A number of people in Scottish public life are feeling distinctly uneasy following the outing of Mark MacLachlan as the ‘evil genius’ behind the cybernat blog “The Universality of Cheese”. A lot of politicians, some of them quite prominent, have been posting anonymous vituperation on the blogosphere. They know who they are – and the rest of the world probably will soon too. The stuff is there forever, if you know where to find it. Mark discovered just how easy it is for nosey hacks to trawl through months of postings to find the few incriminating remarks that, strung together, make you sound like a cyber thug.
A number of people have expressed sympathy for Mark MacLachlan, including the estimable Joan McAlpine saying that he is a cultured citizen of the world, a man of intellect and ability. That he is not a venomous cybernat spreading vile smears about other people in public life. Others have pointed out that the things he said were really rather tame and commonplace on the web and are only really offensive when taken out of context. But this is precisely the problem with the blogosphere – it’s so easy to say things that you later might regret – especially when they are mashed up by the News of the World. And if his remarks were so benign, why did Mike Russell, his boss, sack him the instant he heard that Mark was behind cheesy blog?
Actually, I’m surprised no one has seriously questioned Mike Russell whether he was aware of the existence of “The Universality of Cheese” blog and MacLachlan’s alter ego, Montague Burton. I can’t believe he wasn’t. He is one of the foremost exponents of new media in the party, and was himself into websites and the blogosphere before most politicians and journalists. He had his own website which he closed down for political reasons. His blogs have become private since he became a minister. Mike Russell was a victim himself of the blogosphere blowback, and it would be extremely surprising if he hadn’t at least had some suspicions as to the identity of Montague Burton, even if he didn’t endorse his cybersmears.
Look I’m not trying to attack Mike Russell, the new Education Secretary, who is one of the ablest and most intelligent politicians in Scotland. But I suspect that the outing of the cybernats is going to continue and it is likely to damage a lot of prominent people. The point is that the kind of things Mark MacLachlan was saying, and the manner in which they were expressed, were quite acceptable in the discourse of the pub, or the committee room, but not in wider public debate where the rules are different.
And it’s no use citing other blogs like Guido Fawkes in Mark’s defence. That just makes the case. The standard of debate on the internet is dire and deeply depressing. This is the main reason that people have turned away from blogging and taken to social networking sites like Facebook where they can avoid being abused by anonymous idiots. Many people I know don’t put comments on blogs that they read because they just don’t want to be part of the slime.
As this blog has pointed out before – and has even demonstraed in practice – there is an inbuilt bias on the blogosphere toward vituperation. It is written into the very architecture of the web. The surest way to get noticed on the internet – to generate traffic, attract links, get ranked on Google – is to attack people in the most offensive way possible. It makes blogs come alive. Most blogs aren’t really there to be read, they’re there to be reacted to.
Which is fine. No problem with people ranting away in space if that’s what they want to do – in private. But people need to remember that this is a published medium – just like newspapers. Anonymity is no longer a way of concealing identity, and it is certainly no defence in the law. Increasingly, you have to be absolutely sure not only that what you are saying is legal, but also that you can stand by it when it is public – and it almost certainly will be made public – because it is out there FOREVER.
The anonymity of the web is the real problem – it leads to blog rage. I hated reading the comments that used to be posted on my sites here, at the Herald and at the Guardian. After a while it becomes nauseating and depressing. As I’ve said before, it’s like addressing a public meeting where the audience are all wearing Donnie Darko masks. That’s why I stopped blogging – or rather turned the blog into an online column based on the material I write for print. Iain Macwhirter Now and Then is really an anti-blog.
I hate and rage myself, of course, but I try not to do it in public. I only write on a blog something I would be happy to seen in print with my name on it. If Mark had done the same thing, he would still be employed.