suddenly ceased to operate.  When my husband managed to get it going (with the aid of a laptop which used the same Anti-virus software and a cable) his diagnostics told him that the machine had not been attacked by a virus.  Instead it showed a deep root drive error.  Asking around, a friend with relevant expertise suggested that this was not a normal problem and that it in fact indicated remote cyberwarfare – someone deliberately romotely accessing and trying to destroy this computer.  That friend suggested that I contact any other participants who were trying to defend a multi-perspective agenda and ask if they had also been targeted.  I contacted the other participant who was interested in multiple perspectives being heard and found that his computer had also failed at the same time and that it had cost him a substantial sum of money to get it fixed. 

This left us with the difficult question of whether to bring this issue into the conversation or to individually warn other participants who may be affected or to ignore it completely.  I opted for the second course of action which may well had dissuaded other participants who may have helped the quality of the discussion from participating in it.
While some participants with distinctly lopsided views of the conflict were interested in challenging discussion, others were interested only in eliminating me from the conversation in order to preserve their prior views intact.  Engagement with the former type of participant was extremely challenging but productive.  For example in discussion regarding the numbers of Israeli and Palestinian casualties in recent years, one disturbingly misrepresented statistics from a report by the UN offices which monitors thePalestinian Territories.  His doing so drew my attention to the credible and detailed reports of this office for the first time and I was rapidly able to present both more appropriate data from that office and to point out his inappropriate use of statistics.  I welcomed his evidenced based challenges to my assertions.  Sometimes his challenges were fair and I withdrew my assertion but on other occasions they drew attention to issues of the misrepresentation of the truth in a wide variety of sources.

Flawed though it is, it is difficult to describe the value and importance of Wikipedia in providing rapidly accessible, detailed, referenced and comprehensive information regarding issues from history which we could examine and criticise together.  What a step on from personal, unreferenced assertion this is and what incredible defence it provides against those who seek to defend an incorrect assertion in an area where I have no expertise.

While some participants with highly one sided views were interested in challenging debate and the pursuit of shared understanding, I mentioned previously that others were not.  One in particular kept referring to my ‘revisionist views’.  Since I had no idea what her ‘non-revisionist views’ were it was difficult not to be challenging to her (repeated questioning seemed to diagnose them as being that Israel and Palestine were empty places that Israel has populated and made civilised, extremely racist views about the Arabs and the perception that Israel was a good and philanthropic neighbour as a country in the Middle East, views supported by her surprisingly extensive studies of and qualifications in Middle East affairs).  She was clearly deeply threatened by the interest of others such as myself in examining the evidence and was very aggressive and antagonistic towards other participants.  It was interesting to notice how others, including myself, handled her with kid gloves – clearly being deliberately mild in our criticisms of her and being deliberately more challenging towards those who could absorb the criticism.  When one other participant did credibly challenge her authority on the subject this made her behaviour far more aggressive.  At one stage she revealed that she had written to one of my key employers to try and systematically discredit me.   I described my vulnerability to this kind of attack and asked her to withdraw this tactic but she showed no ability to empathise with me as an individual.  I also referenced the earlier apparent cyberwarfare at this point (which had by then been discussed at the prompt of the other victim), and she came up with an elaborate story whereby it hadn’t actually been cyberwarfare, it has been a virus triggered by a YouTube video I’d provided a link to which had caused her anti-virus software to display a virus alert.  I pointed out that this would be easy to verify – she just needed to re-open any videos I linked to in my posts in the first week of the conversation of which there would have been perhaps one or two, see which triggered the message and let me know so that I could check to see if opening it damaged my computer.  It would have taken her about 10 minutes at most.  She refused on the grounds she didn't have time but spent many more hours contributing to the conversation.  The only obvious conclusion was that her assertion was pure fantasy designed to discredit me – a conclusion made obvious by the details of posts she made on this topic.

