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On Tone Of Voice, Sensationalism, Visibility, And Electability

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Metaposts

Metaposts

Selecting the correct tone of voice for an article is so much more than just writing what you think – or what you feel. It has quickly grown to a complex game of politics and playing various informal games to get people’s attention for what you really want to say – not much different from how oldmedia works.

I’d like to write mostly thoughtful, reflective articles on information policy and the growth of the Pirate Party movement in historical parallels (there are many). Those articles get a couple of thousand readers, and while I get a lot out of writing them, they don’t really increase my audience, which you need to do if you want to change the world.

It’s also a matter of your relative size and footprint. In the election campaign leading up to the 2009 European Elections, right after the gross injustice of the #spectrial (the trial against the former operators of The Pirate Bay plus a fourth unrelated individual), I was angry as all hell and wrote and spoke in the according tone of voice. All of a sudden, the Pirate Party was the third largest party, and there was no longer any need to use a loud voice to get attention; people were actually listening to what you had to say, and you could afford to be reflective. So I tend to be mostly philosophical and reflective, but I don’t hesitate to raise hell when I see injustices being committed, no matter against whom. This variation of my tone of voice is part of a larger strategy, which I’ll returning to later in this article.

In writing those angry articles, I am still very careful with language – I use as strong terms as can be objectively motivated, but no stronger. I use “corruption” if that is what a person on the street would call it. I use “censorship” only in its most lexical sense – when a (government-mandated) third party prevents specific communication between two consenting parties. For some reason, this always results in some people relativizing the terms I use in their thoroughly lexical sense, saying “it could be worse”, and then using that as an argument that the entire article is factually wrong. This frustrates me; I perceive it as intellectually dishonest. Perhaps it’s just an easy attack surface, and other people are playing by their own rules as well; I don’t know.

One recent example was the censorship of the German Piratenpartei three days ahead of the elections; the party was being censored in schools. Somebody on Reddit painted my entire article as false with the statement “there’s no centralized censorship in Germany! This article is ludicrous!”. Well, no, there may not be. But I didn’t claim there was centralized censorship. That wasn’t in my description at all. I claimed there was local censorship, yet one that the state was responsible for. That there’s a strawman if I ever saw one. There were plenty of them, attacking over semantics rather than discussing the quite democratic problem that a particular party’s platform could be selectively made inaccessible by the state without anybody being accountable.

Another was the example of the corrupt judge Chris Hensen, who shared commercial activities with the plaintiff’s lawyer in a monopoly case. There was no shortage of people lashing out at my use of the word “corruption”, and saying that in their favorite specific context, the word would not be applicable. Well, as I said, I am a geek and acutely lexically aware; I use words to their exact meaning and nothing else. Also, this corruption is not a superficial incidence; it is the root of the problem, in more countries than NL. The judges have associated for so long with copyright-maximalist lawyers that they have internalized the worldview of the monopoly hawks, and read the law in a completely different way than somebody who hadn’t associated with those people. They’re biased but without capability to realize it, and judge relentlessly against anybody who reads the law in a non-hawkish way.

(If we were describing any court system in a foreign faraway land where cases were predetermined like this, over 95% of us would use the word “corrupt” without hesitation. What was rare in this case was that I had come across documentation showing that judge and plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t just associate, but associated commercially. The exact same thing happened in the trial against The Pirate Bay in Sweden, where the judge Tomas Norström was a formal member of the same copyright-maximization association as the plaintiffs’ lawyers.)

When I see things like that, I get very angry, very fast. And I write exactly what I feel, while still being careful about not using stronger words than I can motivate from a purely lexical standpoint. At the same time, many social news sites complain about the emotion-laden, tabloid-style writing that results from such anger of mine – yet, upvote them into the outer stratosphere. They easily reach Reddit’s front page, and can even top it.

That article about the corrupt judge Hensen is one such example. It got 250,000 views in the first 24 hours. That’s a good result for any article. That draws attention to the other, more thoughtful and reflective articles here – I have designed this site quite intentionally to show many old articles beside the one you’re currently reading, with a lot of eye-candy to them for easy attention. So my idea is to mix reflective with emotional, using the emotional to draw an audience in quantity and reflective articles to retain the philosophical high ground.

Just to put those numbers in perspective, it would have taken an old-style newspaper a circulation of 10-20 million to reach that kind of readership for an article. Thoughtful articles don’t get readers. Angry sensationalism does. Despite everybody’s claims and wishes to the contrary.

