Fractured Dems, Part 4: The Rightward Drift of DemocraticUnderground

Before the changeover to DU3, which I wrote about in my last post, Democratic Underground’s rules for posting in its forums were last modified in August of this year, about a month before the #OWS movement was front-page news. “Failure to abide by these rules,” the introduction to them warned, “may result in your post being removed, your thread locked, or your posting privileges revoked without warning.” A sampling demonstrates the administration’s bare tolerance for politics left of the Democratic center:

  • This is a website for Democrats and other progressives [sic].
  • Do not personally attack any individual DU member in any way. Do not post broad-brush attacks, rude nicknames, or crude insults toward a group of DU members.

  • Do not post support for non-viable or third-party spoiler candidates in any general election.
  • Do not post disrespectful nicknames, crude insults, or right-wing smears against Democrats.

On the face of it, the second bullet point, adapted from many previous iterations, looks like a fair (and balanced) warning to both sides of the primary wars of 2008–team Obama and team HRC–not to attack each other. Not being inside the administrators’ heads, I won’t presume that they didn’t intend it to be taken that way. The effect, however, was that by the time those revised rules were posted, most of team HRC had long before either been driven underground or “tombstoned”–as a ban from DU was called because of the image of a tombstone (with the epitaph “Here lies a disruptor. He disrupted badly.”) that replaced the offender’s avatar on their member profile page. But those primary wars had continued by proxy, it seemed to me, in battles with moderators and more and more with a stable of Obama faithfuls who were quick to gang up on anyone who made the slightest criticism of the president’s performance.

I’ll say more about those primary wars of 2008 in a future post (or posts), but here I want to focus on the increasing oppressiveness of DU’s rules over time.

When I first posted at DU in 2003 ,  the rules governing the boards were barely noticeable to me. I first came into contact with them weeks into my residency when I received a warning for an  intemperate post wishing ill to someone in the Bush administration–or in the Republican party (I don’t recall the details). I was taken aback when the post disappeared from the board and a notice in red letter that I had a message from a moderator in my personal inbox flashed at the top of my home page. I felt like I’d been a bad boy and was careful not to be quite so reckless with my ill will again. That didn’t keep me from getting various provocations toward my debating opponents or other people’s sacred cows deleted. But for the most part, I tried to keep my head down and not be noticed by the administrators–a bit of a trick when you’re trying to be noticed by everyone else.

Over time, the rules became a favorite topic of conversation and nervous joking on DU as more and more people found themselves the targets of certain moderators’ obsessions with their personal visions of order. Having limited exposure to other forums, I can only guess that this phenomenon of the virtual hall monitor is not restricted to DU, and I wouldn’t be able to say it was any worse at DU than anywhere else.  It wasn’t the moderators, in any case, so much as the rules themselves that became more and more of a presence at DU. They increasingly became used by individuals or camps to get opponents tombstoned.

Back in mid 2003, as far as I know, the only people who were banned without warning were “freeper trolls”–people from the right-wing Free Republic who came to kick the “DemoncRAT” hornets nest for fun. Everyone else seemed to be given the courtesy of at least one warning–and I think usually three or four–before they were either suspended or banned. There seemed to be a sense that you had to display utter contempt for the peace of the community before any action would be taken. That seemed reasonable to me.  (Although having spent years combating wingers on Usenet, I had a much higher tolerance for freepers on the board than the average DUer, just because I enjoyed the sport of mixing it up with them once in a while.)

The patience of the administration was severely tried by the primary battles of 2004, which began in the fall of 2003, between supporters of Howard Dean and John Kerry, at first, then Dean and Wesley Clark supporters, then Kerry and Clark supporters, then Kerry and John Edwards supporters. The internecine violence in the heavily trafficked General Discussion forum resulted in creation of a special set of rules for that forum, in what I believed then, at least, was a sincere effort to re-cohere the splintering group. Chief administrator Skinner’s third rule (“If you post an article or other published content which is from a conservative source or which expresses a traditionally conservative viewpoint, you must state your opinion about the piece and/or the issues it raises.”) was in response to the tactic of opposing camps (I have no idea which was the most ready to employ it) of citing right-wing sources (i.e., the Drudge Report, Fox News or even Free Rebuplic) to smear the Democrats they did not want nominated to run against Bush.I don’t think the administrators were alone in being disturbed by the viciousness of attacks between the camps. Much of the worst infighting was over who started it, a tendency that was repeated with a vengeance four years later.