I still don’t know why the conversation disappeared.  It wasn’t deleted by the person who started the conversation nor by a moderator of the group who I contacted.  I don’t know how many other moderators there are and I don’t know whether the conversation was deleted by one of them or by cyberwarfare.   TED’s terms and conditions are simply “TED reserves the right to remove any conversations, comments or content from the site, for any reason and without prior warning”.  The TED site makes it clear that it is fairlyeasy to become achieve rights and credibility within TED.  Given the cyberwarfare in evidence early in the discussion it seems quite plausible that someone wishing to sabotage the conversation simply worked on getting themselves moderator rights and deleted it when they had achieved that two months later.   Of course this is only speculation, but such speculation could be easily rebutted had TED appropriate policies in place regarding the deletion of content.

Key Learnings:

It is essential that forums are open regarding their policies for deleting content.   The deletion of the conversation destroyed its content and contradicted it’s status as an indicator of the power of online discussion to allow interested party to educate themselves.  A quick action of a moderator was far more powerful in silencing constructive discussion about Israel and Palestine than the previous cyberwarfare or the efforts of participants to prevent proper fair discussion.  TED needs to be clear about its reasons for deleting the discussion and managers should consider this example in their consideration of their future policy regarding the moderation of their forums. 
All organisation should be sure that they can properly justify the deletion of content on their forums when this takes place.

When contributing to an important conversation let the email notifications of posts store in the inbox of your email.  All credible discussion forums offer this facility now and it’s essential to store rather than delete those emails if you want a record of the conversation.  You just never know when it’s going to disappear.

Notes of the content of the conversation:

Although the key purpose of this blog is give insight into issues surrounding the management of online discussion rather than to explore the content of the particular discussion being analysed, I will here detail some of the content of the discussion so that it is available as a reference to any interested party.

I joined this conversation because I had an interest in diffusing anti-Arab racist views and in spreading awareness of some of the excellent projects which have built international understanding which transcends this conflict.  I had some experience of working in Jordan and of taking to soldiers who served in Palestine or knew others who had served there which caused me concerns which had been described by the Kosminsky drama  ‘The Promise’.  I have deep sympathy for the plights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians caught up in this conflict. 

During the discussion I discovered that the situation in Palestine is much worse than I had realised.
The key evidence source for this is the UN Office which monitors thePalestinian Territories.

I discovered the Geneva Accord and came to believe that its pursuit is the only route to an imminent agreement which is desperately needed.  

I also discovered the massive summer 2011 occupy protests inIsrael during which it seemed that younger generations were becoming aware of corruption among the Israeli elite. It was disturbing to see how the message presented by these protests was managed by military intervention and remained unreported in the West.
(2:54 is important – as is the end of this video:
We also explored the  history of Israel and  came to realised that Israel has never actually been invaded since the day it was created. Arab aggression was explored in the context of the actions of Israel which directly pre-dated each episode using resources such as this one:
The influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on the western perception of the Middle East was also explored and I found both its extent (as described here: and its direct and cumulative effects on historical events and on current western engagement with Iran shocking.

On the positive side I was inspired by the apparent support of the Israeli public for the Geneva accord and by the rise of the pro-Israel pro-peace movement.

I had not expected any of this when I got involved in the discussion. I remain convinced that such powerful discussion in such challenging circumstances would not have been possible without the disciplined application of the strategies for online conversation which I described in myfirst blog as cyberrhetoric.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Why are people so abusive on forums? - Forums which defend agendas.


This post is an attempt to give some insight into the behaviour of moderators and the experiences of participants in forums which are not lightly and impartially moderated due to the specific interests (usually commercial) of the organisations which own them. 

The insights conveyed here are all based on real conversations, but they are heavily disguised to preserve the anonymity of those who are helped me in this research.  Therefore I cannot offer a verifiable account.  Instead I offer observations and insights which others may or may not find useful.

What's the agenda?
You would have thought that if Al Jazeera could manage the appropriate light moderation of the comment streams on their websites, then anyone could.  So why don’t they?