TL;DR: Scumbag Reddit complains about sensationalism, then upvotes every piece of tabloid writing to outer frakking space.

To carry this reasoning over to electability, yet other people again get nervous about when I use that strong a tone of voice, as it decreases the overall likeability of the Pirate Party brand. Indeed it does, but that’s confusing likeability with electability. I write to optimize the latter factor. I write to optimize the vote count, not the like count. They are completely different mechanisms, and to quite some extent, are opposing concepts: you must get disliked by some to get votes by others.

The nightmare scenario is that 100% of people think that the Pirate Party are quite nice chaps and all have us as a second-hand voting preference. That means we don’t get any votes at all. I write to optimize for the scenario where 10-20% think we’re radical and aggressive enough about very real problems to get their vote, but where the other 80-90% or so most likely hate us with all their guts. That scenario means real election winnages.

Of course, this article will not get a lot of readers, being philosophical and reflective. It doesn’t work like that. But this particular article is not written to optimize readership numbers. Its purpose is to be a reference post — one that I can link to the next time people complain about me using a certain tone of voice for a certain occasion, and explain why I write like I do.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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20

  1. 1
    Scary Devil Monastery

    Well, you do get some readers.

    And given that you’ve managed to enter the forbes list and the TIME magazine candidate list maybe you are doing something quite right. Politics isn’t about just being “liked”. If it were every politician would simply go to to the elections on a platform of free beer, bread and games.

    Some do. And they get votes by people who go to the polls not really reflecting about anything the politicians message contains other than the window dressing and slogans they’ve heard.

    In order to reach such people you first need anger.

    • 1.1

      It’s true that I do have a range of quite legitimate recognitions — but it’s hard to say which comes from what, and which the next steps of mine would be the optimal ones to continue down that path.

      I can make educated guesses, do my best, and correct course downstream.

      Also, it’s true that you need the anger at injustice and the alternative to that injustice. It’s not an either/or, both are needed.

      • 1.1.1
        Scary Devil Monastery

        Correct. For the most part it’s like you said at the TEDx talk – the majority of the opposition isn’t malicious by intent – they become so by the fact of ignorance of consequence.

        Take, for instance, the current situation in sweden. The manga case against Simon Lundström is now in the supreme court and many influential figures, including the chief of the sexual crimes division, are begging the supreme court to somehow restrict the interpretation of the new “child porn” law. The awareness of what the law actually means has finally hit home to many previous supporters and you can literally see the flabbergasted frustration in the tone of their writing. Leaving only fanatical “presumed guilt”-dogmatists in this laws defense.

        The law in effect converts completely innocent photographs and drawings of anyone under 18, clothed or not, in sexual situations or not, into child pornography under very casual circumstances, depending entirely on the mental state of the one who views the image at the time. Even if the picture is a 20 year old ordinary class photograph of a 16-year old fully clothed girl possessed by a 35 year old male who is now married to the girl in question.

        And yet the law was not established because 349 members of the parliament were malicious. It’s simply that they wanted to give a weapon for the police to use against child abuse – but because they lacked any thought of consequence and real effect of the law they ended up with a lw which in practice was the greatest boon a real pedophile could have.

        There is now as far as the police are concerned no ability to legally prioritize “real” imagery of documented abuse of children over drawings without correlation to reality. Meaning that the entire division of police spend their time plowing through millions of cartoons instead of hunting real offenders.

        Child abuse is a vicious and unpardonable crime, but entirely thanks to the fact that the legislators didn’t come up with a solid consequence analysis they simply implemented legislation which achieved the opposite of the intended result.

        I believe that may be the currently most clarifying real-life example of your statement that anger at injustice must also come with a good alternative to adress said injustice with.

        • next_ghost

          I think the best way to point out the sheer absurdity of this law is to get a few thousand adults together on a website to post naked pictures of themselves from way back when they were still kids. Not of their kids but of themselves. I’m pretty sure that any attempt to prosecute those people will cause huge public outrage, given that lots of parents take naked pictures of their own kids.

  2. 2

    I’m glad you had a think about the way you come across sometimes. Okay, you’re not a robot and your feelings sometimes get the better of you. I’m human too.

    If it works in terms of getting attention for the Pirate Party, that’s great; I was a bit worried that the Hensen article might reflect badly on you. If it didn’t, that’s great, but we need to come up with a strategy to deal with it.

