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September 22, 2005

Political blogging seminar preview (on the subject of potential abuse of your trust)

What follows is the section of the upcoming Westminster seminar that deals with potential abuse of your trust.

An important note on context:

This section is preceded by information about weblogs, how they work and what the advantages are (this includes the importance of funding/building the site yourself, a short section that also partially addresses the matter of party-interference).

This section is followed by a closing section (ahead of a final summary) about the risks you take by not engaging at all.

This is the most crucial aspect of the seminar, as it will drive many decisions (thus the need for context) but it is based largely on my own experiences and those of other bloggers such as Tom and Boris, so I'd welcome any thoughts, additions or feedback from anyone else who has been on the receiving-end.

(Note: All those attending this seminar will be given comprehensive handouts with the full text of the presentation - so while brevity is important, any important niggly bits can be included in this document, if not the presentation itself.)




* The most common pitfalls can be avoided by remembering these simple rules:
- Remember that you are an individual with your own views, but you are also an ambassador for your constituency, your party and your country
- Be consistent in your views where possible, but if you have to change your stance, be prepared to back this up with a logical argument
- Think before you post (or reply to a comment)
- Never publish anything on your website that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of a newspaper
- When in doubt, say nowt


Two-way communication

* Two-way communication must be allowed in order to:
- Establish actual communication (sounds obvious, butů)
- Become part of the online community
- Establish trust
- Earn those inbound links

* Two-way communication introduces the risk of:
- Comment/trackback spam
- Abusive/unsuitable comments/trackbacks
- Party-political harassment/attacks
- Trolls

Comment spam

* Idiots thinking they can promote their site by making generic comments complete with a link to,, etc.

* Inevitable, but can be minimised by using a robust blog format that allows for:
- Anti-spam blacklists
- Comment registration
- Identification of contributors by email address
- Identification of contributors by IP address
- Pre-publication vetting of comments

Trackback spam

* Similar to comment spam, but prompted by automated trackback 'pings'

* Harder to avoid, but can be minimised by using a robust blog format that allows for:
- Mass-deletion of offending trackbacks
- Closure of trackback on old/archived entries (the usual target for trackback spammers)

Unsuitable comments

* What to do about them:
- Delete offensive comments
- Edit otherwise-constructive comments that include unsuitable material

* Typically, outright abuse of your trust will not originate from ordinary members of the public

* Almost every complete dipstick you encounter will be a party activist posing as an ordinary member of the public - however...


Party-political attacks

* Spotting the difference between an ordinary member of the public, a general ditto-head and a party-political dipstick (and knowing when to say/do something about the latter) requires good judgement

* That same level of judgement is required to avoid posting material (or getting into arguments) that party-political dipsticks can use against you

* Generally, it pays to simply ignore/delete comments you heavily suspect of being a part of a party-political attack

- What will usually follow is a mindless bleat about the right to free speech, but:
- It's your website
- Party-political attacks like this disrupt your conversation with ordinary members of the public, and as such, they themselves are an assault on free speech


troll: One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a website, newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

* Delete and forget (ban if necessary)

* You cannot 'win' an argument with a troll, because an argument is what they seek

* The only winning move is not to play

Calm down, dear...

* A quick word regarding how freaked out you are right now:
- Over 270 comments were made regarding Boris Johnson's Liverpool adventure in October and the personal revelations that followed in November 2004
- Only 5 of them required deletion

Robust blog formats

* A good blog format allows you to:
- Set the blog up so comments are not published until you have read/approved them
- Set the blog up so regular/trusted contributors can post as they please, but new ones must be approved by you
- See all of the comments/trackbacks made recently, even if they are made on old posts
- Edit/moderate comments, only removing the offending text (and perhaps adding a polite reason why)
- Delete multiple comments/trackbacks from the same dipstick
- Ban the IP address of a persistent dipstick
- Introduce registration that requires contributors to give a valid email address before their comment is published/considered

* Blog formats that allow for the best control and moderation of comments and trackback include:
- Movable Type (Tom Watson, Boris Johnson, Bloggerheads)
- WordPress (Richard Allan)

