Many stories relating to the current upheaval in Chinese-Western relations have appeared on Hacker News in the last year, including several intense threads within the last few days. The majority perspective here reflects the Western demographics of the community, but the smaller group I've just mentioned, the users with different backgrounds and experiences in relation to China, is also participating in these threads. When they do, a grinding collision of icebergs occurs, as differing perspectives bump up against each other.
When people run into a view that is a little different from their own—say one standard deviation away or less—they tend to respond conversationally. Unfortunately, when they run into a view that is a lot different from their own, the standard reaction is to become hostile. Instead of curiosity and openness, people become suspicious and feel that the other person can't be speaking in good faith. They don't think "wow, that's a really different point of view". They think "astroturfer", "shill", "spy", "bot", "troll", and "communist agent". That's what we're seeing on HN these days.
Is it ok for commenters to hurl these accusations against other commenters they disagree with? No it is not. Doing so gratuitously,
as a way to expunge discomfort or irritation at what someone else said, is poisonous to HN in many ways: it damages community, banishes tolerance, is uncurious and off topic. It also has a boy-who-cried-wolf or field-of-boliauns effect of making real abuse harder to track down.
Worse, when people single out others as targets of these accusations, we end up with ugly mob behavior, with individuals being falsely accused and even being run out of town (examples: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21195898 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19403358). None of us in our right mind wants that here.
The way to mitigate this is to have a simple rule of looking for evidence when concerns about abuse come up. If people have concerns about abuse, the site guidelines ask them to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can look for such evidence. In the absence of evidence, insinuations about astroturfing, etc., are off topic, for the reasons I described.
This problem has a lot of complex dynamics that are not what they seem. For example, because the threads about China and Chinese-Western relations have become so intense and flamewar-prone, the users with minority perspectives who I described are often prompted to create accounts and jump into the threads when they have a strong reaction against something that was posted. Making a new account when you're hot under the collar isn't a great way to participate on HN, but it's not in bad faith either—quite the contrary. However, when such green accounts show up in these threads, espousing contrary views in already-irritated ways, the majority view-holders interpret this as an assault of astroturfers and paid CCP agents. After all, they are green accounts making pro-China comments—nothing could be more obvious! Actually, nothing could be more wrong. What you're most likely getting is (for example, let's say) a Chinese-Canadian Amazon or Microsoft employee, who's been reading HN for years and is suddenly hurt and dismayed by all the aggressive anti-Chinese comments that have been showing up on the site—or (let's say) a Chinese grad student who stayed in the US, got a good job and played by the rules, and back home in China is the one holding the other side of the argument, defending the US and his American friends to his family who have been hearing nasty things about them over there. Or it's (let's say) a Brit who went to China to do business, ended up forging personal connections there, learned lots of things that people in the West don't know, and is appalled by how ignorant the comments that are informed only by media sources can be.
Based on all the investigation I've done about this, that's mostly the human side behind those accounts. Of course there are always exceptions—one user, for example, has recently decided to become a serial troll and post virulent anti-Chinese comments (or are they anti-American? I forget), to wreak havoc on the commenters whose emotions are already running high. Ironically they seem to have been set off by a perception of horrendous HN bias against their own position on the topic, and that is how they've chosen to react. Another outlier case was https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20236444, when an influx of new Chinese commenters showed up because a link to an HN thread was circulating on the Chinese equivalent of Quora.
But those cases are rare. From everything we've seen, the vast majority of comments on this topic are being posted in good faith. The tragedy is that so few users have a large-enough frame to be willing to believe that, and to hear conflicting information without going quickly into inflammation.
What bugs me are silent downvotes. If someone disagrees, great! Tell me why.
Being quietly zapped into invisibility just feels like cowardly thought-policing.
No doubt they do. What are our options? We can fantasize about this and project our fantasies onto other users—or we can look for some sort of evidence, any evidence, before making claims. If you want to believe in diabolical state actors manipulating the community and leaving no trace whatsoever, how could that ever be falsified? The only thing you have to go by in that case are your own assumptions and preconceptions.
On HN, we choose the other fork of that branch and look for evidence. I'm not saying the bar is high, but there needs to be something. In the absence of any evidence at all, the HN guidelines ask users not to post insinuations about astroturfing, foreign spies, etc. Someone else holding an opposing view does not count as evidence. There is an epidemic of internet madness about this right now, and it's not in the values of this site to succumb. Perhaps everywhere else wants to be James Jesus Angleton in the wilderness of mirrors, but HN, barring catastrophic failure, is not going to go there.
As for silent downvotes, I realize they sting and are annoying, but that's the way HN works. Users aren't required to explain why they downvote. If we had such a requirement, the threads would fill up with 10x the petty bickering about downvotes, and we have more than enough of that already. The thing to do with downvotes is to examine what you wrote to see what might have been objectionable about it. If you notice something, note the correction for next time. If you notice nothing, muse to yourself about the fickleness of homo internetus and move on. It's not worth posting about, which is why the HN guidelines ask you not to.
dang, you are not the only dude here who went to college.
In my own case, all I can say is that I have "seen some shit", and I would not feel totally comfortable or assured that this was all purely the result of personal, unpaid, opinions.