Just because I agree with you doesn’t mean you get to spam me

By: | Post date: October 7, 2017 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

I write this with trepidation. I don’t wade into political matters, and I’m a conflict-averse kind of person. I am also discovering I’m more politically moderate than I used to fancy myself, and that is never a comfortable thing.

But, having the courage of my convictions is a novel experience; one that drove me off Quora. Now that I’m off Quora, the discourse I’m exposed to, on Facebook and on Medium—from my putative ideological stablemates—is much less considered, and less thought through: a sad consequence of the democratisation of social media, which unearths the poor arguments that used to whirl around the pub and the café, and elevates them into common, tub-thumping currency. On both sides.

(Yes, it was ever thus; and yes, the mobs used to run out of control and burn and lynch. But “my side” was supposed to be moving past that kind of thing.)

And I could let that pass, or I could try out saying, on occasion, no, that stance is not cool. That argument makes no sense, and discredits my side. And I will not assent to it.

Here’s an example.

Like many Australians, I voted on the Australian marriage equality plebiscite a couple of weeks ago. Like many Australians on the left, I had misgivings about putting human rights up for vote to the mob. Not that the party of Tony Abbott has earned my trust about administering human rights any more than the mob. (Nor for that matter the party of Joe de Bruyn, who blocked Labor from voting for marriage equality when it had the chance.) But once the vote was approved, after some rather specious attempts to block it on the basis of how it was funded, I felt obligated to vote my opinion as a citizen, and vote YES I did.

And if the mob turns out to have voted YES to marriage equality after all, as polls indicated, we now have the bizarre spectacle of Andrew Bolt’s latest editorial, after months of decrying the evils of the gay marriage, saluting the outcome as a blow for trusting the Wisdom of the People.

But the libertarian-cum-social conservative stylings of Andrew Bolt are not what I’m writing about here.

A week after I voted, I got an SMS from the YES campaign, urging me to vote.

A lot of people who’d voted YES got the SMS. Not a few people who’d voted NO got it too—notoriously including arch social conservative Cory Bernardi, who was busy organising his own robocalls for the NO campaign.

People broadly expressed confusion and annoyance at getting spammed with political SMSs, in offices (like mine did) and online. Some people went so far as to say they would reconsider their vote in light of their annoyance.

The following things were said in retort, including on The Project, Michelle Grattan’s editorial on The Conversation, and a few friends on Facebook:

  1. SMS spamming is a legitimate component of modern-day political campaigning, just as robocalls were.
  2. The SMS was sent to randomised numbers, so noone’s privacy was invaded.
  3. Any objections to the SMS are mischief-making by conservatives.
  4. You have no right to protest being spammed by the YES campaign, because YOU KNOW WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO BE ANNOYED? GAY PEOPLE WHOSE RELATIONSHIPS ARE BEING INVALIDATED!! THAT’S WHO!!
  5. If you’re prepared to change your vote based on annoyance about being spammed, then you are a very superficial person.

Well, no.