* Solutions like are easier/cheaper, but only allow for individual deletion of comments (no moderation or mass-deletion) and have limited-to-no registration/vetting capabilities


Posted by timireland on September 22, 2005 12:39 PM in the category Education and Seminars


Not much to add although I'd be inclined to:

1. Touch on captcha under avoiding comment spam.

2. Cover some common blogging terminology - stuff like 'fisking', etc - maybe chuck in a glossary.

3. Cover some basic blog 'etiquette' under to-way communication - linking, blogrolls and, importantly, basic copyright/fair use. Can't have politicos getting sued, can we. You cover some of this when looking at editing/removing offensive comments where its usually better to add a note giving reasons for the edit/deletion to avoid the whole 'free speech' diatribe.

4. Under trolling, maybe something on being aware that certain topics can serve as flamebait and actually attract trolls - abortion, religion, etc - and need to be approached with caution.

Posted by: Unity at September 22, 2005 8:27 PM

On trolls. It may be different for local politicans, but the temptation is to label everyone who you disagree with as a troll. I don't think that's always the case, some people just like a good ruck. Its difficult to tell the difference but unless you've got really good reason I'd say that people should be given the benefit of the doubt. I'd ask them to think about their most "difficult" constituent and how they deal with that person. Are they banned from their surgery? Do they not allow them into public meetings they might hold? How do they manage the behaviour of those people when they start causing a nuisance? It may be that if you think about it in those terms your "troll" becomes easier to deal with.

Of course if they really are a troll then send in the billy goats.

The rest of it seems useful stuff, but don't go overboard on the pitfalls, sure they happen but you're trying to sell this idea to people who think they can handle robust debate!

Posted by: Andrew Brown at September 22, 2005 11:41 PM

Thanks, Unity:

1. Captcha might be worth mentioning, especially as now has this option.

2. A glossary is certainly a good idea, and it's been required for all past seminars on SEO.

3. I'd regard etitquette to be something that needs to be covered in full during training.

4. Let me ponder on this.

Cheers, Andrew:

"the temptation is to label everyone who you disagree with as a troll"

Not unlike the common assumption regarding unspoken political alliances. Perhaps another dramatic slide to follow:


Then this (including - with your kind permission - a version of your enlightening comparison):

* Trolls will be persistent and unreasonable because they are playing with you

* Some people will be persistent and unreasonable because they hold a grudge and/or can never admit that they're wrong

"Think about your most 'difficult' constituent and how you deal with that person. Are they banned from your surgeries? Do you not allow them into public meetings you might hold? How do they manage the behaviour of those people when they start causing a nuisance?" - Cllr Andrew Brown

Posted by: Manic at September 23, 2005 9:31 AM

Tim. Some excellent points. My two penn'orth:

1) I wouldn't totally agree with the advice to delete/ignore negative party political comments. For a start the two things are different. The policy that both Karen (http:/ and I use on our blogs is that political attacks are allowed, and we will usually respond to them. BUT they can't be anonymous. There must be a valid email address and real name.

The other thing (which we are about to add to our sites) is to publish a 'blogging policy' which makes clear what is and isn't acceptable. Once I've finished writing ours I am happy to share it.

2) The other reason that comment/trackback spam is particularly sensitive for politicians is not the ones you mention but the links to porn sites. This could potentially bring you up before either your own party's disciplinary procedures or the Standards Board. I wouldn't want to be the first person who has to be used as a 'test case'. Incidentally 20six (used by lots of councillors) is shortly to launch an upgraded platform with proper comment and trackback moderation.

Posted by: Stuart Bruce - PR Consultant at September 23, 2005 10:19 AM

Thanks, Stuart.

1) I agree entirely. This entry has been updated to read:

* Obvious or openly declared party-political comments should be allowed to stand 'as is' (and/or be challenged/addressed as such) as people will see them for what they are

* Generally, it pays to simply ignore/delete *anonymous* comments you heavily suspect of being a part of a party-political attack

2) a note on porn and an example URL has been added to the comment spam slide

Posted by: Manic at September 23, 2005 12:06 PM

Actually one point to note with awkward posters is that treating them as a human being and being 'firm but fair' can often pay dividends, not only in avoiding problems but in encouraging them to contribute something of value.

