There aren’t really any formal rules regarding online debate or the ethics of blogging, although there are websites that advise on “netiquette” and a survey of bloggers found that: “Key issues in the blogosphere are telling the truth, accountability, minimizing harm and attribution, although the extent to which bloggers follow their own ethical ideals can depend on the context and intended audience. “
Some of the issues listed here are linked to the principles of netiquette: minimizing harm [e.g. respecting privacy or considering others’ feelings] is referred to in the news report of the survey, and the list of ‘rules’ for online interaction include an exhortation to “remember the person” (in which the question is asked “would you say it to the person’s face?”). Although there are no formal codes, regulations, or sanctions for bloggers there are unofficial “sanctions”. The news report of the survey of bloggers concludes:
bloggers profess that they value the principles and adhere to the practices explored in this study. Less ethical bloggers can also expect payback: the blogosphere is more interactive than traditional media, allowing instant and often vigorous feedback to bloggers that violate readers’ standards. This ‘sanction’ on unethical behaviour may replace the need for a formal blogging ethics code.
Regarding minimizing harm and considering the feelings of others: I’ve written before about anger in debating of health issues and I would hate to think that those arguing in favour of public health interventions or against alternative medicine would use similar tactics to – or be as aggressive as – those in the examples I used in my previous post. Unfortunately, there probably are examples of such overly-aggressive “sceptics”. Often, however, vitriol is apparently perceived when it is not present. Sceptics are frequently characterised as being unkind and I provided several examples of what I considered to be inappropriate use of the word “vitriol” in a previous blog post.
I noted that comments on blogs often cannot be deleted or edited by the author and decided not to provide named examples of blog commenters misusing the word (or to link to them). I felt it fairer to use the example of Patrick Holford, who claimed in a newsletter that a journalist had been “inaccurate and vitriolic”. While blog comments can be written in haste or in anger, one would perhaps expect a newsletter to better reflect the views of the author. Then again, one might expect a newsletter to be calmer and more polite than blog comments.
I hope that my position is clear. I dislike and disapprove of bullying, abuse or unnecessary unkindness, but I also feel that inappropriate claims of the use of vitriol are unfair and an unhelpful distraction. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with robust criticism, but I accept that there can perhaps be a fine line between robust comment and aggression. Polite and reasonable criticism is not just acceptable, it is (in my opinion) necessary and it may be the case that this criticism can sometimes be more effective if it is robust. Unfortunately, where it is perceived that criticism is aggressive rather than robust the criticism may have as adverse an effect on the critic as it does on the person whose views are subject to comment (if not more so). A concise comment on this is here: this page on Google Books has a heading “Caustic comment may cause Boomerang Effect”. Any criticism perceived as being overly negative, aggressive or unkind may have the opposite effect to that intended by the critic. Being abusive or attempting to cause offence goes beyond this, in my opinion, and is often rightly condemned.
When it comes to criticism, I would argue that no-one is exempt. It could be argued that individuals should be given more leeway than organisations, but I think that this would apply particularly to individuals who might be considered to be private rather than public figures (and, it could be argued, to individuals who are simply stating a point of view rather than attempting to gain some personal advantage). Those who vigorously promote themselves and/or their products could be considered to be a more legitimate target than those who are writing a blog that could be categorised as either a personal or non-personal blog – but the question of where one draws the line between “personal” and “non-personal” is not one I will attempt to answer here.
I would argue, though (and have before) that “It is easy to criticise the views of those we dislike or have little respect for. While criticising the dislikable or unrespectable may be fair, it could be argued that failing to criticise those we do like and respect may render our criticism of the former unfair as well as discriminatory.” I should add here that one thing I feel that this blog lacks is sufficient critical comment – I get relatively little feedback and the comments I do receive tend (if memory serves) either to be positive comment from fellow sceptics or abuse from those who disagree with my views (some examples of which are given in the side-bar on this website). While I do receive some constructive criticism, sometimes framed positively and sometimes framed negatively, I would welcome more of it. I should perhaps also attempt to be critical more often of those with whom I generally agree.
EDIT: I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic and there are issues around online discussion (and abuse) that I haven’t even touched on. For example, misogyny. The Guardian have just published online an article by Melissa McEwan in which she relates that most of her threatening hate mail comes from men. There is also a comment from an admin in this metafilter.com thread that includes the following: “when I don’t get respect from people, it’s usually in the form of email or throwaway comments and those comments are often oddly gender-directed”.
Something else I have failed to refer to is ‘groupthink’, which can lead to a lack of independent thinking – and perhaps also to an intolerance of the views of newcomers and those perceived as outsiders. People tend, whether on the internet or in ‘real life’, to seek out others who share their views (Homophily) and social psychologists have found that the views of people in groups can become more extreme. This page on Google Books has a reference to group polarisation as a shift of individual views to more extreme positions and Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality also makes reference to this phenomenon:
The individual conforms to the group, but something considerably surprising happens to the group as a whole. […] In practice, if the members’ attitudes are biased in one direction, simply by interacting together their attitudes become even more biased in the same direction.
Apparently, a study at Bennington College found that students there became more liberal the longer they stayed (the college is described as having a liberal ethos).