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Media Against Hate

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#iComment: British media tackle comments sections

Published on 2016-12-16

The vote on whether Britain should exit the European Union (notoriously nicknamed “Brexit”) has set off a wave of hate crimes in Britain. It represents the current nadir of a trend involving outspoken discrimination that sometimes goes beyond speech into physical violence.

The Labour MP Jo Cox was killed during the referendum campaign. She had been investigating hate crime in a parliamentary fact finding mission. A man will be tried for her murder on 14 November.

A young Polish man was recently killed in Harlow, Essex, and police are investigating his death as a hate crime. Hours after his vigil, two other Polish men were attacked in the same town. Six teenagers were arrested on suspicion of murder, and the investigation continues.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has spoken out condemning the violence against Polish people in Britain; meanwhile, as further attacks happened, two police officers from Warsaw have been sent to patrol Harlow’s streets.

A symptom of the snowballing hatred, related to Brexit or not, is the venom across media outlets’ online comments sections in Britain and elsewhere. The ECPMF began to explore the issue in depth in the first instalment of its #iComment series, in an article dealing with the ongoing institutional crackdown on online hate speech in Europe.

This summer, in its final judgment in the Delfi AS v. Estonia case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decided that an Estonian online news portal should be held liable for not removing comments quickly enough that had been deemed offensive and damaging to the plaintiff. The consequences of this for online media in Europe remain to be seen.

We now take a closer look at the media landscape in Britain as related to the issue, with The Guardianas our main case study. This major newspaper has been one of the leading European news outlets in the ongoing debate on comments sections.

The Guardian vs. hate speech: dissecting 70 million comments

In April 2016, The Guardian published research conducted on the 70 million comments made on its website, “as part of a series on the rising global phenomenon of online harassment.” One of the main findings in the report was that eight out of the 10 “most abused writers” in the comments were women, and the other two were black men.

The Guardian follows an active policy of moderation and closes its online comments section altogether for certain articles. Its report revealed specific occasions when the newspaper blocked comments by online “trolls”, or aggressors. These have ranged from rare instances of threats to hate-filled and subtler insults, to condescending talk considered not to add anything to the discussion.

“The Guardian also blocked comments that would otherwise disrupt or derail the debate: ‘whataboutery’ of various kinds, or remarks that are clearly off-topic,” the report added. “While not abusive in themselves, such comments serve to make a constructive debate impossible, and show a lack of respect to the journalist and to other commenters in the thread.”

Three of the Guardian writers shown to have been the most abused were interviewed for the report: Jessica Valenti, Steven Thrasher and Nesrine Malik. One of the questions they were asked was, “How can we create the web we want?”

While Valenti and Thrasher responded that they do agree with the comments section being filtered – as hate speech has taken a toll on them – Malik said she does not.

“It looks like I somehow can’t take care of myself,” Malik remarked on a video. “I would rather see everything in its kind of full horror. (…) I think it’s important because especially with opinion writing, you need to be challenged, because it’s just your opinion.”

She also said she thinks media are sometimes to blame for “sharpening the tone of the conversation” on their quest for clicks.

“Throbbing with vitriol”

Opinion columns in The Guardian have also presented different views on the matter. In September 2014, Tauriq Moosa painted a vivid portrayal of comments sections for the “Brain flapping” column. The author wrote that hateful comments disproportionately – and especially cruelly – target women online, and called for spaces to be brought down unless strictly moderated:

“It sits there like an ugly growth beneath articles, bloated and throbbing with vitriol. It groans as hatred expands its force.”

He added:

Comment sections, to me, are the chronic pain centres of the internet, the part of the digital body we’re all forced to accept exists, but must manage by injecting policies and systems into.”

Moosa admitted that, while he chooses to ignore comments sections and questions the need for them, every writer on the internet has his or her own opinion about it and many people regard it as a right.

Roy Greenslade, in a September 2015 article in his Guardian media column, wondered whether a major purpose of “the digital revolution” hadn’t precisely been “the way it has enabled journalist-audience interaction.” Mentioning the decisions of various Canadian newspapers to shut down the comments sections under articles, he also wondered whether newspapers can afford to forcefully decrease readers’ engagement in their websites when their print sales are plummeting.

One commenter in Greenslade’s column accused media, including The Guardian, of shutting down commenting to preserve the egos of certain editors and writers and silence criticism. Another commenter replied suggesting that, while “vanity plays its part,” the decision is mostly due to financial considerations, such as having to spend too many resources moderating comments sections and possibly having to deal legally with complaints arising from them. Yet another – under the alias AlexJones – defended newspaper’s decisions against comments sections:

“It’s their newspaper – there shouldn’t be an obligation on them to allow people to come onto the site and attack their journalists, any more than you should have an obligation to let strangers into your house to hurl insults at you.  In any case, I think ‘criticism’ is a rather grandiose term for what appears in the Guardian comments section, a good 75% of which is either simply abusive, illogical, badly-argued, illiterate or all four.”

The buzz in other British news outlets

As part of the debate on comments, Telegraph columnist Alex Proud had written an article in March 2015 talking about the personal pain internet trolls reading his articles have caused him, but deeming it worse not to receive any comments at all. A year later, however, The Telegraph decided to suspend the capability for readers to comment on articles on the revamped part of its website, stating that it would do research into how to best incorporate or allow user interaction.

Meanwhile, comments on the website of The Daily Mail – which has actively encouraged readers to engage in these sections – have become legendary for their poison, with Twitter pages dedicated entirely to them. As for another major British newspaper, The Independent, it still allows comments underneath its articles, but features a detailed and somewhat strict moderation policy in its “Community Guidelines” section.

The BBC, which phased out and eventually shut down its online message boards (a controversial decision), partially allows comments on its website. It also has a strict moderation policy, including reserving “the right to fail comments” that were made in languages other than English, are considered “off-topic” or contain personal information, besides “offensive”, “abusive” or “disruptive” remarks.

In August 2015, the BBC published an article and ran a radio programme discussing whether comments sections were dying, in light of the decision by the American tech and web-related news sites The Verge and The Daily Dot to turn off theirs. While moderating online comments may require more than one full-time job at the BBC, the broadcaster also stressed:

Many news organisations – including the BBC – have used comments sections to make real connections with audiences, find stories, and turn what was once a one-way street into a multi-headed conversation.”

Then came the EU Commission’s move to get Internet platforms to sign a code of conduct agreeing to remove any “illegal hate speech” within 24 hours of being notified, publicly supported by Microsoft, Facebook Twitter and YouTube. Some EU Parliament members and other opponents reportedly offered up harsh criticism against the code, going as far as calling it something out of a George Orwell novel.

Shortly after the announcement, the British Internet magazine Spiked took to its page in June 2016 to defend hate speech as free speech and organised a related talk in London. Spiked featured opinions in its article from people they described as key media players, although they only portrayed one side of the debate.

The opinions were all in favour of letting hate speech ride free in most cases, characterising definitions of it as subjective and political, and restrictions (such as the EU Commission’s code) as potentially setting a dangerous precedent for authorities to increasingly curb dissent and basic rights.


This article was originally published on the ECPMF website.