A while back I was a moderator on an fairly sizable and well-regarded IT forum - the main reason it was well regarded was that the core of its membership were based on a older and more mature crowd than many other forums which catered mainly for teenagers, and it drew a fair few IT pro's who were happy to share their experiences.

At one point we gained a new member who we knew from the outset to be a pretty notorious troll in other forums, from which he'd been banned - his main problem was really a tendancy to overreact to things and kick off flamewars, especially if he was posting late at night after an evening down the pub.

When he turned up on our forum, the mods had a private e-mail conflab to decide on how to approach him and took the view that despite his bad reputation we'd cut him a bit of slack as he'd caused us no problems but that we'd nicely let his know that while his reputatation had preceeded him, we would take him on a bit of trust and see how he got on - basically if he stuck by our rules, which were really only to treat others with a bit of basic courtesy and respect, then he was welcome and that we wouldn't hold anything that had happened elsewhere against him.

IIRC, in the following two years before I left the board due to other commitments, I think we had to nudge him two or three times at most to tone it down a little - we gave him a bit of respect he came to respond in kind and became a pretty valued member of the board over time - my point being that not all 'trolls' are wholly irredeemable if you can handle them properly - some genuinely have things they want to say which are worth debating if you can encourage them to go about it the right way. They're not always bad people just bad communicators.

A couple of other points which might be worth covering, either as seminar or training issues, would be handling 'off-topic' posts and comment threads that develop a life of their own, i.e. where posters start debating amongst themselves.

One common mistake I've seen on some blogs and forums is where the owner gets put out when a comment thread develops a life of its either by drifting o/t or just because people get into the debate. This can be a good thing or, occasionally a bad thing [when a flamewar breaks out] but there is definitely an art to handling those kinds of threads which is lost on the owners of some blogs - which usually leads to them posting testy reminders about staying on topic and/or shutting down threads prematurely when a gentle nudge or two can get them back on track.

It might be worth looking to places like Crooked Timber, The Sharpener and others for examples of these kinds of extended conversation/debate threads and how the ebb and flow of ideas and conversation can be nudged along to the benefit of everyone involved in the debate.

The only pity is that the best forum moderator I even encountered online, a guy called 'Hermit of Hoodview' who modded the the Register's forums, sadly passed away a few years back and there's no archive of that forum - which ran on Delphiforums - as I probably learned more about the rights and wrongs of modding discussions from watching him look after a forum than from anywhere else and it would have been nice to have been able to pull out a few examples of how he handled things - always with good humour - to illustrate the right way to manage comment threads - he was one of the most real people I even met on the net.

Posted by: Unity at September 23, 2005 2:15 PM

In terms of how to deal with "the conversation" there are clearly a number of models you can show. I like the way that Clive Soley does it, responding to comments in the main part of the blog (is it worth pointing out that most people may not even look at the comments?). Tom and others I've seen get stuck in to a greater or lesser extent, responding where they see fit. Boris as far as I can tell (and its been a while since I read the blog) doesn't respond at all.

All of which seem reasonable responses for others to follow for the people you are trying to get to take up the medium.

Posted by: Andrew Brown at September 23, 2005 4:41 PM

A bit too much for the presentation - how about print-outs of 3-4 sample conversations to go with the handout and glossary?

Posted by: Manic at September 23, 2005 5:19 PM

Or leave it for the Q&A, with a promise to follow up if they sign up?

However, I'd just say that dealing with comments is the reason/excuse I've been given the most when fellow politicians have told me why they aren't going to blog. So finding a way to get that out into the open and addressing it may be useful.

Posted by: Andrew Brown at September 25, 2005 11:14 AM

That looks great to me, Tim. Only one (minor) thing - should it not be political *allegiance* instead of alliance? I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this all shapes up. Let me know if and when you want me to do anything.

Posted by: mark at September 26, 2005 2:46 PM

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