Scottish political blogs under the microscope

It has been an unusual few weeks in the Scottish political blogosphere. Already, a number of bloggers had apparently lost motivation and were openly wondering if they should continue. Since then, a number of blogs have closed down, apparently due to external pressures.

Firstly, Wardog was closed down after journalists from a number of major newspapers sought to write stories about it. The angle was that the blog was pretty close to the bone and potentially offensive. Was it acceptable behaviour for an employee of a university?

Then, the author of the Universality of Cheese was “outed” as Michael Russell’s office manager. Mark MacLachlan had to close down his blog and quit his job. The added twist to the story was that Michael Russell, an SNP Government minister, has been a major advocate of new media such as blogging within the Scottish Government. It remains to be seen if this scandal has an adverse impact on the admirable aim of using new web technologies in government.

At the weekend, Subrosa opted to close her blog, apparently out of fear that she was going to be “outed” as well. As the weekend passed and the Sunday newspapers were published without event, the blog has since re-opened.

[Update: Please see Subrosa’s comment below for a clarification on the information in the above paragraph.]

The author of Advanced Media Watch appears to have decided to keep his blog closed. Meanwhile, even Scotland’s top SNP blogger, Jeff Breslin of SNP Tactical Voting, was also involved in a minor stooshie.

I have seen it written by more than one person that it feels as though the Scottish blogosphere is “under attack”. Maybe under attack is putting it too strongly, but certainly some big giants are peering into this particular goldfish bowl just now.

There have been some interesting articles about the blogosphere by journalists lately. Iain Macwhirter has waded in once again, with a rather sensible analysis. Joan McAlpine also penned this interesting take on Scottish political blogging.

But as far as the scandal goes, it appears as though not all blogs are affected. It is a sub-set of blogs. The common thread is easy to spot. All of the bloggers involved are SNP supporters.

There are two possible theories as to why. One explanation — the one favoured by nationalists — that the “Labour establishment” in the Scottish media has stitched them up.

More likely is the idea that this is an effect of the “cybernat” phenomenon. Some of the bloggers who have been put under the microscope over the past few weeks could not be compared with the cybernats. But some were worse than others, and certainly one or two of them sailed too close to the wind.

Those who sailed the closest had to shut their blogs down. I felt that some of these blogs, in their better moments, were lacking in rigour. In their worst moments… well, the news reports have let you know about that. I should point out that this description by no means applies to all of the blogs that have been caught up in the recent fracas.

There may be a temptation among some to put this down to the fact that bloggers can be anonymous. That was certainly the conclusion of Iain Macwhirter. However, the cybernat phenomenon does not have much to do with anonymity (although that is an aspect of it, and apparently sock puppet accounts are rife).

But the fact is that the person who ran Wardog, the first blog to take a hit, was not anonymous. His name was displayed on his blog, in addition to his occupation and the fact that he was a lecturer! Clearly he was not ashamed of the way he presented his opinions, even if he had to relent when challenged about it. Nor is Jeff at SNP Tactical Voting anonymous (although it is totally unfair to compare his rather minor incident with the closures of the other blogs).

There is no doubt that the ability to be anonymous on the internet is abused by many, including a high proportion of cybernats. But there can be sound reasons for wanting to be anonymous. There may be those whose blogs are innocuous, but who prefer to remain anonymous in case it upsets their employer or someone close to them.

Others may blog anonymously as whistle-blowers of a sort. Think of PC David Copperfield or Civil Serf. A different set may like to blog for entertainment, but prefer to keep their privacy, like Abby Lee / Zoe Margolis or Belle de Jour.

The problem that has hit the Scottish blogosphere in the shape of cybernats is not as a result of anonymity. The problem is the fact that some SNP activists just get too excited for their own good. SNP activists in general are known for being particularly boisterous, excitable and even aggressive. On the internet, some become absolutely feral.

As I have said before, I have absolutely no doubt that the cybernats are a very small minority of SNP activists. It is a tiny proportion who get a bit too excited and don’t properly think through the consequences of their actions. It goes without saying that some of Scotland’s best and most clear-thinking bloggers are SNP supporters.

