News editors around the world are grappling with abuse and trolling in their online comment forums. These discussion threads that sit beneath a news story or opinion piece, have increasingly become places for insulting, threatening and hateful language. So serious has the problem become that some publications have shut down comments altogether.
Herefordshire’s local media boss takes a more relaxed view, believing that insulting language is just part of the ‘everyday knockabout’, what you would expect ‘in the pub, on the doorstep, in life.’ Peter John, is the Midlands Regional Editor for Newsquest newspapers. He oversees many local titles such as the Worcester Evening News, the Hereford Times and the Ledbury Reporter/Malvern Gazette.
In the wake of Liz Harvey’s sensationalist shaming by the Reporter over ‘bunting-gate’, there was a predictable blowback in social media. Enraged readers vented their feelings on Facebook and newspaper discussion threads, including The Reporter’s. I complained about a comment on their web site as it clearly violated the rules: ‘Who voted for this brain dead unpatriotic woman?’ asked “EddyR”. Newsquest’s terms and conditions say that you must not ‘post anything that is false, abusive or malicious.’
I was surprised to get a response from busy Mr John himself. He said: ‘While the comment is harsh, it does not seem to me to be so personally offensive that it goes beyond the bounds of the normal knockabout, hyperbolic statements you would expect in web comments. It also seems to me that the person’s right to free speech to vent their anger trumps a politician’s sensitivities.’
We exchanged several emails on the bounds of acceptable language, free speech, and on the destructive impact of spiteful name-calling. I also suggested that news editors should uphold the same standards of civilised debate within their online comments forums as they do in their reporting and printed letters pages. Mr John eventually lost patience with me or ran out of time, and said he wasn’t going to read my final email. He said I was ranting. Judge for yourself: you can review the exchange here.
Midlands Newsquest seems to be running against the tide of informed editorial opinion on this matter. Read The Guardian’s penetrating report: The Dark Side of Guardian Comments and Tariq Moosa’s piece: Comments sections are poison: Handle with care. Martin Belam writes a good piece too in respected online portal, the Media Briefing: It’s tough below the line: the paradox of reader comments
Anyone patient enough to let Newsquest’s online news pages load amid the slow avalanche of banner advertising and video content, can read routinely degrading, prejudiced, sometimes hateful comment. Certain news stories are predictably prone: travellers and gypsies, Muslims and mosques, flags and other nationalist paraphernalia. In Newsquest’s Midlands newspaper ‘stable’ (an appropriate term), the brakes are off. It’s ok to call people retards, tell Muslims to get back to North Africa, make references to Zyklon B gas, and say ‘beware of gypsies everyone. they are camped near the Avoncroft museum, so lock it up or loose (sic) it.’ And of course, calling local politicians ‘brain-dead’. Apologies for this language by the way.
So what effect does this brutal and ethically debased environment have? Certainly, intelligent and reasonable voices are often deterred from participating. Comments threads become skewed in favour of right-wing, loutish opinion. Like our friend EddyR, most of these contributors don’t have the courage to post under their real names. In cyber-discussion, the Yahoos are upon us.
There is a more insidious effect. Rude and abusive comments alter people’s perceptions of information itself. Strongly negative online behaviour seems to harmfully distort our reading of otherwise balanced and reasoned editorial material. The downside of a situation or issue is accentuated, perceived risks and damage are heightened, while positive aspects and benefits are attenuated. The researchers who observed this, Anderson, Brossard et al (2013), called it the ‘nasty effect’. One of the study authors Dietram Scheufele said the modern media environment is like "reading the news article in the middle of the town square with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it". An abusive environment isn’t just unpleasant; it dumbs down debate and actively promotes ignorance.
Not just socially pernicious, online abuse is bad for business too. In an article for Journalism.co.uk, Alastair Reid argues that ‘creating a positive environment for community and engagement to flourish gives readers a reason to come back and drives traffic, a factor that the website can use to attract commercial partners.” There is good evidence which suggests that negativity in forums is a turn-off for readers: who wouldn’t be repelled?
"It's not a great advert, if you will, for readers or web users who enjoy participating on other sites if we don't make it as welcoming as possible for them as well," said Laura Oliver, the Guardian’s Community Manager. Why, even the British National Party impose a strict code on commenters: “we have our own brand, our own image” they say. “If your post is not in keeping with our objectives or could damage our image, then your comment will be moderated or rejected.”
Derogatory online behaviour is not value-neutral, nor is it conducive to informed public debate. For the first time in history, the nasty minority have a mass-media platform to vent their rage and prejudices. They occupy a disproportionate amount of space. The hate fuelled views of these flotsam and jetsam are not representative of society nor should they have any place in respectable media sources. It is not your right to hurl insults at anyone you think you don't like.
Peter John says that such discourse is par for the course, down at the pub or in the street. He is utterly wrong. Unless you are very drunk, politically unhinged or mentally deranged you simply don’t abuse people to their faces the way some of Newsquest’s commenters are allowed to do; that’s unless you are cruising for a punch on the nose. Even if you were, that doesn’t mean that such behaviour is acceptable in a family publication that purports to offer a balanced and responsible news service.
If you’ve got something to say, do as the BNP helpfully suggest and don’t make sweeping generalisations but do “offer a well-reasoned critique that helps others understand the problem, together with what you think the answer is.”
It comes to something when you have to invoke one of Britain’s most hateful organisations to persuade an experienced news editor to rein in his attack trolls and start behaving himself.
He won’t of course. He's old school. Is it any wonder that journalists, along with bankers and politicians are the least trusted professions in Britain?