The most obvious reason is that the discussions may serve a commercial purpose, such as direct sales of particular items.  I spoke at length with a former participant in a major forum where moderators hosted pools of participants, getting to know them in real life as well as through their participation in discussions. 
Moderators earned commission on products sold, so they were particularly keen to recruit participants who would buy items recommended and to dispatch those who questioned recommendations or suggested alternative products.  Unwanted participants were dispatched through a wide variety of tactics, from them being ignored or receiving only unfriendly replies through to systematic lies being spread about them to the easily led participants through the personal message system (to encourage mob bullying), bannings and the deletion of their comments.  

Sale of products is not the only commercial agenda which may drive abuse in forums.  Forums can be used to build traffic to a website which is commercially profitable in ways not directly associated with the content of the conversation on forums.  It is well known in many circles that some participants in forums are not authentic participants but are instead ‘trolls’, that is contrived participants who are there to provoke discussion.  It is generally thought that a highly antagonistic comment will attract both readership and comment to a forum and therefore to the website on which that forum is based.  

While there is clearly some truth in this, it is also clearly true that such provocation, when it is inauthentic and sustained, tends to alienate authentic participants who enjoy exploring a balance of views.  It is my observation that forums need a significant proportion of contributors who enjoy the exploration of multiple perspectives and who naturally adopt the kinds of behaviour I described in my first blog on this site to operate as non-abusive forums.  Where forums are maintaining a specific agenda such participants are not welcome as they naturally tend to explore and invite views which balance the views defended by the forum.

What are the consequences of a managed agenda?

If you get involved in a forum where people are posting unpleasant things about you which are not true it is natural to start to suspect that those people who are posting lies are deliberately involved in a conspiracy against you.  However it seems that in general many participants in abuse have no awareness that the things they are told about other participants are untrue (because they trust the person who is feeding them lies) and they feel they are simply responding to the situation ‘as it is’.  

I think it’s reasonable to suggest that being part of such a forum bears similarities to being part of a cult, most importantly in terms of the challenges participants face when they begin to become aware of the discrepancies between the way some participants are portrayed and the reality.  The stresses contributors endure as they encounter these tensions are substantially more difficult to overcome if both their online and offline social activities are with participants in the forum.  These issues are also complicated if the participant who is becoming aware of the behaviour of the forum has previously been involved in the abuse of other participants.  

It’s worth asking why people who become aware of the dynamics of forums don’t speak out.  That they may be ashamed of abuse they have been involved in themselves is one reason.  That they care about other participants and recognised the extent to which they are dependent on the forum is another and a third is that this issue is simply not yet understood by society – so it is difficult to make people understand what you are talking about.  To find evidence of them speaking out it's most productive to look in other forums, which reveal startling insights once you know what you're looking for.  If you're not concerned about a specific forum but want to explore this subject more generally, it's worth just asking around.  It's startling how many people have been involved in abusive forums. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind the extent to which the moderators, who could be blamed for the abuse, may also be trapped in the system.  They may be ‘overseen’ but managers who intervene to ensure they do not deviate from required behaviour and they may feel trapped and unable to improve or leave their employment by their financial obligations or other forces.  They are also likely to be aware of the rapidity with which people can be systematically discredited in cyberspace and be worried that this may happen to them if they speak out.


If forums are trying to maintain a specific agenda for the purposes of the organisation to which they belong they often become abusive.   The abuse of individuals may be deliberately organised by moderators or it may occur because participants who know how to create non-abusive conversations are excluded from the forum. 

A key symptom of this kind of behaviour existing on a forum is that there are extensive rules which are used against some contributors in ways which are clearly designed to dissuade those participants from contributing further to the forum (rather than to inform them as to how they could constructively participate in the forum) and are not applied to others. 

What next?

In future blogs I will attempt to explore;
- what happens when forces external to the organisation owning a forum seek to influence the views expressed on it 
- issues associated with moderators who exhibit inappropriate behaviour which is not directed by the organisation which owns the forum.
- the issue of anonymity and 
- steps organisations which have forums should take to ensure those forums are not abusive.