  1. Either spam is bad or it is good. If spam is bad, and this is spam, then this is bad.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because it is sent out from people we agree with.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because the content of the spam looks innocuous: “The Marriage Equality Survey forms have arrived! Help make history and vote YES for a fairer Australia. VoteYes.org.au.” The comparable spam sent out shortly afterwards at a grassroots level from the Christianists of Rise Up Australia looked innocuous too: “Vote NO for SSM. Please watch this brief video and pass it on to your contacts.”—until you clicked through to their fire and brimstone sermon on YouTube.
    • Spam does not become non-spam because the government SMSs bushfire warnings to residents who might be affected. (Yes, I actually saw that argument; mercifully it was advanced in a comments page, rather than by anyone with a clue.) I’m not aware of the Australian Marriage Equality campaign becoming an arm of local government.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because it advertises a political party instead of detergent.
    • For that matter, spam does not become non-spam because currently legislation says it is not spam: “It is important to note that if these calls, emails or SMSs are not commercial — that is they do not have a commercial purpose — they are generally allowed and not required to comply with the obligations under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act 2003”. Legislation can change, and the more SMSs of this kind you see, there more pressure there will be to change the legislation. And to me (and not just to me), this is spam.
  2. We have the lobby group’s assurance that the numbers were randomised, and that noone’s privacy was compromised.
    • And I should trust an unelected partisan lobby group, who tells me that the paperwork is in the mail, why?
    • Journalists (doing what Michelle Grattan used to do) have queried whether this is the case—although the own-goal of sending an SMS to Cory Bernardi does suggest the campaign was not targeted with laser-like precision.
    • “If a few highly confidential numbers were by chance reached, it’s hard to see what harm was done”, says Grattan. I used to respect Grattan. But this is exactly the line of thinking that has brought us the Victorian State Premier today calling civil liberties a “luxury” that a leader like him does not have, because terrorism. “Some people have the luxury of being able to have that notional debate. Those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury.” Well, no. Slippery slopes are real, whether they involve handing over all your drivers licence photos over to the feds for facial recognition, or giving lobbyists carte blanche to call unregistered phone numbers.
  3. I don’t always enjoy reading The Australian, Murdoch’s broadsheet. It has enough left-baiting and retrograde social conservatism to make me scowl of a Saturday morning.
    • Yet it also hosts ideological diversity (as long as it’s not left-wing); and I was gratified to see one commentator on its pages (Van Onselen? Kenny?) recently say that, just because you might not like the advocates of marriage equality, does not mean that the cause isn’t right.
    • Same goes in converse for the protests about the SMSs. Just because right wing bigots are among those protesting the SMSs, doesn’t mean the SMSs were a good thing. And to read every protest in this currency under a lens of who benefits politically is the kind of myopia that… well, that I would sadly expect from someone who has covered politics in Canberra for decades.
  4. The “you are not allowed to complain about SMSs” line is one that has done the rounds in Facebook, and one that I reserve especial contempt for. It’s the argument of the motorist pulled over for speeding, and telling the cop, “why aren’t you out there catching murderers.”
    • Felonies are more serious than misdemeanours; that does not excuse misdemeanours, or exempt them from being sanctioned.
    • I agree that it is ethically and socially wrong that the gay and lesbian friends I know in long-term relationships do not have them recognised by the State to the extent that my straight friends’ relationships are. I agree that this causes them more distress than being spammed by a lobby group causes me. That is not an argument in favour of spamming: it is a blatant attempt to shut down discussion through exercise of piety. And it astonishes me that anyone would think this a constructive contribution to the discussion.
    • Then again, it came from Facebook. Which is not the home base of constructive contributions to debates.
  5. As for the superficiality of the voter swayed by their annoyance over SMS—
    • If you’re in the battleground of civil rights not being a matter for the vote of the mob, then the stupidity and mercuriality of the mob is an argument for you to use.
    • Once you’re no longer in that battleground, and you’ve agreed to campaign for a vote, you’re in the business of winning votes. You win votes by persuading those voters who can be persuaded: not those already bolted on at your side of the argument, nor those who follow Cory Bernardi or Rise Up Australia and think you the devil, but those in between.
    • Maybe they’re undecided because they’re superficial; maybe their votes are up for grabs because they lack civil engagement.
    • But telling them so to their face is not how you win their vote. And winning their vote is your business now, not asserting your moral superiority over them. As Talleyrand said—and the more I read of culture war battles, the more relevant his dictum seems to me: it’s worse than a crime: it’s a mistake.


  • John Cowan says:

    Mmm, I can’t heartily agree. I think there is a fundamental difference between for-profit and not-for-profit spam, and I am willing to tolerate a certain amount of the latter. Also, I think it was a mistake to segregate mobile numbers from all other numbers; it would be hard to do randomized SMS in the U.S. given that a huge fraction of your spams would go to landlines. (50% of households are cell-phone-only, but businesses still overwhelmingly have landlines).

    Reading this led me to wonder why notoriously bolshie Aussies put up with compulsory voting.

    • opoudjis says:

      I don’t see the difference, John: both are unsolicited communications, enjoining on me to do something that is not for my direct benefit. I don’t see sunlight between solicitations for charity and solicitations for my vote, whereas I do see sunlight between solicitations for my vote and warning me of a bushfire.

      Then again, it may be that the sunlight you see is between commercial solicitations and solicitations for charity, and you wouldn’t regard the latter as spam. Well, Australians aren’t as philanthropic as Americans; the expectation of a Safety Net is part of that!

      We now put up with compulsory voting because of the festival atmosphere around voting—the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Sausage. Truth be told though, it’s not because of any great sense of civic duty, and it’s probably just s well that the Democracy Sausages have come in to compensate for the widespread cynicism about politics.

      A lot of this is about the novelty of spam on SMS, compared to landlines. (A major motivation, I suspect, for people abandoning landlines was telemarketers. Telemarketers have now caught up with mobile phones, and that does get me angry.)

      • John Cowan says:

        Advertising of any sort is always a balance between information and solicitation. When I get a four-page letter from a charity, there’s a pitch on page 4, but pages 1-3 are about informing me of some ongoing problem that needs fixing. In a political mailer, the order is reversed: the candidate is on page 1 and the rest is about what they intend to do if elected. I do see daylight between that and a straightforward invitation to buy, where the only informational content is what is for sale.

        On my landline, in addition to subscribing to the no-call list, I also subscribe to a blocker that picks up my incoming calls after the first ring (when the calling line identification data is transmitted) if the caller is a robot. However, robots used by doctors and pharmacies are exempt, and that’s a Good Thing.

        There’s also going to be a different spam situation depending on who pays. For email, no one pays except for general Internet access charges, and so 90% of all email is spam; email remains viable because spam-blockers, especially those at ISPs, work fairly well. In North America, people pay for every text sent and every text received (typically there is a budget of how many texts any one line can send/receive, with heavy costs for overuse). This means that commercial spammers have to focus their efforts pretty closely, and there is a fast path to suing them in small-claims court.

        By the way, SMS spam has been a problem since about 2000. I get very little of it; the main annoyance I experience is when the chance of flooding (or fire, I suppose) goes too high, and every single person’s phone goes off at once.

  • Tamar says:

    It does happen often, but l agree with all of these points. ?

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