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Blogging and basic ethics

April 9, 2010

Blogging-about-blogging is often annoying to read. It is also a drag to write. But sometimes it needs to be done. Please bear with me as I point to an important concern.

It is probably no secret that in some respects there exists a sort of ongoing blog “spat” between this blog and another Catholic group blog that is politically and theologically “conservative.” As much as one might like to wish that such rivalries did not exist, it is simply the case that this blog was founded quite deliberately in response to the emergence of this blog, taking cues from Vox Nova’s style (right down to the very WordPress theme!) and tending toward direct commentary in response to our posts. Which is fine. We intended from the start that Vox Nova would generate conversation and that it would provoke strong feelings in what is largely a community of religious bloggers dominated by right-wing views. And if anything, despite my own regular irritation with the views and the blogging style of these folks, I truly believe that imitation is the best form of flattery.

But I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between the two blogs has gotten ugly. Which is why I was strongly in favor of issuing an apology for any ways in which this blog has contributed to scandalous and abusive exchanges among members of the Body of Christ. Indeed, I ended up being the one to draft that apology. One commitment that we made at that time — reluctantly, for various reasons — was to moderate the comments at this blog in order to weed out problems before they started. This has since taken the form of simply not approving comments or of editing comments by removing irrelevant or insulting portions. A large percentage of comments are approved. Of the “problematic” comments, most are simply unapproved and only a few are edited.

As could have been predicted, the blog mentioned earlier responded by increasing its own tendency to moderate comments, especially those left by writers from this blog. This is certainly their prerogative. It seems obvious to me why some of our comments are not welcome there, especially when we point out that some of their contributors promote ideas that seem quite contrary to the faith and to human flourishing.

It is, however, an entirely different matter when comments are deleted and manipulated in order to distort the conversations that take place or to show a commenter in a bad light. This is a regular occurrence on the blog in question. It often takes the form of deleting a reader’s comment and then replying to the deleted comment by saying something like “We will not tolerate your insults” when no such “insult” ever took place.

The ethical problems with such fabrications should be obvious, but astonishingly the fabrications not only continue, but worsen. Tonight I left a comment commending one of this blog’s new writers for the new perspective he was bringing to the blog. In response, someone at the blog (obviously, I don’t know who) removed the words from my comment and inserted entirely new ones, in a sort of parody of my own views. Here is a screenshot of that entirely fabricated comment. (A second entirely fabricated comment followed this one.)

On the one hand, the comment is just too cute. I’ve been around the Catholic barfosphere enough to have the kind of despisers who know how to get under my skin. Fair enough. In the context of the relationship between these two blogs, the joke is pretty funny. On the other hand, the editing of my comment — no, the complete fabrication of “my” comment — points to a real crossing of an ethical line. Considering the source, I’m not really surprised that this took place. But surely the people behind this blog have enough sense to know how profoundly unethical such tampering is? The potential fallout from the exposure of such comment fabrication — even though intended as a “harmless joke” — could be disastrous for them and for their reputations.

Our own Nate Wildermuth has initiated an important conversation about the possible “renewal” of the Catholic blogosphere. That conversation has included some interesting and challenging ideas about what constitutes “good” Catholic blogging. At the very least, it seems to me that “good” Catholic blogging requires at the start a commitment to a very basic sense of ethics. The deliberate fabrication of comments using their access to a reader’s WordPress account seems to me a pretty serious breach of any sensible ethical framework for blogging. The American Catholic owes an apology — not so much to me, but to their readers as a whole. For any trustworthiness or credibility whatsoever that the bloggers there once had has now been deeply called into question.

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27 Comments
  1. April 9, 2010 2:55 am

    I had a similar problem once with Vox Nova. A comment I left on a Vox Nova posting was responded to in an inflammatory way by the original Vox Nova author. I replied to the points made and, just before submitting the reply, happened to notice that the inflammatory remarks had been edited away. Had I not noticed this, my reply would have looked to readers like a sharp and pointed reply to nothing that had been said. I complained, got no response, and gave up commenting on anything on Vox Nova for some time.

    I thoroughly agree that comments should never be edited (or if so, the original text left in place).