But the cybernat issue has bubbled under for too long. For a couple of years the phenomenon has been doing the SNP a great deal of damage in terms of its image. Perhaps it was easily dismissed as the hidden nocturnal ramblings of a small few in the comments section of a dying newspaper’s website. Maybe blogging was not mainstream enough for it to concern them.

It’s different when Sunday newspapers start to take notice and write articles about it though. And not just a one-off — a sustained burst targeting multiple blogs.

Now it is said that Alex Salmond has asked SNP activists to shape up and play nicely online. You just wonder why he hasn’t done it before now, when it was too late.

While some seem to believe that the Scottish political blogosphere is “under attack”, and that this can only be a bad thing, the truth is more nuanced than that. This is an overdue weeding-out of the dreg-ends of the gutter of the blogosphere.

Bloggers should take this not as a threat. It is a warning, but also an opportunity. As Will Patterson says:

…we can raise our game, answer the charges with the positive, celebrate the good things we get up to and in so doing, make the critics look like muppets, simply by proving them wrong.

Or, as someone else put it to me, the blogosphere will be “leaner, cleaner and keener” from now on. It is all about bloggers engaging their brains a bit more and becoming a more savvy about what they say and do. Overall, the blogosphere will be stronger in the end.

Other interesting takes

As you expect with a story about blogging, bloggers have been all over it. Here are some of my favourites:

12 comments

  1. If there is one subject that will get bloggers blogging it is blogging πŸ™‚

    Back in the day, we used to call it metablogging.

    Virtual attacks have been part of the internet for years – if you ever tried to have a discussion in a newsgroup, it would quickly descend into a bitch fight.

    The unique point about the round of Scottish Blogging incidents is the lack of anonymity on the part of the blogger. Whilst they might think that they can hide behind a nickname, once you have a blog, you can be traced in a way that an anonymous commentor or newsgroup poster could not.

    But to counter this, a blogger has (or should have) complete control as to what appears on their blog – a sensible comment policy and moderation of unsuitable comments .

    I totally agree with your summary “engaging their brains a bit more and becoming a more savvy about what they say and do”.

    Are you prepared to say in public, in your workplace etc what you are putting on your blog ?

  2. Stephen, I was not to be ‘outed’. What do you think there was to ‘out’ about me? I closed my blog on police advice because someone had given my name (which I don’t really mind because many already know it) but also my address and other details. My feeling was my family’s safety was under threat and the police asked me to close until they could begin investigations.

    Also I was sent emails from a person called ‘ali bannister’. The first two were strange but not in anyway offensive and the next three were distressing.

    I wrote my ‘re-opening’ post on Saturday but decided not to publish it until later on Sunday, the reason being I was stressed out and also needed to continue to reply to the hundreds of emails of support I received.

    I’m telling you this because it may helpful to others if they’re put in a similar situation.

    It’s my intention to continue in the way I do. I will not sit on fences if I feel strongly about a matter but I am prepared to discuss with all sides of the political spectrum.

    The older generation needs to be heard too. All too often we’re ignored because our views are thought as out-dated.

  3. Nice one Duncan, agree with most of your post and perhaps even all of it. Blogging about blogging does have an unseemly self-indulgence to it but it’s still interesting and it’s not like there’s too much other news out there.

    I really just wanted to commend you on your bravery in calling Cybernats ‘too excited for their own good’ and (the wonderfully diplomatic) ‘boisterous’.

    You’re right, as usual, but I just wonder if there be a storm a brewin’ once those excitable Nats get here!

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Subrosa, thanks for the clarifications. Apologies if I distressed you. It was not my intention. I have now amended the post to bring attention to your comment.

  5. I realise that Stephen. But to see my name included in the heading ‘scandal’ was a bit upsetting. Forgive me if you think I over-reacted. It’s been a strange week.

    I didn’t want to do a post about it myself because I consider the beings involved have had enough of my time.

  6. Subrosa, that’s fair enough. I can understand why you thought that, although I did say that not all of the blogs I mentioned could legitimately be put in that bracket.

  7. Personally I think Duncan has more right to be offended since he keeps getting called Stephen πŸ˜‰

  8. Don’t worry Jeff, I’m well used to it. πŸ™‚ This is what happens when you have a surname for a first name and a first name for a surname!