I’ll say more about primary season 2004 in another post, but I wanted to point out that it was at this time, I believe, that the administrators became so obsessed with regulating the board’s tone that they began to put limits on members’ language and on meta-discussion about the board as a whole:

Avoid using rude or condescending names for prominent progressives. (ie: Coward Dean, Weasley Clark, Tom Dasshole, Saint Ralph, Holy Joe, etc.)

Avoid using rude or condescending names for groups of progressives. (ie: Clarkies, Greenies, Deanholes, etc.)

Avoid broad-brush smears against groups of progressives.

Try to avoid “navel-gazing” threads about Democratic Underground, its members, or the state of the General Discussion forum.

Don’t deliberately break the rules. Don’t start threads to test the limits of the rules or to test the admins.

Don’t start threads in the General Discussion forum to complain about the rules or the moderators. If you have a concern, you should ask a question in the Ask the Administrators forum, or email the administrators directly.

At the time, I believed–naively, perhaps–that these rules would be relaxed when the primaries were settled. Of course they were not.

It’s interesting to me now to notice that “Greenies” and Naderites were presumed to be included among those protected by these limits on free speech. By 2004, however, most of those other “groups of progressives” had split for pastures of their own design, and it was just those of us big-D Democrats left who were subject to Skinner’s experiments with a less and less benign dictatorship, supposedly at the service of love, peace and understanding in his “underground.” The winnowing out of irritating leftists only became more pronounced over the years. Recall the admonition  in the August 2011 revision cited above against posting “in support for non-viable or third-party spoiler candidates in any general election.”

The rules for DU3, written in the wake of #occupyWallStreet’s anti-establishment protest movement, close the door on progressives and left alternative strategies almost entirely. The new site’s mission statement says explicitly that one of its goals is “Helping elect more Democrats to political office at all levels of American government,” and, if that weren’t clear enough, reiterates in an invitation to new members that it is open to “friendly, liberal people who…understand the importance of electing more Democrats to office.”

The terms of service, for the first time in DU’s history, go further than banning the usual freepers:

Democratic Underground is an online community for politically liberal people who understand the importance of working within the system to elect more Democrats and fewer Republicans to all levels of political office. Teabaggers, Neo-cons, Dittoheads, Paulites, Freepers, Birthers, and right-wingers in general are not welcome here. Neither are certain extreme-fringe left-wingers, including advocates of violent political/social change, hard-line communists, terrorist-apologists, America-haters, kooks, crackpots, LaRouchies, and the like.

Is it wrong or paranoid to think imprecise terms like “kooks” and “crackpots” are intended to allow the admins arbitrary exclusionary criteria as needed–say, when someone with an Obama or DNC avatar–even one who is on record as intending to vote for Obama in the general election–expresses a little too much support for #ows’s calling out Obama or Democrats for hypocrisies?

It’s certainly clear that DU is now officially hostile to anyone who is not supporting “the Democrats.” No questioning, no challenging, no venting of frustrations with Democratic hypocrisy and compromise of liberal principle allowed. No exceptions.

Is this how the “biggest liberal board” on the internet thinks it’s going to remain on top? Will it succeed?

To be continued…

5 thoughts on “Fractured Dems, Part 4: The Rightward Drift of DemocraticUnderground

  1. thanks for the truth telling….someone has to do it

    What DU has become is an insult to the many folks who had a huge hand in getting it many intelligent, dedicated, wonderful, lovely people who were there at the beginning…who made it grow into such a great place and then to be spit out like a piece of old chewed gum….not nice Skinner, not nice at all….shame on you…no honor among thieves

  2. “… advocates of violent political/social change, hard-line communists, terrorist-apologists, America-haters, kooks, crackpots… ”

    Odd statement. How can a site that desires to support Democrats clairify as part of its mission statement that those who support the core Democratic Party principles of hatred towards America, the desire to murder conservatives/Republicans, and the support of terrorists who also hate America as much as the Democratic Party, are not permitted to post?

  3. Just got banned today for mentioning Jill Stein.

    Thanks for this post – now I have a more informed opinion of just how bad DU really is.

    With the likes of Skinner, who needs enemies.

    • You must have hinted she wasn’t an America-hating terrorist. Shame on you!

      I don’t know how long you posted there, but it was probably a shock when you found yourself locked out. It certainly was to me. Took me a few days to get over that and the hurt and anger. But the truth is, I knew what a pit DU was becoming. I missed some of the people there–some very good people in the forums. But I don’t miss the stink of the place itself.

      Welcome to freedom.

  4. Pingback: A Time to Purge: Meltdown at DemocraticUnderground | Tragic Farce

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