    And after some long thought, I think I am coming around to the belief that the current form of blogging that is so commonly used in a very large number of all kinds of controversial blogs (an original post, followed by a stream of comments) is very close to being almost entirely useless. A dialog is needed, and the most obvious way of doing this is with a debate between two sides, guided by a moderator. E.g. a series of postings by alternate sides to an issue, with the moderator guiding as to what questions one side or the other ought to be responding to. Others could freely comment, but the moderator would be the one choosing how to guide the main dialog.

    • April 9, 2010 3:09 am

      Paul,

      There is a difference between the creation of new comments in the name of a person who wrote a comment, and editing out something offensive — especially if there are marks in the comment which indicate it has been edited.

  2. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 9, 2010 4:01 am

    No, you’ve never insulted us.

    You didn’t call us “death-worshiping Christofacists” in a recent comment. We all hallucinated that.

    I’m sure this comment will never make it past moderation, but it is you who owes us an apology.

    As for the “editing”, it was a joke. Get over it.

  3. Craig permalink
    April 9, 2010 6:19 am

    Meh. Why assume Vox Nova readers necessarily care about some other blog? The only times I have read it were the first few times I was directed there by VN. Like Mom said, just ignore them.

  4. Nate Wildermuth permalink
    April 9, 2010 9:21 am

    I’ve never seen anyone edit a comment in order to create an entirely new comment. Even for a joke, it does cross the line.

    It reminds me of the practice of intentionally taking quotes out of context in order to slander someone. Yet it goes further. Imagine if CGI were used to simply put words in people’s mouths – words they had never spoken. What if the Daily Show did that, making Cheney confess his crimes of torture. It might start as a joke, then spread to Youtube, then convince millions.

    In satire, there is often a lot of room for crossing lines, and it is hard to know where to stop until you’ve probably already crossed it. I agree that an apology is probably needed, not simply to point out poor judgment and to reconcile with M.I., but also to bring this problem of WordPress’s comment-editing features into the light. This feature probably should not exist. It’s too much power.

    On the other hand, here’s some good satire which I enjoyed greatly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hdn_AAKusl8

  5. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 9:56 am

    We hear a lot from “conservative” Catholics about intrinsic evil. To falsify a message under another person’s name is a lie, and lies are intrinsically evil.

  6. Dan permalink
    April 9, 2010 10:28 am

    Why bother now with the other blog? “…lead us into temptation…”

    Walk away from it…turn the other cheek and move on. There is so much more to be done in the world, so much more to discuss and learn. If the American Catholic behaves in such a way, what more can you do?

    Ok, you tried to discuss, but at this time it has proven fruitless, so move on…there are other missions in life.

  7. April 9, 2010 11:03 am

    Joe – I have indeed insulted you and your co-bloggers before. I never claimed otherwise. I have said in my own posts at VN that some of you “worship death” and that you are christofascists. In the case of the recent comment you mentioned, if I recall correctly I was referring to some of the commenters your blog attracts, especially some in that particular thread who celebrate the murder of “terrorists.”

    So you may count this as yet another example of your dishonesty and your inability to tell the whole story. That, plus your “you insulted me first” nonsense shows the kind of thing we are dealing with here.

  8. April 9, 2010 1:29 pm

    Henry Karlson: “There is a difference between the creation of new comments in the name of a person who wrote a comment, and editing out something offensive..

    Agreed. But which is more problematic depends on the precise details of individual cases.

    Henry Karlson: “..especially if there are marks in the comment which indicate it has been edited

    Any editing of comments has to be done with extreme caution, and I think it would be necessary to make it very obvious that something has been edited, with some stated reason attached as to what kind of material has been taken out. (Otherwise, as I said before, all subsequent comments may look as though they were bizarrely replying to something that had never been said.)

    Looking at Vox Nova’s commenting policy, I note that it gives the original poster permission to edit any comment, with no necessity of indicating what has been removed or why.

    The comment on American Catholic was way out of line, and plainly out of step with their own comment policy. (Because of how WordPress works, I would guess that it was either the original poster, or perhaps someone else with the rights to edit comments, who created the comment.) Someone at American Catholic should be apologizing and — in line with their own policy — be having all their comments moderated.

    • April 9, 2010 1:34 pm

      Looking at Vox Nova’s commenting policy, I note that it gives the original poster permission to edit any comment, with no necessity of indicating what has been removed or why.

