The AVN’s Hypocritical Culture of Censorship

Last weekend I was reading through some comments on the Australian Vaccination Network’s blog (here), when I noticed the following comment from Meryl Dorey in response to somebody expressing frustration with the difficulty they’ve experienced when trying to engage in a discussion on the AVN’s blog.

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“Comments are only withheld if they are abusive, harassing or for reasons such as those.”

This has not been my experience when I have tried to enter into discourse with others commenting on the AVN’s blog.

Initially, I thought that perhaps Meryl had a policy of not allowing me to comment because she finds what I say here, on Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network’s Facebook page and on Twitter objectionable.

A few weeks ago, Meryl posted a blog entry titled “Hate, Threats and Cowardice”, in which she attempted to link anonymous abusive emails she had received to SAVN. Despite my expectation that it would be removed, I decided to have a go at posting a short comment questioning whether Meryl’s assertion that you can judge somebody by the company they keep could also be applied to the AVN (who keep some rather dubious company – AIDS deniers, hateful homophobes who attempt to incite violence, those who harass grieving families [1, 2] and the reprehensible Erwin Alber to name but a few).

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To my surprise, not only did Meryl let my comment past moderation, she replied! Frankly, I was pleased – I spend a lot of time reading what the AVN have to say without any means by which to engage, question or ask for clarification. I’m also quite keen on understanding what makes Meryl and her supporters tick and engaging in discussion with them gives me a greater opportunity to do so than just watching from the sidelines.

Encouraged, I replied to another commenter:

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And also to Meryl:

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Alas, neither of these comments were approved for publication.

I have been trying to work out why these two comments were deemed unacceptable. This is why I was most interested when Meryl posted her statement last weekend on her moderation policy. I asked her if she could further clarify her terms, to give me the best possible chance of respectfully engaging with her and her supporters:

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I understand that Meryl was away on a seminar in Canberra last weekend, so I have waited patiently for her return to see whether she would reply to me. It has been almost a week now and I know that she has been online attending to AVN business, as she has posted on the AVN’s Facebook wall. I sent her a polite message on Twitter earlier today letting her know that I was hoping to hear from her and asking whether I should expect a response:

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So far, nothing. I will update this post if my comment is removed from limbo and either published and responded to or deleted.

Update: My comment was approved and replied to just before 9am the morning after I published this blog post (17/11/2012). Meryl’s reply can be found here, my reply to her will either be found in the same comment section or over here when Meryl decides whether to approve it or not.

I think that it is quite reasonable to wonder why I’ve bothered to demonstrate that the AVN censor comments on their blog to the degree that they do. Taking a look at their Facebook page, it is apparent that the admins are frequent users of the ban hammer – most long comment threads have at least a few comments missing, the awkward and confusing one-sided conversations and the comment totals that don’t match the number of comments visible are a giveaway. Unofficial figures suggest that people banned from the AVN’s Facebook page are upward of 300 (I suspect that this is a conservative estimate, given the number of people likely banned who either do not know of the Facebook group or are not interested in joining). Even some of the AVN’s supporters are cautiously speaking up:

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And you know, I don’t think that it does matter in and of itself. The AVN have every right to ban and censor whoever they like, be it because they feel threatened or abused, because they simply don’t like what somebody is saying or because they object to someone’s fashion sense (I jest). Likewise, there is no onus on them to be consistent with either the content or individuals that they’re happy to let through moderation on any given day. The AVN’s blog and Facebook page are to do with as they wish.

What does matter to me though, is that the AVN continually represent themselves as champions of free speech, as the underdogs who others (being SAVN and The Australian Skeptics) are trying to censor and suppress. It strikes me as incredibly hypocritical to espouse free speech, transparency and open debate while not allowing it (or admitting to the fact that they don’t) on their own turf, nor giving others the opportunity to participate by stating some house rules and sticking to them.

The AVN do not deserve the anti-censorship mantle they attempt to assume.

If their influence wasn’t so dangerous, I would care a lot less. However, the AVN spread harmful misinformation which can endanger the lives of children. As such, I wish for anybody who is considering what the AVN has to say to take a close look at their conduct.

As is it concealed by it’s very nature, the degree to which the AVN moderates blog comments is an unknown. It is not apparent how often comments are suppressed or whether unpublished comments are genuinely abusive or merely not to the moderator’s taste at any given moment.

In the spirit of shining some light on suppressed comments, I have started up a Facebook group, Denied! Rejected Comments from the AVN’s Blog.

As is probably apparent upon reading the title, Denied! Rejected Comments from the AVN’s Blog is a place for commenters on the AVN’s blog to post screenshots of comments that did not make it past moderation. The AVN’s supporters (and even Meryl herself) are most welcome to participate. I hope for some hearty discussion and also for the public to have the opportunity to see the range of information and points of view that the AVN does not wish to have aired on their blog.

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8 comments

  1. Actually, the AVN don’t have the right to censor people simply because they don’t want the other side there. It is an incorporated business with charity (fund raising) status in NSW, Australia and it’s a non registered health care provider. Additionally, you will find multiple instances on both the (multiple) sites and facebook presence comments regarding the right to free speech and comments saying they do not remove non abusive comments. Realistically, in a computer sense they certainly can delete the comments, but they will never be considered a moral, ethical, reliable or honest organisation while they remove the ‘other side’ of the discussion.

    1. Valid points and I’m glad you made them.

      Perhaps I could have said that they are entitled to do as they wish, but their habit of censoring dissenting views, suppressing credible information and misrepresenting their moderation policy so greatly are not something they have any right to do if they wish to appear to have any integrity.

  2. “Plenty of anti-choice commenters”? A few things wrong with this, Meryl. I am not sure it is a general rule that SAVN members are anti-choice (and therefore pro-compulsory vaccination), but that we believe people should make the choice based on sound evidence, not mumbo-jumbo from conspiracy nutters. I certainly support a parents right to opt out of vaccination provided they are truly aware of the increased risk to their child.
    Next- plenty of anti-choice commenters? If you mean SAVN commenters, then yes, there are plenty of us.
    If, however, you mean plenty of our comments, you could not be more wrong. The most inoffensive post, if it comes from a known or suspected SAVNer, is almost automatically deleted, and worse, the poster banned from commenting ever again. No dissent is tolerated on the AVN page. And the bile of the AVN faithful is truly dire.
    If people simply dismiss the well establised science of immunology out of hand, with comments that show they barely have a grasp of antibodies, infectious disease, or even basic germ theory, then reasoning with them becomes impossible. But we try anyway, at least until we are banished.

  3. Addryanne – they most certainly have the right to censor people, not that I agree with it. I don’t think that being an incorporated association (not business) that has charitable status means they have a legal obligation to publish comments that they disagree with. I agree that they are hyprocritical, but that is not illegal.

  4. It seems to me that comments that are in any way critical are never approved for publication unless the moderator already has a rebuttal lined up or otherwise thinks the comment can be turned to the AVN’s advantage.

  5. Excellent post, Jo. I truly believe the motivation of the AVN to censor their facebook page and blog is to artificially strengthen their argument. They know – I am sure of it – that their pages would be over-run with sensible arguments that they simply cannot answer; and therefore, their only remaining strategy to convince parents of their “side” is to distort the debate through banning and deletion.

    Those actions, to me, are disgusting.

    One day, a parent is going to go their site and through the apparent “strength” of their arguments, make a decision not to vaccinate. That is not informing parents. That is dishonest and unethical; and it is for that precise reason, I cannot wait to see the AVN shut down. How Meryl sleeps at night is beyond me. She has no shame.

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