Revisiting my Japan post

March 20, 2011

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This time last week, I was asked if I would go on Piers Morgan’s CNN show to talk about donations to Japan. I said yes, and reckoned that if I was going to go on national TV talking about such things, I ought at least to have a blog entry up on the subject. So I wrote this.

It’s the job of an opinion writer to stake out clearly-defined and controversial opinions, and anybody in this business has to have a reasonably thick skin. And I knew, more or less, what I was getting myself into: the very reason that I was asked onto the Piers Morgan show to begin with was that I’d written something very similar about Haiti, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

In the end, the Piers Morgan appearance was canceled. But my blog post went viral, and not in a particularly good way. One week, 248 comments, and 7,269 Facebook recommendations later, I’m wondering what happened.

I’m used to criticism — I even got an honest-to-goodness death threat once, after I warned (erroneously) that Morgan Stanley was toast and likely to get nationalized. But the degree of anger and hatred leveled at me over the past week is nothing I’ve ever experienced.

It’s worth making very clear, in case anybody was wondering, that this is one of those situations where my opinion is most emphatically not that of my employer, which is putting a lot of effort and money into raising earmarked funds for Japan.

The debate is clearly an important and meaningful one. My advice was entirely in line with the detailed analysis from GiveWell, which concludes that “the relief/recovery effort does not have room for more funding” and that “you as a donor do not have the power to improve the relief and recovery effort in Japan.” It’s also in line with Stephanie Strom’s reporting for the NYT. And so far, I haven’t seen any real pushback to the substance of what they’re saying.

The media reaction to my post was generally somewhere between respectful and positive — see Weekend Edition’s coverage, for instance, or Slate’s. And in general it’s hard to find independent commentators who think that donating earmarked funds to Japan is a particularly good idea. Tyler Cowen probably comes closest: he says that there are no corruption worries in Japan; that sending money is an important signaling mechanism showing US solidarity with Japan; and that even though you could give unrestricted funds instead, you probably won’t, and that therefore something is better than nothing.

But substantive debate was something sorely missing in the comments to my post, which rapidly generated into a startling series of ad hominem attacks on myself personally — I’m evil, I’m racist, I deserve to die, I should be fired, that kind of thing — interspersed with other comments pointing out that the attackers didn’t seem to have read and understood what I’d written.

Where did all those comments come from? I suspect that a lot of them came from people following a link from Facebook, where my story showed up like this:


There’s no nuance there, just a stern-looking headshot, a stark headline, and what looks very much like gratuitous provocation. People who have donated money to Japan, or who have friends or family in the affected area, are naturally going to respond aggressively if they see something like this. By the time they click through to the actual article, it’s too late for my argument to carry the day: they’re angry, and they’re going to express that anger in my comments.

Those comments were particularly effective because they were read, by myself and by many other people inside and outside Reuters. That’s not always the case, online: if you’re a writer or editor for HuffPo or Yahoo, the volume of comments is simply too great to even think about reading them all. So if a comment thread degenerates into a flame war, people tend not to notice as much. Even in my own case, I get thousands of comments on posts which are republished on Seeking Alpha, and generally read none of them.

But I’m very proud of my commenters here at Reuters, I respect them a lot, and know full well that on any given subject I have many readers who are much smarter and more knowledgeable than I am. And it turns out that when I get a large number of commenters who aren’t regular readers of my blog, it’s hard to snap out of the habit of reading them with a certain degree of respect.

My blog is a place for pretty high-level debate and discussion surrounding issues in the news. It assumes, for instance, that people implicitly understand the orders of magnitude between the amount of donations being targeted at Japan and the amount of money that it’s going to cost to rebuild the country and aid the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Or that Japan, with its overvalued currency and too-low inflation, would actually welcome any short-term inflation and depreciation which came from printing money to pay for reconstruction.

But while these are familiar concepts to my blog’s regular readers, they’re not necessarily familiar to people on the internet more generally. “There’s nothing you can do to help” is never a pleasant message to convey, and people tend to react strongly against it. On top of that, decades of fundraisers sending the message that “every penny helps” have clearly done their job — which is to conflate, in the public’s mind, the act of helping with the act of donating money, to the point at which a message of “don’t donate to Japan” is read as saying, in substance, “don’t help Japan.”

Would it have been better, then, for me to make the same point less forcefully? A large contingent of the commenters on the post think so: they’re the ones saying that the message is fine, but the headline is insensitive and needlessly provocative in a time of great emotional turmoil and strain. I’m torn on this one, but I think that in general sugar-coating and euphemism are invidious: if you’ve got something you want to say, you should just come out and say it. And given that it’s impossible to know in advance when a post is going to break out from my normal readership, the result of such a policy would surely be a lot of unnecessary and harmful self-censorship.

On top of that, as Nick Denton never fails to remind me, commenters are by no means representative of readers as a whole. If a tiny fraction of 1% of the readers of the post have a strong negative reaction to it and leave angry comments it, that’s entirely consistent with 99% of my readers understanding exactly what I was trying to say, and maybe even learning something and viewing the world of aid and philanthropy in a way they hadn’t thought of before.

In hindsight, I do wish that I’d spent a bit more time on the post instead of rushing it out between panels at SXSW. But I doubt that would have made a huge amount of difference. In future, though, I think I will be more conscious of how the headline and first two sentences of my posts are likely to come across on Facebook. When I’m aggregated by humans, they make sure to get the message across quite clearly. But Facebook’s bots aren’t that smart, and the message can easily be lost completely.


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