      I believe insertion of ellipses is pretty standard at this blog when text has been deleted from comments. Sometimes this is accompanied by an explanation, sometimes not. Sometimes lengthy explanations of deletions is distracting and become themselves topics of conversation which is not desirable. Usually the reasons why a comment has been moderated are discernible, at least generally, from the rest of our comment policy.

  9. digbydolben permalink
    April 9, 2010 1:39 pm

    Some of my comments have been edited by Vox Nova, and, in retrospect, I’ve never had a problem with those editings, because what was important and useful was left in, and what was rash and over-heated was left out; in fact, the editing made me look more serious and more responsible.

    And one look at Joe Hargrave’s comment here made me never want to go over and read his stuff. I’d say you folks at Vox Nova don’t have a serious competitor in him or his crowd.

  10. April 9, 2010 1:40 pm

    David Nickol: “We hear a lot from “conservative” Catholics about intrinsic evil. To falsify a message under another person’s name is a lie, and lies are intrinsically evil.

    No. From the Catechism: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” Merely uttering a falsehood is not an intrinsic evil. For example, if someone utters a falsehood with the intention of making fun of someone, that does not qualify as a lie — though it might qualify as wrong for other reasons.

  11. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 2:51 pm

    Paul,

    I would agree that telling a joke that everybody understands is a joke is not a lie. But I am not sure falsifying a message on a message board qualifies as a joke everyone will get. First of all, those in control of a blog like that one should be well aware that readers come and go, and what may be an obvious joke to regular readers may actually deceive people who are not regular readers.

    Second, I would say that the Catechism does not cover the topic in depth. Posting a message under another person’s name on a blog such as this one is an offense against the truth, even if it isn’t a lie by the Catechism’s definition. It is an offense against the truth because from the moment it happens, what appears under anyone else’s name is now questionable.

    It is also a violation of trust. When we sign on to a message board under our own names, we have a right to assume no one else will falsely use or log-in, even for jokes.

  12. April 9, 2010 2:56 pm

    Michael Iafrate: “I believe insertion of ellipses is pretty standard at this blog when text has been deleted from comments.

    However, that doesn’t always happen. And it’s not a policy.

    I think it’s unfortunate that you framed your post as a complaint against all the posters at American Catholic. It seems likely that only one of them did it, without the knowledge of the others. Why use a justifiable complaint against an individual as the basis for a complaint against a whole class of people? (You seem to be resisting the idea that possible occasional problems of individual posters at Vox Nova say anything about Vox Nova as a whole. Perhaps the same applies to American Catholic?)

  13. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 2:58 pm

    Just an additional thought. Even obvious jokes can undermine the truth. For example, the repeated lampooning of Gerald Ford as a dim-witted klutz on Saturday Night Live left a lot of people with the impression that Ford really was clumsy and not very bright. Neither was true.

    it seems to me that a lie, strictly defined, is one of only many offenses against the truth. I don’t really much care for the concept of intrinsic evil, but I would think that a case can be made that any offense against the truth is intrinsically evil.

  14. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:09 pm

    A couple of things.

    Paul says:

    “A dialog is needed, and the most obvious way of doing this is with a debate between two sides, guided by a moderator.”

    We’ve been having one without a moderator. Myself, Darwin, Chris B. and Nate have been discussing a wide range of theological topics between the four of us on both blogs. It’s been fruitful and civil.

    This is not about TAC versus VN. I know some people want to make it that, but it isn’t. This is about one person’s never-ending campaign of insults.

    That said, we have decided to apologize for what was done. Nothing malicious was really intended by it, and even Michael says he thought it was funny.

    But for what it is worth, we are sorry for that, and will say so on the blog in a while. It was a prank taken too far.

    Finally:

    The language Michael used could have easily implied that it is both posters AND contributors who, because of their “death worshiping Christo-fascism”, are attracted to TAC, which is apparently a “death-worshiping Christo-fascist blog.”

    So, he’s not being entirely truthful about his own words. But let’s say he really did only mean the posters are “death worshiping Christo-fascists” – if we “attract them”, what does that make us?

    Will there be an apology for that? Or are you all cool with that?