    I agree that it’s impossible to not take on the worldview of IPR hawks if that’s where you spend most of your time and I bet he’d have been hauled out of there by his ear if he associated with the Pirate Party. So will there be some kind of campaign to bring this to the attention of people who can do something about it?

    I’m for a targeted campaign that gets this sorted out rather than moaning about it and being known for moaning about it. That’s what I was concerned about; getting results and raising awareness without alienating potential supporters.

    We do need to get results, though. This situation is ridiculous and should not be allowed to continue. Would a petition be a good idea? I’ll sign it and share it around my social networks if you start one on Avaaz or whatever.

    • 2.1

      The thing I’m not used to is to get so large an audience that people openly question the factual parts of what I’m writing. I’m used to people JFGI rather than attacking the article on the premises that the evidence presented is insufficient. Not inaccurate, but insufficient.

      Usually, these things have a habit of filling in themselves as the article gets attention and people look stuff up. One beautiful example of that was the article about the 113% voter turnout in European Parliament where I posted on word-of-mouth from my colleagues in the European Parliament, who had seen the events firsthand (a firsthand eyewitness account meets the bar for any oldmedia article). This wasn’t enough for some people, who wanted it to be verifiable by their own accounts.

      So somebody actually found a video from the meeting and verified the story for all to see. That, together with a complaint letter from the rapporteur which appeared in update 3, corroborated the story in full. That’s how I normally roll – facts fill in themselves as people add what they know.

      The same mechanism appears to be present here, the mechanism that don’t dismiss it as inaccurate, but insufficient and unverifiable. Like one Reddit comment said; “what do you want, a signed confession?”. I post when I think I have enough to point at a tendency or phenomenon.

      You’re right that I could have added a part where I discussed what could be done about it. The first step is always getting awareness; the monopoly hawks will refuse to see this as a problem, and they’re setting the agenda of the legislative processes, so change will have to be forced from the outside. A petition won’t have any effect in this circumstance, I predict.

      That said, I don’t think it reflected badly in terms of me losing from it. I’m always making enemies for taking a stand and saying exactly what I think and feel, and I’m not overly concerned about that – I have to make enemies to make friends in this game.

      Cheers,
      Rick

  3. 3

    I am glad that you are not backing down on this. Please don’t. Describing ugly facts–and calling them what they are–will always get you some ugly responses.

    In those 250,000 views, there were likely many people who don’t regularly come here and might not have been exposed to these specific problems. Now they have. And the problems of censorship and corruption are always important, and whether people agree with your assessment or not, the facts themselves are important for people to know.

    I think people jump to yell “sensationalism!” at many things that sound really far out. As if the truth of the matter didn’t make a difference. e.g. I remember reading about the Pirate Bay case for the first time and I literally could just not believe that there were so many … would people like me to use the word “coincidences?” … in the trial. I couldn’t believe that these things would be allowed. But they were and these were the facts. Just because it sounded so unbelievable didn’t mean that it wasn’t true. It seems like there may be a danger, for some people, of disregarding something just because it sounds too “sensationalist” to be true.

    • 3.1

      Thank you for these reflections, Aelius. I think you’re right on the money in terms of people rejecting things as too horrible when I call a spade a spade — not because of me being unreasonable, but because of the facts being unreasonable. That was a distinction that hadn’t struck me.

      Perhaps I should take greater care to separate the exact facts from my analysis of them in these posts. You’re right — a couple years back, I wouldn’t have believed myself either if I had told me how things really worked.

  4. 4
    Datavetaren

    Rick, it’s always good to be self reflective, but the ones who have critized you haven’t understood the broader picture. There are two good words that can be used to describe the situation.; regulatory capture (your own favorite word :)) and political discourse. The problem is that our political view is interpreted in a context where copyright rules are the norm, which means that if a judge is giving courses in this topic it will automatically get viewed as standard education on the subject. I’m absolutely convinced that in Ukraine, that in their political discourse, Yulia Tymoshenko is a regular criminal and corrupt politician that deserves imprisonment for eternal time, yet European politicians are interpreting the situation as unjust and that any criminal investigations is just a result of a power struggle. So, with the right discourse you are absolutely right that Hensen is a corrupt judge. That some people get upset is something you’ll have to live with. Once the discourse has changed everybody will look back and say “hey, how could people have reasoned like that? That’s utterly crazy!” That’s the reward you’ll get when the discourse has changed :) Cudos to all the work you do. You’re really changing the world. THANK YOU!

