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The Screaming Jungle


By Iain Hepburn

March 6, 2012 | 6 min read

“You’re denying me my freedom of speech, I’m going to the PCC to have you sacked.”

One of the best user comments I remember being posted during my time at the Daily Record, by an aggrieved Rangers fan complaining that his sectarian abuse-laden post had been deleted and that he’d been banned from leaving further comments on the site.

I’m reminded of it, filthy assistants, after a bold page eight in today’s Record. Ostensibly plugging its move to a new Facebook-based commenting system, the piece noted:

“We’ve relied upon our ‘report abuse’ system to let our online community flag up any problems with comments. But sadly, a small but significant number of readers have decided to ignore the rules, spoiling the experience for many of you.

“Some of their comments were also potentially in contravention of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.”

Having spent the better part of three years wading through hundreds, often thousands, of comments a day spouting abuse and offensive comments at me, my staff, my employers and other commenters, I can sympathise greatly with David Bohill and am sure he and the team at the Record will welcome the impending switch.

The decision to dump the previous Pluck-based comments system will not have come lightly. The Record’s open-comment policy brought with it the headaches of anonymous trolls spewing bile across the site, but also accounted for the vast majority of user comments across the entire Trinity Mirror group.

And it’s not just the Record that’s blighted by this problem. Virtually every newspaper website across the land suffers from a regular outbreak of keyboard warriors. Everyone has, to a greater or lesser extent, their own colony of trolls lurking under the bridge.

As media commentator and Trinity Mirror Regional’s digital publishing chief David Higgerson wrote last year:

"Even in the places you might expect quite high-minded debate – such as The Guardian or The Times – the debate below a story rarely reflects the quality of work above it."

It’s the digital news industry’s dirty little secret. The legal weighting towards post-moderating comments has, in the past, allowed sites to put their collective hands up and say ‘wasnae our fault, guv’. They get a pass as long as offensive comments are deleted at the earliest opportunity, while the quasi-free-for-all drives increasing amounts of frothed-up traffic to the sites.

Most online titles, particuarly this side of Hadrian’s Wall, have neither the staff nor the time to operate strict comment moderation, meaning post-moderation becomes an exercise in firefighting. For those taking part it may be fun, but for casual readers - and moderating staff - it's like trying to hack through a screaming jungle until you become immune to the bellowing nonsense being spouted.

The logic behind using social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and so forth as a sign-in method for commenting on stories is three-fold. Obviously, it’s easier for users to share stories and do PR for the title by the back door. It gives access, to a lesser or greater degree, to more demographic information about the users of the site.

And, helpfully, folk are less likely to behave like abusive tools if they have to put their name to comments on a website.

In Scotland, there’s two extra problems. Most sites with two or more large sports teams in their beat will have the odd bit of sniping back and forth, but the Old Firm presents a particular headache for digital news providers with their usual banter about knees, disasters and paedophilia.

As bad as the Old Firm rockets are the hardcore provisional wing of the SNP - the so-called Cybernats who, during my time at the paper, had a habit of popping up on almost every political story to make unfounded and libelous accusations about Labour MPs and MSPs, editorial staff at the paper and generally abuse anyone who wasn’t pro-independence.

Indeed, it’s interesting the Record flag the new ‘anti-sectarianism’ laws up as a factor behind their move - particularly as I understand the change has been in the offing for some time, and has been in place on the new website since its own relaunch.

Elsewhere, the Scottish Sun already allows users to sign in with Facebook or Twitter to leave comments, but also has the option of a Sun sign-in which allows pseudonyms and anonymous attacks. The Scotsman and the Herald have their own systems for commenting which require registration, but don’t necessarily force users to leave their real names.

It will be interesting to see how much the Record’s rivals online in Scotland follow behind. There will, from the point of view of moderating, be a huge temptation to cut out the rockets and force folk to take responsibility for their comments.

Indeed, if nothing else, that’s where social media has leveled the playing field. It cuts out a lot of the rocket attacks, when tracking a user back or confronting them about their comments directly on Facebook, Twitter or wherever, is significantly easier.

But there’s an associated impact with traffic, and it’ll be interesting too to see what happens to the Daily Record site’s uniques if the sock puppets and 10-page comments battles by 12-year-old, Kappa-clad ned bigots is lost.

Both the Herald and Scotsman websites have suffered from notable drops in visitor numbers, according to the most recent ABCe figures, and it would be unfortunate if the Record’s police action against keyboard warriors cost them an audience.

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