  15. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:19 pm

    I’ll also add, by the way, that we elevate regular comment box posters to blog status – such as the recently added Michael Denton.

    So as far as I am concerned, an attack against our regular commenters, who have proven themselves through repeated comments and not been placed on moderation, and who are regularly considered for invitation to the blog, is an attack on all of us.

  16. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:20 pm

    Catechism paragraph 2481

    Boasting or bragging is an offense against truth. So is irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior.

  17. Pinky permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:20 pm

    “what may be an obvious joke to regular readers may actually deceive people who are not regular readers”

    But it wouldn’t mean anything to non-regulars. It isn’t like any of our names carry weight outside three or four blogs.

  18. April 9, 2010 3:49 pm

    David, I think everyone agrees it was a breach of basic blogging etiquette, and notes were added to the comments as soon as the author of the post was aware of it to make sure there was no confusion.

    I very much object to Michael’s description of this above as a dispute between blogs, as opposed to a dispute between Michael I. and Joe. No one else supported Joe’s actions, and I would not impute Michael’s accusations of ‘christofascism’ or ‘death worshipping’ to anyone else here.

    • April 9, 2010 3:59 pm

      I very much object to Michael’s description of this above as a dispute between blogs, as opposed to a dispute between Michael I. and Joe.

      I did not know that Joe was the one who did it until you told me in a private email.

  19. David Nickol permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:57 pm

    But it wouldn’t mean anything to non-regulars. It isn’t like any of our names carry weight outside three or four blogs.

    First, Michael Iafrate is a household name. Second, everything written on Vox Nova and The American Catholic is indexed and searchable on Google. When I am researching a particular topic, it is not unusual for me to come across blog messages on Vox Nova or Commonweal or personal blogs (e.g., Zippy Catholic). Catholic Answers comes up a lot. Someone who reads something that Michael wrote might also Google his name and come upon a bogus message.

    Just as an aside, whether deliberately or because of a glitch in the dotCommonweal software, several commenters recently have logged on giving their names as “Anonymous.” Readers of dotCommonweal can see the commenter’s e-mail address. I Googled the e-mail address of one of the Anonymous commenters and the first hit had her full name, address, and phone number (it was a notice that her cat was missing). Another went directly to the person’s place of business, where he was featured prominently. If I remember correctly, there was even a photo.

    I had made an uncharitable remark about an author on dotCommonweal, and I received a personal e-mail from him taking offense.

    We’re all talking to each other now, and we’re all world famous (in a way) whether we think about it or not.

  20. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 9, 2010 4:09 pm

    Ok, let me explain something.

    Yes, I was the one who did it. But the idea for the joke didn’t come from me, it was kicked around by three or four of us. I just happened to be the one who carried it out.

    And we are all sorry for it.

  21. April 9, 2010 4:31 pm

    I’ve been reading vox nova for a while now without commenting, so I have some familiarity with Michael Iafrate’s generally insightful and provocative writing, but I must say that fake post is pretty funny. Perhaps we could all learn to gracefully take jokes that are made at our expense.

    I think GK Chesterton once quipped that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Food for thought…

    • April 9, 2010 4:33 pm

      I agree that the fake comment was funny. But there is a serious concern aside from that.

  22. April 9, 2010 7:24 pm

    Since so many of TAC’s contributors insisted that they were not responsible for what happened, I wonder how they feel that the author of this post does not take personal responsibility for what was done. An apology from the blog as a whole does not cut it in this instance. As DarwinCatholic pointed out in a recent post, all sin is personal. By their own word, they cannot apologize collectively.

    Their readers, myself among them, await a personal apology from the one person who tampered with my comment, and an apology that does not contain lies (such as the fallacious claim that I have called people “idiots” and “morons”) and blame-shifting.

  23. David Raber permalink
    April 10, 2010 9:10 am

    I see that somebody said the magic words, “We are . . . sorry.” (I hope the editing there is acceptable!) Now let the forgiveness happen, without too much niggling about not being sorry enough or whatever.

    “They will know we are Christians by our love,” the Bible sez, and there was no mention there about intellectual integrity or standing by our principals or exhibiting adequate moral indignation.

    And now someone needs to forgive me for pontificating.

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