  5. 5
    Jan Bruun Andersen

    Quote: Well, as I said, I am a geek and acutely lexically aware; I use words to their exact meaning and nothing else.

    A common trait among us geeks I think. And oh so frustrating when the non-geeks blindly throw their own interpretation blanket over ones word.

    Allow me to link to a classic text on this (or is it a similar issue?):
    http://www.mit.edu/~jcb/tact.html

  6. 6

    I write to optimize for the scenario where 10-20% think we’re radical and aggressive enough about very real problems to get their vote, but where the other 80-90% or so most likely hate us with all their guts. That scenario means real election winnages.

    Well. In Europe. In first-past-the-post countries like the US, you have to make at least 50% of the population hate the other guy more than you.

  7. 7
    Vik1ng

    At the moment you represent the German Pirate Party outside Germany to a significant extent (due to various reasons, on just simply being that you provide the content in English). Your are not some kind of independent blogger and you a not just representing a very small Party in a pretty insignificant country (aka Swedish PP).

    That’s where for me the problems begins. Because the German PP stands for grassroots democracy, sticking to manifesto and telling the (sometimes inconvenient ) truth, even if that ends up in a “We don’t have a position on that, yet”
    And this where this is going to backfire on you, once we are start talking about the EU/Int. Pirate Party. When people start looking who is actually representing us there, especially if the Swedish Party isn’t successful. And people will for example ask why you didn’t focus on Sweden.

    Overall I understand that you want to polarize to get attention, but sometimes it’s really unnecessary the way you exaggerate or sensationalize.
    Why do you have to write “win” every time instead of just major success? Why do you start speculating about the Pirate Party becoming part of the government and big change, when they say themselves they won’t? Not to mention mistakes like stating NRW is the largest and most populous state, when actually Bavaria is lager and not even correcting it when people tell you that.

    It does not help the discussion on Reddit when many comments just criticize your article instead of talking about the party itself.
    Why not focus more on the manifesto and their goals? This can still get you a huge amount of attention if you explain concepts like Liquid Feedback or for example ticket-free public transit and the same should happen regarding all other Pirate Parties, too. Or could have written about the authors who raised their voice against the PP in recent weeks. You don’t just need those big 250,000 view articles, you also need a lot of small ones.

    Also if you want to reach more people expand in SOCIAL MEDIA. You can’t reach the frontpage of Reddit with every post and in addition the problem with Reddit is, it’s mostly people from the US, where the PP worst conditions to get something done.

    • 7.1
      Colin

      Off topic (sorry), but I loved your typo Vik1ng, “..when actually Bavaria is lager.”
      No, that should be, Bavarians DRINK lager. ;-)

    • 7.2

      At the moment you represent the German Pirate Party outside Germany to a significant extent (due to various reasons, on just simply being that you provide the content in English). Your are not some kind of independent blogger and you a not just representing a very small Party in a pretty insignificant country (aka Swedish PP).

      This becomes a serious problem if and only if people feel represented, and therefore, that they think they have a right to control my pen. This was actually one of the largest frustrations when I was PL for PPSE; I understand PPDE also has something called a “Common Pirate Mandate” where every pirate needs no permission before saying or explaining something. In Sweden, that mandate applied to everybody – from PL to the individual activist.

      The problem arises when people not only feel they are being represented, but mis-represented, which is an inevitable step once the first is fulfilled. But I have never aspired to represent PPDE, and I certainly don’t represent PPSE any longer, not since stepping down from the position of party leader. (For disclosure reasons, I’m still a member of its board.)

      You’ll notice that I’m writing about other pirate parties as soon as there are positive news from somewhere in the world. I recently wrote about PPGR, for instance. I started covering regular positive news from Germany only on August 19 last year, when PPDE polled 4.5% in Berlin. The only previous article I can find was from February of 2011, when PPDE-Hamburg scored 2%.

      And this is my role as I see it – to report and explain what’s going on, in a way that makes it cross country borders. In terms of explaining ideas, reporting news, and discussing possible scenarios. (I did predict the Berlin entry, for example, in the article above.) I did my stuff in Sweden for five years – now, my role is to assist PPSE by catalyzing the movement, its ideas and repercussions as a whole.

