Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Looking ridiculous

It’s not easy to win good attention on the Internet, as self-proclaimed experts constantly remind us. However, losing the Internet is easy.

In New Zealand,we have a couple prominent far-right religious political activists (that description is my honestly held opinion). A lot of people, me included, think that they tend toward self-parody, more often than not, but part of the reason for that is we’re political adversaries. Fair enough.

One of the two, Colin Craig, is a millionaire businessman who also runs a registered political party he calls the Conservative Party. It ran candidates in the last general election and failed to gain any seats in Parliament. Craig himself previously failed in an attempt to be elected Mayor of Auckland. As a result of all his political activity, he often tends to end up on the wrong end of Internet “buzz”. This time, he’s really shot himself in the foot.

New Zealand has a satirical website along the lines of The Onion. I’d never heard of it until yesterday, but now thousands of New Zealanders know it exists, and we have Colin Craig to thank for that.

The site, The Civilian, ran a satirical piece on the enactment of marriage equality called “Maurice Williamson looking pretty stupid after floods”. As such sites do, it attributed a quote to Colin that he didn’t actually say. Because satire sites make stuff up. By definition.

Colin didn’t think it was funny and called in his lawyers. Yesterday they demanded (the letter is viewable on The Civilian), on Colin’s behalf, that the article be taken down, a specific apology be posted and $500 be paid to help cover Colin’s legal fees. They claimed that quotation marks made the quote appear real, particularly when it appeared along side an MP’s quote that “we understand may largely be accurate.”

Debatable as all that is and may be, when someone sets his lawyers after someone and threatens a defamation suit, it’s pretty serious. Which means, of course, it then became a massive joke on the Internet.

The Civilian itself responded in character (see article link above), adding the apology, slightly modified, to the beginning, and adding: “We would like to note that we have also taken the additional measure of bolding the statement in question so that everybody knows which thing it was that Mr. Craig did not say.”

This was an extremely mild reaction compared to the many people who took Twitter and other social media to mock Colin far more pointedly than he ever was in the original piece. Some of what I saw was even verging on being nasty (and no, I didn’t save any of them, so I can’t link to them to illustrate this).

All of this made it a story that was reported by New Zealand’s newsmedia, and this morning the New Zealand Herald posted it’s story—and quoted in full “What Colin Craig did not say in the satirical post on the Civilian.” They even put that line in boldface.

What we have here is a perfect example of what many call The Streisand Effect: “The phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.” Colin didn’t like being made fun of, and ended up making sure that anyone in New Zealand who wanted to see it for themselves could—and would. The vast majority of us would never have known about it had he not tried to censor the piece in the first place.

In that Herald article, Colin asserted that he does indeed have a "well developed sense of humour". Obviously, many people disagree with him on that, and he’s as entitled to his opinion of himself as others are to disagree with him. However, he also said, again according to the Herald: "But when it comes to statements being reported in the public sphere ... there is no room for humour." Is Colin joking?! Politics is the BEST place for humour!

Let’s not forget this whole thing happened because Colin proudly placed himself and his party as opponents of the marriage equality bill and tried to persuade Parliament to reject it. After his defeat, he still talked about trying to get his way on this issue. As a self-proclaimed opponent of a matter up for public debate, as someone who advocated a position on a public issue and tried to influence Parliament, and as someone who apparently wants to be an elected politician, he has to learn to expect ridicule, satire—and also strident opposition. ALL politicians and persons debating in “the public sphere” must expect that! Colin doesn’t get any special treatment or special rights or a special exemption. Quite frankly, if he can’t handle that, then he may want to reconsider whether politics is really a good career for him.

We all hope that political debate (and election campaigns) are focused on the issues. In New Zealand, they are most of the time. But satire and humour are an integral part of any debate or campaign—indeed, they may help keep things from getting too serious and too pressured.

And that’s no joke.

Update: Colin Craig has withdrawn his complaint, according the Dominion-Post. Unsurprisingly, the article reports that The Civilian's editor said the site's "servers had been struggling to keep up with the massive spike of traffic caused by publicity of the incident." The same article also reported that Colin "said after legal advice, he would be filing a complaint against a television network by the end of the week." It'll be interesting to see how folks on the Internet respond to that.

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