      Overall I understand that you want to polarize to get attention, but sometimes it’s really unnecessary the way you exaggerate or sensationalize. [1] Why do you have to write “win” every time instead of just major success? [2] Why do you start speculating about the Pirate Party becoming part of the government and big change, when they say themselves they won’t? [3] Not to mention mistakes like stating NRW is the largest and most populous state, when actually Bavaria is lager and not even correcting it when people tell you that.

      (I took the liberty of numbering your questions in the quote above.)

      1 – Winning seats in a proportional election is an election win, or winning in the election. Not winning the election, but winning in the election, or winning seats in the election. This is simply correct use of language, as I see it. (You’ll notice that I didn’t use “election win” in the article about PP Hamburg in February 2011, but the significantly mellower “great winnage”, as in “making gains”.)

      2 – It is my role to write about the PP’s overall influence of the world. You are referring to the article where I wrote that “geopolitically, if X happens, then Y will happen”. I think this was a quite important illustration of how close we are to a tipping point – regardless of other factors, such as whether the election results will allow that game, or indeed, how PPDE has voted to perform at the moment (which may also change). Specifically, I wrote “If the German Piratenpartei manages to get 10-15% in the national elections, comes out on top in the coalition game, and becomes a supporting part of the next German administration in return for the administration absorbing its policies, then…”. If X, then Y. That’s a geopolitical analysis, there’s not a single hint there of saying what PPDE (or anybody else) wants to do.

      3 – I did correct it as soon as I saw the comment and verified it on the story of school censorship. Lots of Swedish media had described it as Germany’s largest state (where “largest” more often means “most populous” than “biggest by area” in Swedish), so I made the mistake of going with the flow there in writing it in the first place and corrected it 31 hours after posting, when I saw the comment – on May 12, just past midnight, according to the logs. (The headline still says “largest” for headline reasons, which is now clarified in the article to mean “most populous”.)

      Why don’t you write about Liquid Feedback

      Several reasons. First, it’s how most PPs work, although PPDE is the only who have put a name on it; second, the focus on it is quite local to PPDE at the moment and not in focus of the geopolitical development as a whole. If you think Liquid Feedback is important, why don’t you write about it?

      or for example ticket-free public transit

      This is local PPDE policy, and is not relevant at all for the big picture. Not at the moment, at least.

      Or could have written about the authors who raised their voice against the PP in recent weeks.

      That was predictable as a grandfather clock – I just don’t find it very interesting.

      You don’t just need those big 250,000 view articles, you also need a lot of small ones.

      Which is exactly what this article is about, and how my strategy is to have a good mix of reflective and emotional – this post reflects on how to find the optimum mix?

      You can’t reach the frontpage of Reddit with every post

      Actually, this is becoming rather predictable. The three articles before this one all hit Reddit’s front. I’m learning that particular game. I knew this one wouldn’t, it wasn’t written to do so.

      With all this said, there’s a good saying on the net; “if you see something you don’t like, post something you do like”. I believe in that, and would encourage everybody who can do better to do so. I’d be happy to give you write access to this blog, for example, if you want to cover the international movement on this basis.

  8. 8
    TTime

    A friend of mine once said – “If everybody likes you, then you’re a softy”.

    I like you Rick, and I don’t want everybody else to do so.

    Promoting change will meet resistance.

  9. 9
    Svante

    Hi Rick, Thank you for a very nice read. I had never before thought about the difference between likeability and electability. Thank you for expanding my knowledge about the political game – indeed it makes me see many things in a new light.

  10. 10

    Well-written overall.

    “The nightmare scenario is that 100% of people think that the Pirate Party are quite nice chaps and all have us as a second-hand voting preference. That means we don’t get any votes at all. I write to optimize for the scenario where 10-20% think we’re radical and aggressive enough about very real problems to get their vote, but where the other 80-90% or so most likely hate us with all their guts. That scenario means real election winnages.”
    I wouldn’t agree on that. We want to change the world – not win elections. This is actually one of the most important things that makes us different from other, de-ideologized, pragmatic and in a way populistic parties: that we don’t do politics because we want power, we do politics because we want to make certain changes. If everyone would have us as a second-hand option, well, that would mean that everyone would agree on us, i.e. also the traditional parties. Thus, our politics would win, while our parties would not. That would be awesome!

    • 10.1

      Do you have any answer about your view on that Rick? To put it as a question: do you think that the pirate parties itself have value, or do you think that they are merely means to an end (the end being our ideas)? :-)

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About The Author

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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